If you ignore the fact that my high school in suburban Dallas had a 100 percent white student body, it was as good a place for a teenager as one could want. Safe and comfortable, with high academic standards, teachers whose pay weighed heavily more in helping students than in accruing bank deposits. In those days -- the 1940s -- I was part of a small Jewish crowd in a setting that was predominantly non-Jewish. If my well-mannered classmates from conservative families harbored anti-Semitic feelings, they kept those feelings hidden.
I had never gone to school with black kids. That changed when I began college near Chicago. There was a small core of black boys and girls, mostly from upper class families nearby, and for the first time I shared housing and classes with black students. It was a revelation, like spending my first winter stomping through mounds of snow -- they were a lot more sophisticated than I.
Though I haven't attended class reunions, I am a card-carrying alumnus and enjoy leafing through bulletins with news of my high school classmates. I chuckle to read that no few of them live in the family home they purchased from their parents, hardly budging from the still solid white neighborhood where they grew up. They wanted their children to attend the high school they attended, with a population not so different from when they attended. You see no non-white faces in photos of the football team.
Eventually came the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. A group of loyal kids -- no longer kids, of course -- joined together to produce a half-century anniversary album. They asked each of us to report on our lives -- including, of course, the families we'd built. The album even promised to dig out predictions of our future lives made when we were in school. It predicted that fifty years hence, I would be living in a New York penthouse and writing my memoirs -- about right but for the penthouse.
I wrote about my schooling, Army, jobs, move to New York. I did not report on any children, since I didn't have any, but I did report on being a gay man. And I waited to read what others had said. Finally the album arrived, and again and again I read about children and grandchildren. When I came to my page, I saw that the editors had printed everything I'd sent --everything except that I'm a gay man. I looked several times to see if I had seen what I thought I saw. Yes, they had left that out! Hard to believe, but it was not there. My reaction? Fury, of course, at my classmates!, who felt license to delete a fact central to my life. Was this punishment for deviating from the majority, maybe for not having children?
The album was in print, the insult done. But what a nasty implication. Could the all-white mentality that characterized that neighborhood have hardly changed in fifty years? There's a sad thought, perhaps reflected in the fact that so many of my classmates clung to the same place, the same house where they grew up. Maybe they've shut out the social changes covering the rest of the world over the past half century, worse for their children than for themselves.
Yes, I'm sad and left with mixed feelings about a good start, a happy time in my life. I want to believe that those who published the anniversary album were a very small, unrepresentative group.
But a wish for retaliation was lodged in my bones, and I've told this story in the preface to my new memoir. I hope that whoever put together that album (I didn't try to find out who) reads it and feels ashamed. I was an honors student of that school -- let them be so reminded.
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This story does get told in the preface to Stanley Ely's new memoir, "Life Up Close," out soon from Dog Ear Publishers in paper and ebook.