I was not a credit to my mom as a kid. My mom worked for years at Standard Brands, a food distributor, doing a boring clerical job. How she must have suffered. Despite her fine intelligence, she never improved her work situation. She was slow and spacey, very smart in a way that doesn't count for office work. Office work takes a kind of cleverness that has nothing to do with intellect or creativity. It has to do with being quick, alert and thorough during hours of tedium. Mid-20th century, when jobs were still classified as male and female, there was no career path for most clerical workers in large offices, where you could at most hope to become department supervisor and the best job a woman could aspire to was being the boss’s secretary. But in those days, women did not expect to gain status through their own work. Status came from one’s husband and, if one were lucky, one’s children. Mom was not lucky.
She worked with Mary Baumgartner, a tall, elegant woman whose husband was something or other, a doctor or lawyer or architect (and alive, unlike mom’s). The Baumgartners lived in a lovely home in an affluent, architecturally graceful part of town. Mary, a college graduate, worked for extra money and to keep busy. She didn’t need to work and her shitty office job did not define her. Her successful husband did, as did her social life, her involvement in the arts, and more than anything else, her spectacularly brilliant son. Her friendship with mom seems odd in retrospect. They had nothing in common. But Mom was smart, charming and nominally Catholic, and the Baumgartners were devote Catholics.
Paul Baumgartner was exactly my age, and my nemesis for years. Beginning about the time I was in fifth grade, my mother came home from work with tales of Paul’s achievements. His science project–I don’t recall what it was, perhaps teaching a pigeon liturgical dance–won first prize. His winning essay on American patriotism was published in some publication that ran such contests. My mom could, in the early days, parry weakly with the fact that I was a good kid and got pretty good grades, though I didn’t actually do anything worthy of notice.
In junior high, things got dicier. Paul learned a couple of foreign languages. He was placed in gifted classes. He was a straight A student. Actual papers written by Paul were circulated around the office. I don’t recall writing a paper of any kind of junior high, and only one in high school. I didn’t really get off the ground with writing until college. Mom fell farther and farther behind Mary in the offspring status contest. Not being one to suffer in silence nor having any notion of propping up my self esteem, she accused me with Paul’s successes. I think she expected that it would somehow spur me to greater effort and maybe I would come home with a prize or an honor–something, anything, so that she would have something to throw on the table when work gossip turned to one’s wonderful kids. She got nada from me.
High school was more of the same. Though I got into the best high school in the city (despite the subtle discouragement from the white counselor, who didn’t think mermaids belonged in competitive, college track academic high schools) and got good grades for a year or two, I did nothing to distinguish myself. By my second year, my slide toward juvenile delinquency was becoming more and more evident. Mom could hardly brag that the cops hauled me down to the police station yet again.
By junior year, my exploits became increasingly unruly. Paul was by now a National Merit Scholar. I was a proficient shoplifter. He spent the summer in Europe, brushing up his French or German or fucking Catalan. I took acid and learned to hotwire Mustangs. Though Mom was not aware of the full extent of my skill set, her tales of Paul’s brilliance took on an especially bitter tone. Mary, no smarter than Mom, got Paul, and she got me. How was that even remotely fair? In my mother’s defense, I will say that, while she was aware of social injustice on the large scale, she failed to grasp that the Baumgartners’ wealth, their establishment culture and access, and Mary’s salary, which went to clothes and Paul’s activities, not to mention his parents’ obsessive focus on him, had a lot to do with Paul’s success.
Plus, though I didn’t know it until many years later, I suffered from ADD, which was not then thought to affect girls. I was a classic under-achiever. I never did homework, except for a brief period when I had a long bus ride to school. Other than that, homework slipped my mind through a very large hole. I was disorganized, impulsive, forgetful, and, except when I was deeply into a book, easily distracted by shiny things. Kids who are successful in school generally have parents who are involved. No doubt Paul’s parents asked about his homework, maybe even discussed things with him. I don’t recall the topic of homework ever coming up for me at home.
My mother had no notion of homework, though she had was in fact an educated person and a qualified teacher in her own country. In El Salvador in her day, there was no homework because there were no books to take home, no paper or pencils at home. Education took place through memorization in the classroom. For many poor immigrants, the school their kids attend is a black box, a mystery. They have no clue how where they, as parents, intersect with their kids’ schooling. Mom did care that I learn things. She sat down with me and taught me to write Spanish when I was small. But school was a closed system that didn’t involve her. She no more thought of intruding into my education than she did of climbing into the washing machine to supervise the washing of the clothes. She waited outside of the system to see what got spit out.
Still, those first couple of years in high school, I did pretty well. I had the sort of memory that researchers write papers about. I once memorized in a single night, without understanding it, a story by Chekhov in the native Russian, having cut the entire semester of Russian. I could reproduce the story nearly word for word, with only the vaguest notion of what I was writing, in Cyrillic script. (I knew Dwarf runes, too.) We had good teachers. Lowell was considered the heaven that good teachers went to when they have proven themselves in the trenches of the other, tougher schools. I found most subjects interesting and most teachers enjoyable. I had no trouble focusing in class. If I took notes, the information traveled up my arm to my brain, which was handy since I never studied. With the bits of homework I dashed off on the bus to school and my almost invariably “A” midterms and finals, I was still in good standing in junior year when I took geometry.
I am verbal, and like many verbal people, not so brilliant at math. Though later in life I came to find the more advanced math topics interesting, basic math, with its tedium of long calculations and algebraic mindfucks, was not my friend. It was an effort to understand it, and even then, there were bits I didn’t get. Math was a “B” subject.
But, I was to learn, we verbal people were given a consolation prize by the math fairy. There is a branch of math that emphasized verbal logic and linear, two-dimensional thinking over all that fancy spatial, dynamic right brain stuff: basic Euclidean geometry. With Euclidean geometry, at least in high school, you can work in the two dimensions you can actually see drawn on a page, even to solve for volume. You have to write “proofs,” which are step by step explanations of how you arrived at the area of a polygon or calculated an angle or whatever. In my mind, the proofs unrolled in a tidy fashion as though they were written in actual words. I liked geometry. I hadn’t expected to. Geometry slid over and hung out with the good subjects like history and English.
But this unexpected gift was still to be discovered, and I very nearly didn’t go back a second time to geometry class. As the roll was called that first day, I suffered a terrible shock. The teacher read out, “Paul Baumgartner!” The boy sitting behind me answered. I turned and stared at him as though hypnotized by a cobra. I had met Paul once when we were about 11, but this was a teenager. I would never have known him. He was not bad looking, and gave me a tiny smile. He must have figured my stare for something other than horror. I mean, who thinks they are some girl from geometry’s bête noire?
Then my name was called out. It meant nothing to Paul. Most of my life, I have gone by my middle name, Sirenita. But in high school (and not again until the advent of Homeland Security) the people in charge insisted that my first name was my “real” name. Paul had never heard of “Maria Lake.”
I could have stayed under the radar, but that seemed sneaky. A rebellious delinquent, I had a funny sense of honor. I said, rather defiantly, “I know you. Your mom is Mary, right?
“Uh, yeah. Do I know you?”
“My mom works with your mom.”
“Oh, you’re, um, Sirenita, right?”
Score one for Paul, who surely did not have my name drilled into him as I did his. Strange he would remember. For a teenage wunderkind, Paul was remarkably unegotistical. We became geometry friends, though we never became friends outside of class. He was far too serious and, well, good. He was rather quiet in class, too, whereas I always participated, managing to channel my ADD-driven tendency to talk all the time into correctly answering the teacher’s questions. Geometry turned out to be good fun. A few weeks into the semester, Paul began to ask me questions when he was stuck. I began to see Paul as just another kid, and Paul, who never had any clue that he had blighted my youth with his accomplishments, showed himself to be easy-going and friendly, not arrogant with success at all.
But success evaded Paul in geometry. Though he worked really hard at it, Paul got a C that semester. I got an A. He did something I was incapable of doing until much, much later in life–working hard at something that he was not good at. I wish I could say I learned that from him, but I didn’t really understand the concept for many years. I was too impulsive, too easily frustrated, to sustain an effort at anything I wasn’t good at. I was good at so many things, intellectual and physical, that it was easy to avoid toiling away at unrewarding, difficult tasks.
Paul was admirable for more than academic dedication. One day, Mom came home from work beaming. Paul had told his mom how I outshone him in math, and Mary–rich, privileged, Mary–told everyone at the office how smart Eva’s daughter was and how much Paul admired me. Mom, through no effort of her own, much less mine, was catapulted to the status of enviable parent. Mom didn’t get too many moments of unadulterated pride in me. Paul and Mary’s generosity of spirit, their lack of competitiveness, impresses me to this day. I think they gave Mom some hope (for a few days, anyway) that I would not, after all, end up a lunatic or criminal. Me, I finally crawled out from under the shadow of Paul Baumgartner into the sunshine, just in time to get expelled for excessive class cutting.
Today Paul is chairman of the English department of a private Catholic college in California. He is a medievalist, publishing papers on 11th and 12th century comic literature, which he translates from the Latin, and is regularly invited to speak at scholarly conferences.
I no longer lose my keys and have not been arrested in ages.