06/12/2012 07:58 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Gratitude on My 89th Birthday

I've just had another birthday. My 89th. I discovered in a fresh way how grateful I am for the whole thing called life.

Actually this birthday allows me to take a thorough, honest look at the entire arc of my life. Sometimes it has seemed to resemble a fast-moving montage or a trove of memories. But did these individual parts come together to make sense as a whole? The answer has often resembled cinema as when seemingly unrelated elements add up -- in an utterly amazing way -- to a cohesive whole.

Our lives, yours and mine, undoubtedly have lots of similarities and just as many differences. I remember that my childhood was a very tough time. It was an emotional roller coaster. There seemed to be little or no security. Could I survive? If so, how? Any idea of a future seemed very much up in the air. I felt painfully alone. Many young lives always seem to possess an imperishable first love. Mine did. It is still an active part of my consciousness. Many young lives also experience a very deep hurt. Mine did. While it caused me pain, it also enabled me to comprehend my sensitive nature and vulnerability.

Always writing has been a huge part of my life. As a kid in middle school, I stalked visiting authors and musicians and all kinds of highly interesting people and interviewed them for my school newspaper. Invariably they were kind to the eager kid in short pants who lugged a notebook. My interviewees included opera diva Lotte Lehmann, newsman H.V. Kaltenborn and authors like John Gunther and Carl Van Doren. The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska kindly invited me to her hotel suite for a green salad with toast.

I've known all sorts of famous women and men. Many were bonafide celebrities who entered my life when, as a young man, I worked in Hollywood's motion picture industry. Yet the people who affected my life most tellingly were not well known at all. Two were schoolteachers. Aren't they among the authentic saints of our time? I remember two of them fondly. Elsie B. Essex taught me in middle school. She stayed late at school for many conversations with me. Education became one-on-one. I could be myself, and accepted as such, and there was something marvelous about it. Our quiet conversations became healing and salvific. In high school the teacher I remember is Mary E. Lowe. She had a harder surface. There was an essay writing contest that meant everything to me. I wanted somewhat desperately to win first prize. I worked hard (thought I'd done my best) and presented Ms. Lowe a copy ahead of deadline. I waited for her to say it was good and I'd win.

But she didn't. She said I couldn't win because what I'd written was not good enough. I was flabbergasted. The American revolutionary war was the subject of the essay. Ms. Lowe told me: "I don't smell the sweat, don't see the blood, Malcolm. It just isn't good enough."

How could she do this to me? I'd show her how good I was. Working night and day, somehow I rewrote the essay and typed it. The old-fashioned typewriter turned carbon copies into dirty smudged souvenirs. I gave the final essay to Ms. Lowe 10 minutes before the final deadline. Yes, I won first prize. No doubt I mistakingly thought I'd won it by myself.

At 89, please let me say: Thanks for the memories, for the lessons, to all the wonderful people who helped me grow up.