NUDGE

On the bus ride back from the concert, my friend Ginny and I happened to be sitting next to Mr. Pearson—we were on a regular bus seat, while he was on a side seat in front of us. I was in a dreamy mood after the concert and was gazing out at the hills, which looked silvery in the moonlight. When he asked us how we’d liked the concert, Ginny answered, but I didn’t. I didn’t even turn my head. So he reached out and gently turned my head towards him, asking, “And how did you like it, Callie?” His gesture was so tender that I must have blushed, I felt so flustered and flattered at the same time.

The next day, while choir members were singing solos, Mr. Pearson came and sat next to me at the end of the back row of altos. A moment later he nudged me with his knee. I responded without thinking by “nudging” him back, though it was more a light whack than a nudge. What I was feeling I remember clearly—again I was flattered by his attention, giddy even, but at the same time I felt instinctively that his gesture wasn’t appropriate, so there was reproof in my response as well. I didn’t think of his nudge as anything sexual. I thought of it as playful and teasing and my gesture was meant to be the same.

Immediately he got up stiffly and walked to the front of the room—and for the rest of the school year he wouldn’t so much as glance in my direction. As he conducted, he would scan the choir as usual but would always stop just short of looking at me in the far right corner of the group.

When it came time for him to choose an alto for the Madrigals, the select group that sang carols in various venues at Christmastime, he chose Betsy, one of the most popular girls in the school, instead of me, though she wondered why, telling me I was the better singer.

Similarly, when it came time to choose the leads and the chorus for the spring musical, though I auditioned—and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I had such terrible performance fright—I didn’t even get a part in the chorus, which was all I’d wanted.

The musical was supposed to be Brigadoon, but for whatever reason it got abruptly changed to South Pacific. That’s when I finally got a walk-on part because a few more singers were needed as guests at an evening party.

One afternoon shortly after that, Mr. Pearson was so fed up with some of the kids in the choir for not paying attention that he announced we were going to have to sing in small groups for our final grades, one person per part. The high-profile singers in the chorus had already performed when I was put in a group with several other kids who, until that moment, had been as inconspicuous as I was. We sang so well together, Mr. Pearson’s jaw dropped and he challenged us to do it again. We did, and performed it just as well the second time.

By the night of the musical, I’d finally gotten my braces off, and I wore a donated cocoa-colored gown that had been altered to fit me. When I passed Mr. Pearson on the staircase before the performance, he finally spoke to me again, saying how pretty I looked.

Because of my broad vocal range, I could have been a soprano in Concert Chorale, but I’d chosen to be an alto because I found singing lower down more comfortable. I had a break between my registers—that is, between my chest voice and my head voice—that I had trouble negotiating. (The chest voice is what pop singers generally use; the head voice is what female opera singers mostly use; and yodelers use both, deliberately accentuating the difference between them.)

Mr. Pearson gave voice lessons to the Madrigals, so I could have begun my vocal training my senior year of high school if he’d chosen me to be one of them. And he could have told me what I wouldn’t learn until five years later: that I had an even better voice than I knew, because a break between registers can be mended with the right vocalizes.

AMEN!

As I’ve said, my dream, from the time I was twelve years old, was to become a singer. In the dining room of the Doswell house in St. Anthony Park, there was an old upright piano that I’d started to play…but gave up before long, convinced that it was too late for me to ever be any good. In high school, however, inspired by the folk singer Joan Baez, I borrowed a cheap, battered, steel-stringed Hawaiian guitar from my uncle George and began to work out the chords to accompany myself—this, despite the fact that from the time I was little, my mother had never had anything nice to say about my voice. Instead, whenever I sang, she would reminisce about her sister, Dory’s, beautiful voice, which made me feel like mine didn’t compare. And though learning to play the guitar was the only creative outlet I allowed myself during my teenage years, my mom resented the time I spent practicing, which she regarded as an idle pastime.

At Garfield Junior High, I hadn’t mustered the courage to try out for the chorus, but my first semester at Berkeley High I did. I took Girls Glee, then quickly advanced through the ranks of choruses to Bel Canto, Aeolian, and finally to Concert Chorale. When I auditioned for this last, Mr. Pearson, the choir director, exclaimed over my voice, just as the choir director in seventh grade had.

All went well until the day we went on a field trip to Stockton to take part in a concert with a couple thousand singers from other high schools all over California; we would be singing en masse under the direction of Jester Hairston, who wrote and sang the spiritual “Amen” in the movie Lilies of the Field. I wrote the following letter to my father about it:

“Mr. Hairston is small and wiry, in his sixties, I think, with a croaky voice and lots of charm. Though we had to rehearse for six hours, he made it enjoyable by telling us funny stories about his experiences during our breaks. He’s been a sort of good-will ambassador teaching Negro spirituals all over the world.

“During our rehearsal he tried to help us understand the songs and the feelings of the people who sang them. ‘Wade in De Water, Chillin’ was sung by runaway slaves crossing the Ohio River at night. He told us the slaves would move up or down the river after entering the water so when their masters’ dogs trailed them to the water’s edge and their masters fired shots out over it, they would not be in the range of fire. Of course, the white men caught on after a while and would shoot upstream and downstream too. So it was a dangerous journey for the slaves—they risked being shot or drowned—and many of them did die. When we sang ‘Wade in De Water,’ he wanted us to feel the slow heaviness of someone pushing steadily forward against the river’s strong current and to convey the slaves’ determination, as well as their fear and sorrow over those who died.

“In the evening we performed from the floor and balcony of a huge semicircular auditorium while the audience sat on stage. The final number was the spiritual Mr. Hairston sang in the movie Lilies of the Field. ‘See the baby…’ he began in his hoarse voice. ‘Aaaay-men!’ we joined in. ‘…Lyin’ in the manger…’ he sang on. ‘Aaaay-men!’ our voices rose together. And rose and rose throughout the song, until, when the last note ended, for just a moment the air sustained it—an echo—and we all heard the tremendous volume of our sound—and felt it too. The vibration shook the whole auditorium.

“All two thousand of us went back to our buses, singing, ‘See the baby…Amen…’ and clapping in time. For blocks around you could hear our chorus as we loaded onto the buses. You got the feeling that this was the remedy for all man’s problems with his fellow man—just get people singing together, and they’d forget all their hatreds. I know it isn’t that simple, but that’s the way it felt at the time.”

What I didn’t mention in my letter is what had happened with Mr. Pearson on the bus ride home.

BOX BABY

Though I had this dream—included in A Patchwork Memoir—when I was an adult, I’m posting it out of order because I think it illuminates my earlier state of mind:

I keep turning up variously-colored “Dream” file folders from different periods of my life—each one abandoned after only a handful of entries:

I dreamed I was in a store buying something, when I noticed my friend Linda, lying on a bed by the door with a baby that was swathed in blankets. I’d heard from someone that she had a disabled child but didn’t know whether they meant that Amanda had been injured or that Linda had had a second baby who was handicapped. As I took the baby-bundle in my arms and tried to settle myself on the bed, I kept inadvertently sitting on my friend.

At first I thought the baby had a head and trunk, but no arms or legs. Then I saw it was merely a box, the size of a cereal box—with a sort of prosthetic face. It had a smile that could change to a half-smile and eyes that could shift slightly. Wanting to see its real face, I opened the door on the front of the box (like a fuse box cover), expecting to find a head, however deformed. Instead I found, with shock, nothing but mechanical circuitry. Then the child spoke to me, with a desolation that struck me to the core. ’Sometimes I don’t think I’m human at all,’ it whispered. Feeling entirely unequipped to answer such despair, I said, “If you have a mind, if you can think, you’re human.”

When I woke up and remembered the dream, I knew that the box baby was me—and wished I’d reassured my infant self, “If you can love, you’re human.” I realized what I’d said revealed my father’s overriding influence: that it’s mind, intelligence, only, that matters—not heart, not soul.”

FATEFUL

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote that “being in school, from adolescence on, was like doing hard time.” And it was. School was a prison for me, a torture chamber even, because of my now full-blown anxiety disorder. As I’ve said, I would hunker down at the back of my classrooms, in constant fear and dread of being called on—and humiliating myself by not knowing the answer. Written homework was a nightmare, too, because I worried so much about it being good enough that I didn’t know when to stop trying to make it better—and stayed up later and later at night. Eventually I developed the tactic of waiting till morning to do this work, so I would have an immanent deadline—the start of school.

I didn’t know at the time that there was an alternative to the classroom, and I’ve often wondered how different the outcome of my education might have been if I’d been home-schooled (though that would have required a different set of parents) or tutored.

As it was, in my efforts “never to sink beneath my father’s contempt,” I abandoned myself—the things I loved to do—and focused virtually all my energies on achieving scholastically. It worked, up to a point. At Berkeley High I was the only girl chosen as a candidate for a college scholarship. But when I went before the little selection committee, I was too nervous to make a good impression. The boy who came after me told me he’d taken out pictures of his family to show them. He was the one who won the scholarship.

When I think back on those school years, only a few recollections stand out:

MRS. KEPNER

She was my favorite teacher in junior high school—someone who, I felt, liked and respected me. On one occasion we all had to get up in front of the class and read a passage from Shakespeare. I no longer remember what I chose, but afterwards Mrs. Kepner suggested that I might want to consider acting as a profession. I also remember having to take a make-up test after being sick and completely blowing it. So when she told me later that she’d lost the test and it wouldn’t factor into my grade, I wondered if she’d purposely thrown it away.

MISS REPETTO

In junior high I studied French—and, as I’ve said, it took my teacher, elderly Miss Laurens, two years to realize that I was the best student in her class. In the weeks before I graduated, she would always call on me after another student came up with the wrong answer—because she knew I would get it right. This was the one course where I was confident enough in my mastery of the subject that I wasn’t afraid to be called on. 

My first year of high school, however, I got Miss Repetto for French. She was a petite brunette who, though no longer young, was attractive and stylish—with a coldness and brittleness that intimidated me so much I couldn’t learn from her. From the start she gave me the distinct impression that she didn’t much like kids and resented having to teach, considering it beneath her. In her class I was so anxious that I couldn’t retain anything she said or explained—and eventually my grasp of the language slipped and my grades fell. (I remember passing by her classroom after school one day and hearing a girl crying inside.)

So I’d hoped, in my junior year, to have a different French teacher, but when I went over my course schedule with my counselor, there was no way it could be arranged. “Then switch me to Spanish,” I said—a decision, as it happened, that would change the entire course of my life.

In my senior year Spanish class, we had an old textbook with lively, funny stories at the end, which, on my own initiative, I practiced reading over and over again, pretending to be telling the stories to an audience. Gradually, there would be fewer and fewer times I needed to glance down at the book…and eventually I could close it and experience the words flowing out of my mouth as effortlessly as if I were a native speaker—which gave me a thrill.

MR. SAN MARTIN

My senior year of high school, I took advanced algebra from Mr. San Martin, a teacher who had the reputation of being one of the hardest in the school. For the first time in my life, I started getting Cs on homework and tests—and at least one D that I can remember. I was convinced that I couldn’t do higher math until one day Mr. San Martin read out loud the standing—in points—of everyone in the class. I was astounded to learn that I was still in the upper quarter of the class. Immediately my test scores rose to B plusses and A minuses—all because my estimation of my own ability changed, a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

MR. COSTARELLA

My senior year I also took a sculpture class from Mr. Costarella. Among other things, I made plasticine busts (plasticine is an oily clay) of two boys in my class, and after gluing together four by fours, chiseled an abstract figure that was all planes out of wood. I remember Mr. Costarella telling me one day that I could earn my living doing busts if I was interested in pursuing it as a profession—a compliment I appreciated even though that wasn’t an ambition of mine. Later my busts would be on display in the foyer of the Berkeley Community Theater along with other student artwork. But when I took friends to see the exhibit, someone had mashed in the nose of one of my pieces. The morning of the awards ceremony that semester at Berkeley High, I had a dental appointment, after which I lingered in nearby Hinks Department Store so I wouldn’t have to walk across the stage to receive the best artist award. Again, I didn’t want to be the center of all eyes, even for a moment. And, too, I felt like an imposter—that I didn’t deserve the award because I didn’t know how to paint.

BRAIN DAMAGE

Annee doesn’t believe me when I tell her how bad my memory is, how mortified I feel when I can’t remember what the movie I saw two nights ago was or what I learned about Lewis and Clark from a documentary last month. She insists I have extraordinary recall—of the important conversations and situations throughout my life. But that’s different, I tell her. I’ve had to remember those things to survive. My family distorted and denied everything to such an extent, I had to hold on to the facts of what was said and done—for dear life! They were as much of a life raft as I could pull together, my only hope of maintaining my sanity and not going under.

Most of what I learned in school, though, is gone. For years the only dates I could hold in my head were 1776 and 1066. When I get together with friends, they reminisce about outings I don’t have a single recollection of. For a long time I suspected that these memory problems had something to do with the level of anxiety I live with. I used to fantasize about having a brain operation, the surgeon stimulating various parts of my cerebral cortex with an electrode, so I could remember things long forgotten. The experts used to say that all your life’s memories were stored in there somewhere, however inaccessibly. But now they know that cortisol and other stress hormones damage neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain crucial to memory.

After reading an article on the subject in a Newsweek, in Annee’s waiting room, it struck me that emotional abuse damages the body as surely as physical abuse does—and sometimes even more irrevocably.