Six dusty volumes of Junior Great Books (Discussion Series Four) lean and deteriorate at the end of my bookcase, next to a first-edition copy of the Hardy Boys' "Something Happened at Midnight." On the cover of each great book is an illustration of 10 empty chairs in a circle with a white dove in the middle.
At some point, a teacher at DeWitt Clinton Grade School in Chicago's West Rogers Park -- suffering from temporary loss of judgment brought on by excessive exposure to chalk dust -- must have noticed that I had just enough potential to attend a special class where I, along with others of The Chosen, would read and discuss Daniel Defoe, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Washington Irving and many other dead white writers of enduring status.
We gifted and talented arbiters of classic literature met in a poorly ventilated room with stained ceilings and sticky floors, where we offered up our seasoned critiques of the masters. Most of my colleagues took their special status in stride, but I was entirely out of my usual element of solitary angst. The very idea of sharing my ideas out loud was the equivalent of having last week's dirty underwear viewed by my peers under an electron microscope.
Fear rendered me speechless whenever I was called upon to deconstruct, for example, what Defoe meant in the following passage from Robinson Crusoe: "My reason began now to master my despondency." But at home, alone, safe from mortification, I underlined that crucial sentence with an insecure wavy line, then wrote boldly in the margin, "He was sizing up the situation."
Thus I made my entrance into the land of marginalia.
On the next page I penned, "He has faith in God," for an interpretation of Defoe's "He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition." A brilliant analysis if you consider that I read mostly Superman comics and the sports section of the Chicago Sun-Times.
This was eighth grade, a particularly edgy time for me, when pleasuring myself was a major passion, along with basketball, hockey, football and the two-boy street game called "pinners."
At the cost of a 19-cent rubber ball purchased or pilfered at the corner drugstore, my buddies and I consumed insane amounts of time flinging the ball against the concrete stairs of apartment stoops.
Pinners loosely resembled baseball. The goal was to hit line drives over your opponent's head for home runs while taunting him mercilessly with words like "pussy" and "retard." Extra base hits depended on arbitrary and fluid boundaries that could change instantly -- when, for example, a parked car drove off or a delivery truck appeared. Scoring was hotly contested, involving the use of more elegant slang acquired in the hallways and bathrooms of Chicago's public schools.
"That was a double, you pimple!"
"Was not, Pizza Face!"
"Screw you, Four Eyes!"
My vivid memory of the intricacies of pinners contrasts sharply with my dim recollection of the content of those great books. Certainly I remember the above-mentioned Robinson Crusoe, and how could I ever forget the conclusion of London's To Build a Fire? "Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight ... Later, the dog whined loudly."
What a horrific, and appealing, way to die. And what city kid wouldn't want a dog?
London's uplifting ending was substantial fuel to a young boy in search of a flicker of recognition and, ultimately, the raging flame of eternal martyrdom. I often visualized my own heroic death and, more important, the funeral afterward, where all the girls who never noticed my existence would suddenly be wailing with grief.
"If only I hadn't pushed his face into the water fountain!"
"Oh, why did I trip him down that flight of stairs?"
"Was he the one with those thick glasses and the buckteeth?"
I would hear the girls wailing because I would be an invisible ghost watching and listening from a comfortable seat in the funeral parlor (à la Huck Finn). Then, afterward, I would float back to their bedrooms to watch them slowly undress and shower.
But the other volumes remained neglected, perennial page turners like William Makepeace Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring and Padraic Colum's The Children of Odin. I cannot recall one scrap of story from them, nor am I the least bit tempted to read them today, even if the CliffsNotes for them were available and online.
For this wasted life of unread classics I could fashionably blame my parents' divorce or all those forgettable hours watching such wonderful educational television programs as "Petticoat Junction" and "Love on a Rooftop," but, instead, I blame Ruby Levine, once the sole object of my intense longing and illegal stalking. Tall, frontal-budding, raven-haired Ruby, who spoke to me daily during the magical years I sang her praises.
"Watch where you're going, putz!"
In hindsight, her remark may seem a bit harsh, but you too would have been smitten if you could have witnessed the way "putz" rolled off her full lips while her braces gleamed in the fluorescent hallway and her chestnut eyes narrowed in ridicule.
But there was more to Ruby, much more. Whenever she got angry, an aura surrounded her and she practically levitated like a religious apparition as she lunged at me in mock rage.
"Do you ever wash your hair, Tinsel Teeth?" (She had many pet names for me.) "And stop sneaking around my house and looking in the windows, Schmuck Face!"
Still, she couldn't escape my ardor. For three hours a week we shared quality time in our intimate literary clique, proudly clutching our little brown books of polysyllabic prose.
Now, 30 years later, I have stumbled upon written proof of our relationship. In Volume three, Page 19, of Rex Warner's Ceyx and Halcyone, next to the sentence "Ceyx thought of Halcyone and only her name was upon his lips," I had scripted, in toxic green ink, my everlasting devotion, "I Love Ruby," in tall vertical letters for all the world to see. And again, on Page 73 of Friedrich von Schiller's William Tell (fisherman shouts, "O wretched man!"), using a phonetic spelling of "love," as in "I Luv Ruby."
In fact, Volume three of Series Four is a Ruby Levine lovefest. Any evidence of an intellectually engaged student is absent: no highlighted paragraphs, perceptive margin notes, dog-eared pages or coffee rings. Instead, the book is peppered with the same three-word sentence repeated over and over like an out-of-control car alarm.
Choosing love and pinners over world-class prose is a familiar saga of wasted potential. Who knows where I'd be this very moment if I could quote you chapter and verse from The Education of Cyrus by Xenophon: "When they reached the flat bottom, Cyrus let fly his javelin, and the stag fell dead, a beautiful big creature."
(I paid a heavy price for my ignorance. Ruby became a physician, which meant that about the time she was doing her residency, I was a migrant worker picking daffodils in the rain on the north coast of California.)
After a few classes pretending to be absorbed in the discussions, my inadequacies were finally exposed during a pop quiz on Giovanni Boccaccio's The Hospitality of Torello d'Istria. I had not read the story for a good reason: My favorite TV show -- "Combat!" -- was airing its final episode and after following Sarge and the boys for years, I needed to see who would ultimately survive the Germans. My answers to the quiz were entirely made up of what I thought was a clever rewording of the questions.
The teacher -- a reedy woman with nasal drip and a tight bun of red hair -- kept me after class to deliver the bad news: I was not Great Books material.
I returned happily to the regular English class, where I was greeted like young conquering Cyrus himself.
"Hey, Lyons, is that a banana in your pants, or are you just happy to see us?"
Now this was a sentence I could finally deconstruct with ease -- text without double meanings or elusive historical references.
They were right, of course, my fellow
underachievers and partners in pinners. I was happy to see them.