Turning Points

Spelling Test

My sev­en­ty-fourth birth­day rolled by this month. I’ve been look­ing back since then and think­ing about turn­ing points. There are so many and they go way back. 

I almost failed the sec­ond grade. I was in love with Mrs. Halper, but her week­ly spelling tests broke my heart. She called out eight words. We scrawled the let­ters in cur­sive. She col­lect­ed the papers, cir­cled in red the ones we got wrong, and hand­ed them back to us. My paper was always the bot­tom score in the class. Almost all my words were cir­cled, test after test.

Half-way through the school year, Mrs. Halper told Mom she couldn’t pass me to the third grade unless I learned to spell. They set­tled on a plan. Mrs. Halper drew up a big list of words each week. She worked with me on it after school, then Mom sat with me at the kitchen table each night. She called out the words. I wrote them down. She cor­rect­ed them, and we did them again. And again.

2nd Grade Sight Words

I can’t pin­point the moment or explain how it hap­pened, but some­where along the line, I began to devel­op a feel for the art of orthog­ra­phy and its mad­den­ing incon­sis­ten­cies. I got four right on a test in Feb­ru­ary. Five the next week. Six a month lat­er. Mom cheered when I brought that one home.

The big moment came the week before East­er. Mrs. Halper called out the eight words. I wrote them down. Dur­ing nap time, I peeked through my fin­gers at Mrs. Halper as she grad­ed our tests. A few min­utes into it, she laid down her red pen, dabbed at her pret­ty blue eyes with a tis­sue, then smiled at me through tears. Lat­er that day, she thumb­tacked my paper to the bul­letin board, and when we went out to recess, she kissed me on the cheek. I almost fainted.

On my eleventh birth­day, my aunt and uncle from Rhode Island sent me a pack­age. I thought they were rich because their gifts nev­er came out of the Sears cat­a­log and they were always the best presents I got. I was crest­fall­en when I tore off the wrap­ping paper to find a book. I didn’t like to read. See Spot Run had turned me off ear­ly on. I’d nev­er even read a short sto­ry, much less a whole book. I noticed that this one at least had an inter­est­ing cov­er, an artist’s ren­der­ing of old coins, a map, glass of rum, and com­pass strewn across an oak­en table-top under the title: TREA­SURE ISLAND. Curi­ous, I turned to the first page. 

I remem­ber him as if it were yes­ter­day, as he came plod­ding to the inn door, his sea-chest fol­low­ing behind him in a hand-bar­row — a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tar­ry pig­tail falling over the shoul­der of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, bro­ken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remem­ber him look­ing round the cov­er and whistling to him­self as he did so, and then break­ing out in that old sea-song that he sang so often after­wards: Fif­teen men on the dead man’s chest —/Yo-ho-ho, and a bot­tle of rum!

Bil­ly Bones

I could see Bil­ly Bones and hear him singing as clear­ly as if he’d walked into my bed­room. Mes­mer­ized, I read on for hours. Jim, Long John, and the pirates took me across the seas in search of buried trea­sure, and I nev­er returned. Trea­sure Island became the first leg of a life-long jour­ney borne on the wings of art­ful­ly told sto­ries, wend­ing my way through a thou­sand worlds to a B.A. in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture, through careers in teach­ing, law, and busi­ness, to come to rest in my sev­enth decade in Whip­poor­will Hollow. 

One of the worlds I vis­it­ed along the way was Denmark’s Elsi­nore Cas­tle in the Mid­dle Ages. When I was sev­en­teen, I walked on unsteady legs to the front of the room and stood before my class­mates, high school seniors, sit­ting in rows of desks, all look­ing at me, waiting.

Each of us had to recite from mem­o­ry the solil­o­quy from Act I, scene ii of Ham­let, 31 lines, 259 words. Pre­sent­ing it with­out fal­ter­ing would be enough to secure a good grade, but I want­ed to do more than that. Ham­let was a sad, con­flict­ed prince, plagued with self-doubt and self-loathing. Strug­gling with world-class ado­les­cent inse­cu­ri­ties, I felt Hamlet’s anguish and thought I could give his trou­bled heart a voice if I could find the courage to bare my soul in front of my friends, but courage wasn’t my strong suit. Up to that point, I’d nev­er tak­en cen­ter stage or done any­thing to set myself apart. I pre­ferred to hide in the shad­ows where it was safe, but that day, inspired by Shake­speare and a gift­ed teacher, Mr. Turn­er, I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to step for­ward into the light.

William Shake­speare

Feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble in front of my class­mates, I fixed my gaze on red­dish-gold spears of autumn sun­light com­ing through the back win­dows, then took a deep breath, and held my trem­bling hands up before me. “Oh that this too, too sol­id flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” My voice broke, then stead­ied as Hamlet’s sor­row swelled up inside me and took con­trol. “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world,” I said, mean­ing it.

The next 26 lines took me deep down inside myself to a place I’d nev­er been, where my inhi­bi­tions, doubts, and fears fell away. For one minute and fifty-five sec­onds, I melt­ed into poet­ry that seemed to have been writ­ten for me cen­turies before I was born. “But break my heart,” I said at the end, fight­ing back tears, “for I must hold my tongue.”

Dazed, I walked to my desk and sat down. Emerg­ing slow­ly from the mys­ti­cal spell of Shakespeare’s lyri­cal iambic pen­tame­ter, I real­ized every­one had turned toward me, some with big smiles, oth­ers with tears in their eyes. They were clap­ping, and the applause went on and on.

Ham­let, Richard Burton

Over the fol­low­ing weeks, I pre­sent­ed oth­er scenes from Ham­let to good effect. For a daz­zling few months I had visions of becom­ing the next Richard Bur­ton, but I soon proved to be a one-trick pony, a rea­son­ably good Ham­let, but mediocre to painful­ly awful in every oth­er role, and my thes­pi­an aspi­ra­tions met a swift, mer­ci­ful death.

That per­for­mance stayed with me in a more impor­tant way, though. It became a small cor­ner­stone of con­fi­dence, the first stone set in the con­struc­tion of a long life.

I’d like to pre­tend here that I’m self-made, that hard work, sac­ri­fice, and tal­ent brought me to the good place where I find myself today, but look­ing back with a clear eye, I see a thou­sand turn­ing points where flat-out pure luck played the deci­sive role and a thou­sand more where I couldn’t have gone for­ward with­out the help of some­one who extend­ed a hand to me gra­tu­itous­ly and unbidden.

A few years ago, a guy I hadn’t seen in fifty years tracked me down to thank me for talk­ing him out of quit­ting our col­lege fra­ter­ni­ty when he was a pledge. He said I saved him from mak­ing a life-alter­ing mis­take. I appre­ci­at­ed his thanks, but won­dered why he went to so much trou­ble. It was such a small thing that hap­pened so long ago.

He died the fol­low­ing year, and I learned he’d been fight­ing can­cer for a long time. I under­stood then. I was one of many on a long list. 

Mrs. Halper, Mom, my aunt and uncle, Mr. Turn­er, and so many of those who helped me are gone now. I thanked some of them before they left. I wish I had a sec­ond chance with the others.

Many are still here. My list is long, too, but I’m for­tu­nate. I have time. 


The Spelling Bee, Nor­man Rockwell

Post Script: Suzie Glass and I were the last two kids stand­ing in the sev­enth-grade spelling bee when the proc­tor called out the word “medieval.” It sat me down and Suzie won. To this day, that word aggra­vates me. Say it out loud, then explain to me why in hell it’s spelled like that.