Friday, February 24, 2017

Failure to appear

The 2012 Buckley School graduation at Disney Hall
There are these big holes in my childhood memories.  Marguerita Koutsis, my beloved former therapist (see my blog post "Mother's Day") has informed me that "memory-holes" such as the ones I experience, are usually the result of trauma.  But however these holes came about, the fact that I can't remember certain times or events in my life has always been a deep source of shame for me.  The way I have coped with all of this, the lack of memory-ability and the shame that accompanies it, was to avoid any discussion involving these "blank" time periods or, (if pressed) to simply "fill in the holes" with a plausible story of my choosing.

In order words, since I was a kid, whenever my memory faltered - I lied.

In recovery, the first principle that is suggested to practice as a way of life, is HONESTY.  On July 14, 2008, I took my first step toward honesty when I acknowledged that I had a problem that was too big for me to solve by myself.  For those of you who know me well, you know that this was a very painful admission for me.  I spent that first year of recovery swimming in a sea of shame, humiliation and vulnerability.  Telling the "absolute truth" about everything, all of the time, left me feeling over-exposed and under-protected.  Our recovery literature states that there some people who are "constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."  I believed myself to be one of these "constitutionally incapable" people during my early recovery. But slowly and agonizingly, I began to admit that all of the "filling in" that I had done was not only dishonest, but my covering up for my faulty memory had created a groundswell of fear and shame in my day-to-day life.  Now, I take every opportunity to tell the truth about whatever, no matter how painful it may be.  But sometimes these "opportunities" to be honest take me by surprise...

*   *   *

"Sorry for the second, call," she said.  "But I need to order the robes for graduation."
I looked at the calendar on my computer.  
It's already graduation time again?
"Okay," I said.  "My order will be the same as last year."
She was new at the school.  I, on the other hand, had been a trustee at The Buckley School for 6-years.  A Buckley graduation is a big deal ceremony.  At that time, it was held at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. All of us trustees sat in the front row as the Head of School and the Board Chair handed out diplomas to each graduating senior.  It is the ultimate in pomp and circumstance.  I was always conscious that it was an honor and a privilege to be asked to participate in such a solemn and dignified event.

"I don't have last year's orders," she said.  Her voice was crisp and mono-toned.  
"Um, what do you need to know?" 
"What degrees do you have?" She asked.   Suddenly all I could hear was the sound of her chewing gum.  My stomach lurched.
I knew why she was asking.  Buckley orders a corresponding "hood" for each trustee's black, graduation robe (i.e., someone who graduated with a doctoral degree from Cornell would wear a green hood with black velvet trim and green lining.  Someone who graduated from Harvard Law School would wear a long, black gown with a crow's feet emblem near the yoke made from flat braid — no velvet trim).
Tell her you have a degree from FAU  No one will ever check!
"No degrees," I said quietly.
"No degrees," I repeated in a slightly louder voice.
"No master's degree?" She sounded incredulous.
"Oh, okay.  Well, where did you get your bachelor's?"
I felt my face getting red.  Suddenly I was too warm for the old, fuzzy cardigan I always wear in my office.
"I, I don't have a bachelor's degree either." 
"What do you have? An associate degree?"
She sounded as though she were actually curious now.  I could picture her sitting up and looking at the phone in her hand with interest.
"Um, no,"  I let out a small, nervous laugh.  "No associate degree either."
"Well, that's okay," she said.  Her voice was kinder now.  "What high school did you graduate from? We can use those colors."
Well, you can't tell her the truth here.  She'll tell everyone.  Maybe they'll decide that it isn't ethical for you to be a trustee of an educational institution when you don't possess either a degree or a diploma. Just say you went to Berkeley High School - don't tell her you didn't graduate!
"I, um," I stammered.  "I went to Berkeley High School."
Good girl!
"Oh!" she said brightly.  "Up in the bay area?"  
"Yes, the bay area," I said sucking in my breath.  
I closed my eyes and blurted out, "but I didn't graduate."
Huh?!? Idiot! Now you've done it!
She paused, the gum chewing stopped abruptly.
"From there or from anywhere?"
"From anywhere.  I didn't graduate from high school or college."
Oh God.  I've actually said it out loud.
"Well..." she said.  It seemed like a full minute passed before she spoke again.  "Well, that's fine. I'll just order the Buckley colors for your hood."
Good, she sounds like business as usual.
"Thank you," my voice was small again.  "Thank you."
"See you in June, Laura!" She said.

*   *   *

"You didn't graduate from high school?" My friend, Nicole was genuinely surprised.  I turned the radio down and waited for my hands-free to pick her up before I answered. I had called her to talk about Miles's "senior night" and somehow the fact that I have never myself finished high school came up.
Oh no! She didn't know! Quick!  Change the subject! Ask her about her new place.
"No," I said after I heard the static hiss that meant we were connected.  "It's funny because it almost never comes up.  People just assume that I did — graduate, I mean."
"Yeah..." her voice had a tone of wonderment. "I would never have guessed!"
"Yup," I shrugged (even though she couldn't see me).
"How come?" She ventured.
I quieted my breath and became conscious of inflating my lungs as I inhaled.
How come?  What's the story I usually tell here? Just make something up!
"I'm not sure," I said.  I looked down at my button-down flannel shirt.  I could see my heart beating through the thin, soft material.
Just tell her that things were "complicated" at home.  It sounds crazy to say that you can't remember what happened.
"To be honest, I have these big holes in my memories," I continued.
"I just told everyone that I went to college because everyone assumed that I had and I thought it was easier than telling the truth.  And of course, most people then surmised, because I'd graduated from college, that I'd graduated from high school as well."
"That's really -- surprising," I could tell that she was choosing her words carefully.  "It doesn't sound like you."
That's because it's the "me" that I've hiding for all of these years.
"The really weird part was that I still went to school every day for a long time, but I just stopped going to classes sometime in the 10th grade. When it came to my report card it wasn't just that my grades were bad (but they were really awful!) it was also that my teachers wanted to know what had happen to me.  It less about an assessment of my work (or lack of) and more of a noting of my  'failure to appear.'"
"Wow! The 10th grade?! What did your parents say?"
"I think by the time they found out it was kind of a done deal.  The way I remember it, I was given a choice to get a job or go back and re-take the grade.  I don't really remember exactly what my thought-process was, but in the end, I decided to get a job."
All at once my breath seemed to return to normal.  I relaxed my shoulders without realizing it.
Okay, maybe saying this out loud isn't the end of the world.
"And that was it?  The end of your education?"
"No, not really.  I went to junior college in Oakland for a year or two and then when I moved to Florida I went to community college there.  I had every intention of graduating and then getting a four-year degree.  But what I hadn't learned in school proved to be insurmountable.  Algebra and geometry were always elusive subjects for me, plus I'd never really developed any study habits, so I kept hitting these walls.  I had enough credits to graduate, but I couldn't pass all of the required classes to earn a degree."
"That sucks," she said.  "Have you ever thought about going back now?"
Everyone always asks that when they find out.
I shook my head, "No, I can't say that I'm really motivated to go back to school — now anyway.  Maybe one day, but honestly, I don't really feel the lack of my formal education in my daily life.  You know, I was that proverbial 'bookworm kid'.  I read every book I could get my hands on for years and years.  At 8-year's old, I made fast friends with Francie Nolan from 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'.  And Pecola Breedlove from 'The Bluest Eye,' was my junior high school 'buddy.' When I was a publicist in my twenties, my boss, Prudence Baird, had me read every major newspaper and magazine every day.  It was a great habit.  I still read the paper every week and a lot of magazines (mostly fashion)! The way I see it, that was my education."
"I would never have guessed!" She said.
She's still processing the fact that I don't have a diploma.
"I mean, I would have never known..."

*  *  *

"Relax, Laura," he smiled.  "This isn't an ambush, it's just your exit interview."
I was seated in front of the Assistant Head of School and my DMI Co-chair in his office.  In two short months I would don my black robe with the red-trimmed hood for my final Buckley graduation as a member of the board of trustees.  
"Okay," I smiled back.  But I felt unsettled.  I had been conducting exit interviews on behalf of the board for the past nine years.  I didn't expect that it would be so emotional to sit on the other side of that interview-desk.
"Okay, I'm ready," I smiled widely and looked from one kind face to the next.
"To begin with," he began. "I just want you to know how valued you are here and that your contributions to the board have been tremendous and commendable.  And on a personal note, I have really enjoyed your presence and I think your voice on the board, especially when it comes to issues of inclusion, has been one of the strongest."
Tears sprung into my eyes as he spoke.  I resisted the urge to dab my fingertips under the corner of each eye.
"Thank you," I said nodding my head.
I folded my hands in my lap.
"Now," he said.  He looked down at the exit-interview sheet which I had filled-out the night before. "You've said that you've seen a lot of change in the past nine years?"
I smiled at him and nodded again.  
"I can say that the actual complexion of our school has changed dramatically over the past five or six years.   And yes, I am proud of that."
We talked like that for a while, me giving my opinions and observations about my time as a parent at Buckley and as a board member.  All too quickly we came to the end of the interview.
"Do you have any final thoughts?"
I closed my eyes for a moment and paused.
"Yes," I said.  "I do.  As you've just been here for a couple of years, I don't know if you know much about my background -- but I never completed high school or college." 
I looked down at my hands and waited for their collective gasp.  When none came I looked back up and continued.
"I was raised by a single mom who did the best she could with what little money we had.  My mom and dad both did everything they could to make sure I went to independent schools.  Sometimes I was the only "poor" one in school, sometimes I was the only Black one (sometimes I was both).  For almost ten years I was an only child. So I'm used to being the "only" one in a room.  But when I was asked to join this prestigious board, where the majority of the members are these professional, multi-degreed people from the worlds of law and finance, I then became the only Buckley board member with no formal education.  I had all of these moments of self-doubt, but the truth is I have felt valued and heard since my first day on the board.  For the past nine years, it has been an honor and a privilege to contribute toward the evolvement of this amazing educational institution.  I missed a lot by not completing school, but in a very real way,  serving on this board has satiated that desire I've always had to be part of an educational process.   The school administrators and this board have shown me over and over again that my opinion and my experience are both valuable.  Our Head of School has told me repeatedly how important my voice is on this board.  It has meant everything to me.  In fact, if I'm given the opportunity, I would like to stay on my committee and continue to champion its efforts."

He stood up and walked over to me with his hand extended.  "That," he said shaking my hand with a smile, "is exactly what we were hoping for.  We'd like to have you continue on your committee as long as you're willing to serve. We're lucky to have you."


  1. Some of the wisest people I know are self-taught. For many of us, high school was just a dysfunctional holding pen. I really don't know why so many kids stay there until graduation. I doubt most people on their deathbeds are thinking about all the degrees they hold. No, they are thinking about the love they spread, the love that surrounds them and the joy that only family & friends can confer.

  2. Well, you're living proof that diplomas are just a piece of paper and that one can be a lifetime learner of LIFE! I would never have thought that you grew up the way that you did because who you are as a person is what most people should aspire to be. Also, you're a wonderful writer, so don't waste your time trying to do math! xo

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