A friend wrote to me yesterday morning to let me know that today marked the 90th birthday of a high school teacher we both liked and admired. Harry Goldgar was one of those pivotal teachers who, through direction and indirection, gave you access to a lot of useful information as well the tools to build on what he taught you as you progressed through the rest of your education and into life.
Our school, which I have mentioned here previously, was a small, very traditional boy’s boarding school in Connecticut. Single-sex education having largely gone out of style, I don’t know whether places like this even exist any longer. Certainly, our school today (from what I know about it through reading alumni mailings) seems completely unrecognizable to me.
The just post-Summer of Love 1960s was a fascinating period to attend a rigorous, traditional New England boarding school. Rigid disciplinary rules were still in place and strictly enforced at a time when such rules were being questioned and contested throughout the culture, which brought any number of things into high relief. Attending a school like this was a lot like going into business early. If you were lucky and sufficiently practical, you learned to survive (and possibly thrive) among your peers and to identify and navigate all sorts of competing power groups. It was a mostly good experience for me because it gave me confidence and taught me self-reliance I never would have acquired if I had remained at home with my family. Also, our school was much, much better than the public school where I had previously been enrolled, which was crude and rough in a Blackboard Jungle sort of way and provided a comparatively desultory education. My boarding school, on the other hand, was superficially, at least (the surface always being potentially deceptive), tweedy, pipe smoking, genteel and scholarly. Because I was at my most energetic and educable then, I got a lot out of it and made a couple of lifelong friends.
For some time I had been planning to write something for this space called Strongly Influenced By. The title came to me one day during one of my usual confusion spells when I was trying hard, without much luck, to find myself on the map. In the way they do in desert island movies and reality TV survival shows, I first tried to discern and locate some life landmarks and then after I found a few, tried to remember why they were landmarks for me.
The teacher I mentioned, Harry Goldgar, who now lives in New Orleans, was responsible for a fairly large number of important signposts in my life and I had a good time yesterday, in the middle of some highly weird hubbub, thinking about some of them:
Bildungsroman, Robert Musil, Alain-Fournier, Carl Gustav Jung, Guy Davenport, giving Greek names to charming cats, cats in general even though I was highly allergic to cats then, Editions Gallimard and Flammarion books lining rows of shelves, Proust, Gide, Faulkner, owning complete sets of anything, afternoon cups of tea and conversation, City Lights books, bookstore and logo, the 8th Street Bookshop, Magister Ludi, maintaining good mental discipline and organization, a Master of Sacred Theology degree from the Sorbonne with the beautiful academic robes that went with it, I Ching, mixing modern and ancient things, combining appropriate respect and a healthy reverence for the past with skepticism and healthy irreverence, taking time out and time off from all of the above, Edward Gorey, how to set type, lay out newspaper columns and pages and write headlines, my first (and last) séance.
Harry was much younger then but he was still one of our more senior, mature teachers and certainly, in his quiet and polite way, our most sophisticated. At a time when youth was overvalued, he taught me (mainly by inference and subtle comments) to discern value, to be able to figure things out for myself and to have confidence in my final conclusions based on the fact that I had carefully considered, rejected and discarded many previous conclusions.
When life feels far too slippery, it means everything to find the things that grip, that help you sort through to what might possibly make sense.