A Reading Life: The High School Chronicles, or, On Not Being That Kid in the Lunchroom
I have sometimes wished, when talking to other literature professors or graduate students, even some unusually bright undergraduates, that I had, like them, been reading precociously in my teenage years. Some of the people in academia that I have come to respect most, not only for their intelligence, but for retaining their humanity and compassion, share the experience of having read in high school Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, among others. Some academics say this with the same air of faux embarrassment and poorly concealed pride with which they throw up their arms in helplessness when confronted with a mathematics problem more complicated that “2 + x = 4. Solve for ‘x’.”: “Oh, I just don’t get numbers!” But the people I have in mind – just a few really — don’t brag about it. On the contrary, they say it almost sheepishly, certainly with a little regret – as though it indicated an adolescence that was unhappy and perhaps also a little off balance. Maybe they seem not quite at ease with the choices they made in that time, or at least wish that different choices had been available to them. Still, though it seems to be part of a painful memory for them, and though I feel bad for them for that painful time, the feeling still asserts itself: I wish I had been like you.
I’m not even sure what I imagine them being like exactly. It’s not a precise image, and I doubt very much it corresponds to how anybody really felt. But it’s something like this: they are dressed with a modest, but definitely individual style, in clothes that haven’t cost much, if any, money. They are alone much of the time, perhaps in the lunch room, off by themselves. But not because nobody will sit with them, though some people – like me – might both want to sit with them and be afraid to sit with them; and not because they hate people, hate us, but just because they would simply rather be reading their book and that’s easier to do if you are sitting alone. They have found something, these inhabitants of my imagination, some sort of place of calm belonging, something that feels, in my imagination, like being really at home. In my imagination, they exude a kind of unself-conscious confidence and self-sufficiency. I know this isn’t how they felt inside – after all, they were adolescents like the rest of us. But it’s how they appear in my imagination and maybe it’s what gets under my skin about them, what makes me not be able to resist looking over my shoulder one last time as my friends and I leave the lunchroom. Boy or girl that person somehow magnetizes my attention and my desire. I want “that” — what they seem to have, and that includes the fact that they don’t seem to be trying very hard to have it or to hold on to it.
Let me clarify that this is not a memory of anything or anyone I every actually remember seeing in my high school. It’s an imaginary reconstruction of the past of some people I have known in which I take the detail of their having read precociously and use it as the basis to build a character I then insert into my own real memories of high school. This is not the nerdy kid abjectly sitting alone eating a sad lunch. This is not the self-consciously posing James Dean or Christian Slater-in-“Heathers” loner, over dressing the part and, in fact, inviting attention. This might be my friend Gaurav, a former undergraduate of mine, sitting alone at a table in the far corner (alone and in the corner only because that is the best place to read because of sound and light). Perhaps he has already eaten and the lunchbag or, more likely, lunch tray are pushed off to the side. He leans slightly back in the hard metal chair (because it is more comfortable), but not so far back that the front legs come off the floor (because that would be ostentatious). He is wearing jeans, a tee-shirt, and a plaid flannel shirt that is partly unbuttoned. He is not wearing black Chuck Taylor sneakers, nor Chuck Taylor sneakers of any other color, but rather some relatively low-budget, now-dingy white, low-top athletic type shoe.
By contrast, I too am a confident, self-sufficient adolescent – so long as I am on the basketball court, soccer field, or surrounded by a group of classmates in the aura of whose universally acknowledged coolness I can bathe. These things are like drugs for me, I guess. And when I’m not on the court, field, or in a group, I am anxious, constantly measuring myself and finding myself wanting. I can only feel good about myself when something or someone outside me – a coach, fans, other kids – are reflecting back at me that I am, in fact, worthwhile. So even on the court, field, and among friends, though I am not anxious, I am not really at home because it – whatever it is – will end. It’s more like I’m at a nice hotel – the kind you get for discount rates at academic conference, important not only because they are luxurious and perfectly located in great cities, but because you could never, ever afford to stay there if you weren’t paying convention rates. I can’t afford to stay there, but I tell myself that I’m not bad at acting like I can.
Whatever makes me feel “at home”, it certainly isn’t books. I try, because of course I want the approval that comes with being a good student, I try very hard. I try. I’m not talking Baudelaire, just, like Catcher in the Rye — edgy-lite, not that I’m even at a point where I make that sort of judgment. I just start reading because I am supposed to and I am Nothing if not The Boy Who Does What He is Supposed to Do. I start all the books that are assigned in my English classes, but even when I like the book enough to keep turning the pages — maybe, now that I think of it, especially when I like it enough to keep turning the pages — I just get so anxious, more anxious the more I get into the book. I’m afraid of missing something outside the book, and it’s so lonely inside a book. By which I guess I mean that nobody in the book is telling me what a great guy/basketball player/soccer player/student/son I am. So before too long, the hunger mounts, the jones overwhelms me and I put the book down and go out to the driveway to shoot some hoops where the constant pounding of the ball on the pavement promises, and the consistent enough swish of the ball through the net delivers for me the message that I am great, that I am at home. That’s the closest I come to being at home in the way that I imagine that kid sitting alone with his fraying paperback copy of Notes from Underground seems to be.
Where I feel this horrible combination of trapped inside the hell that is my own self-loathing and cravenly oriented towards the external sources that alone can keep those demons at bay, this kid seems mysteriously self-sufficient, powered by some hidden fuel source, some internal drive. Like I say, I have no idea if they really were or not, or if it felt like that or not. But now I imagine that the power they were driven by was their own desire and that the home they quietly enjoyed was that of unself-consciously allowing themselves to feel and be led by that desire. I don’t mean a desire for anything in particular, that’s more the kind of thing I was governed by: a desire for approval, for an end to anxiety, self-doubt and self-criticism. No, theirs wasn’t that sort of desire. Rather it was just a desire to be, to continue to be, unfolding themselves steadily in time and space, neither greedily nor parsimoniously, but just naturally. As though they’d 1) dispassionately surveyed the field of possible activities: put make-up on, talk about the Next Game, talk about My Car, talk about That Boy, talk about The Play, Get Stoned Behind the School, read Thus Spoke Zarathustra; then 2) calmly studied the tilt of their inner terrain and identified their inclination and 3) aligned (2) with (1).
So I feel a little jealous of those friends who have had such stories to tell me. Not, as I used to believe (and as even sometimes provokes the story), because they got such a head start on me in reading The Books That Must Be Read (I didn’t read Nietzsche in high school, or college, or even graduate school). Okay maybe I am a little jealous of that too. Even when I know the person – like my dear Claire – very very well so that I would expect that this knowledge of the person’s actual life would get in the way, still even then my mind instantly casts them in this quiet imaginary drama in the lunchroom: casts them as the impossible me I wish that I had been instead of the impossible me that I was.
And that me has the home of books or, more precisely and critically importantly, that me has the home of his own desire. And that is where the jealousy arises: not of Claire or of anyone else who might share with me a probably somewhat painful recollection of reading Being and Nothingness at the age of 16. It’s not even jealousy I’m realizing now. It’s sadness, pain, mourning for that me that I hadn’t been, for the one I had already lost touch with that by the time I hit the soccer field and basketball court, by the time I secured the needed friendships. That me, the one that felt naturally and unselfconsciously at home in his skin, and in his skin in the world, that is what I project onto the not-lonely kid reading alone at the lunch table and so if I am jealous I am jealous that he or she managed to get to that age with the capacity to make themselves feel at home, from the inside, still intact.