Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Paul, Beautiful Sue, Wayne, the Paperboy Failing Algebra & the University of Chicago Lab High School (1966…Part One…by Robert M. Katzman

Paul, Beautiful Sue, Wayne, the Paperboy Failing Algebra & the

University of Chicago Lab High School (1966)

by Robert M. Katzman © January 30, 2018   Part One 

Classic gritty Chicago tale about a high school math tutor and a student from very different worlds leading to a fifty-year warm friendship, which only death could end.

In September 1964, after failing a pre-freshman admittance required Algebra course during the summer at the University of Chicago Laboratory School High School, or U-High, in Hyde Park, I also subsequently failed my first year taking Freshman Algebra, too.

Somewhere among my less treasured memories is an old shoebox, and within it, besides my four different draft card classifications between 1968 and 1974, is a small rectangular piece of paper with the handwritten letter “F” placed squarely in the center of it. It meant I had to take the detested algebra class for yet a third time.

U-High’s very efficient system for helping students who seemed likely to embarrass and undermine the school’s gleaming reputation in the future assigned me a math tutor who would meet with me in the library in a private room every Tuesday and Thursday. The first week of my second year there as a sophomore in September 1966, I met Paul Moulton. I was sixteen, born in 1950, and he was forty-six, born in 1920.

When Paul was my same age in 1936, America and much of the world was in the middle of what would later be called the Great Depression. Our lives, experiences, ethnicity, religion, education, economic situation and marital status were dramatically different, except for at forty-six he was already an adult, formed as a World War Two vet from 1942 to 1945, with a sense of values and a clear identity. At sixteen, I was far away from any of that, with no idea what an influence he would have on me in the decades to come, decades beyond that first meeting in the high school’s library.

However, what may have set our relationship on a different course than he had probably experienced many times before with disenchanted kids in that school failing at math, were two distinct facts.

As a runaway from a violent home the year before, paying the tuition to go to that expensive school became my responsibility alone. I was aware that in my chaotic existence, this school was probably the last and best chance I had to get a decent education, which is why I became determined, even at fourteen, to see if I could stay enrolled there. It was a rich kid’s school, a school offered as a perk to incoming new faculty at the University of Chicago to educate their children, and, as I gradually learned over the next few years, widely considered to be the best high school in the United States.

Socially, economically, with a rough Chicago South Side public school attitude, and with an enormous invisible chip on my shoulder, my being accepted in that rarified civilized atmosphere was never a good fit.

To widen the gap to a chasm which my classmates simply couldn’t fathom, after experiencing the sorts of jobs a fourteen-year-old could get, a year later I had decided to open a newspaper stand on an abandoned corner about two miles from the school with a friend, still a friend half a century later, from another school. I built the small, structure, initially an enclosed wooden box four feet by four feet square, six feet high, with a roof projecting out of the top of it to protect us from the rain and sun. We had opened it less than a month before Paul and I met, and I was already working there seven days a week with no time for any sports or other school activities because of my single focus on paying the tuition.

Also, unique for not just that school but also for that time, maybe for this time, as a teenager I had an adult employee. Paul didn’t know anything about any of this when we shook hands that first day.

Completely the opposite from my being “proud” of where I was at that moment in my life, faced with few options after fleeing terror in the middle of the night only fourteen months before that day, I was embarrassed by the desperate circumstance I was in, by the humbleness and dirt that defined paperboys in the public eye, by the school’s demand that I begin paying the high tuition after allowing me a year to pass with no payment, by wondering daily about paying for food and rent at the small and obscure hotel I lived in, and what became unexpectedly humiliating to me at a school where every other student had different priorities than mine, no money for new clothes of any sort, let alone being concerned with whatever fashion demanded of others in that school.

Just barely beginning to encounter corrupt Chicago city officials who wanted payoffs from a politically unsophisticated teenager, trying to figure out what the hell “The Chicago Machine” was, trying to stop rough and physically threatening newspaper truck drivers from stealing a few newspapers out of every bundle they threw off the truck to me and stunned to learn how fast all of them seemed to know I was a Jew and none of them liked me immediately because of that, I was in two schools at the same time, with very different consequences if I wasn’t able to integrate into those two worlds and learn all of the rules necessary to be able to do that.

Frustrated, with no friends, with what was an initially a sort of secret alternative existence until both teachers and students began noticing I arrived every day, almost always late, fresh from working the morning rush hour at the newsstand with black ink-stained-hands from newspapers hot off the presses and which was so difficult to wash off, that I was dusty and dirty and what was going on with my hands?

With all of this on my mind, a growing realization that it was most probable I would never go to any college, that my failing algebra was so miniscule an issue for me and really just one more damn thing going wrong with my life, I had a very real issue with people who had power over me, I developed an antagonistic and pugnacious resistance to authority.

As I soon learned, to my utter astonishment, so did Paul Moulton.

Formerly a Mormon turned into a Unitarian, politically way left of center when I had no idea what that meant, married for a time to a Jewish woman at a time when Jewish women didn’t marry Christians and as independent a mind and spirit as I would ever encounter in my life, Paul and I were a match. Not in algebra, but in so many other ways.

When he learned about the wooden newsstand and everything I was experiencing while working over there in whatever weather was happening at the moment while simultaneously trying to pass my math, biology, drama, social studies, French and English class tests, do my homework and God-forbid, barely controlling my instant impulse to smash a sarcastic distaining and fashionable classmate in the mouth—which would lead to instant expulsion—he became fascinated, like I was some historic creature leftover from the Great Depression still selling apples from a handcart on a corner to survive during hostile and unsympathetic times in America.

Long before I grasped what he saw in me, he already had lived in those hard times, knew about individuals determined to overcome impossible situations, about religious prejudice, about Jews and who they were specifically, about intellectually inferior but superior to him Army officers ordering him to do whatever they decided for him to do while he was fighting his way under constant fire, village by village, mountain by mountain, up the spine of Italy towards Hitler’s Germany, about constantly being afraid of dying in the War.

For Paul, his disgust and fury toward Chicago’s corrupt political situation, the worst in America and which besides protesting it in a range of ways, knew far, far more about all of it than so obviously naïve I did, right then in September 1965.  I had an relative who carried a deputy sheriff’s badge, which allowed him to carry a gun, but he was a jerk who was more interested in impressing other people how connected he was to the “Machine”, a real insider who could get this or that done if the right amount of cash were to pass from their hands to his hands to whomever’s hands which controlled the essential city license desired or something like that.

I was a child when I heard this same crap over and over and over at family gatherings. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but he repelled me with his endless efforts to pretend he was a real tough guy by association. I was smart enough to know what was what, though. My father, Israel, was the real thing, a scarred tough guy from the West Side tenement gangs who, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor with no warning on December 7, 1941, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1942, he gathered up twelve of his Jewish pals, marched them down to the enlistment office in Chicago and all of them signed up for the duration of the war. All  of them came back too, from actual combat three and a half years later..

My relative, connected even then, had some strings pulled by purchasable local politicians and he spent the War in Nebraska. Even a child knows a phony when he sees and hears one. My father taught me not to run away from trouble, but to run toward it. Much of my dad’s life didn’t work out well, but he was around, he was an important man to me.

I became Paul’s fascinated student about understanding the nuances and complications of real life and what was worth doing, and he became an admirer of my fierce spirit, my independence, my apparent indifference to the massive obstacles to succeed under the impossible, so obvious to him, circumstances I accepted as my life.

I loved the man. He was far more than a father-figure but a man who treated me as an equal when no one else anywhere in my life did, made me feel valuable and important when I was as low in how I felt about myself as a person could be, tried to convince me that I had what he felt was an American spirit in a place no one else would imagine that about me, and that no matter what happened to me in that school or even at that primitive newsstand, to him, I was already a success.

Recently, a man I respected and felt I knew well enough to be straight with and who frequently read what I wrote, asked me how honest was I really in my depictions of characters in my stories, like this one.

I responded this way, quoting myself here:

“John, You know, I guess I fudge on the side of compassion. There were some terrible things that some people did to me whom I am related to, or knew. I think all of them are dead. I find myself in the bad situation of piling on, as if I already felt I’d said enough.

Here’s another example, same concept:

I had endless schoolyard fights. My father taught me how to wrestle and left me to figure out the punching. It was difficult to get out of his various strongholds because he wanted me to understand how hard it might be for me in a real life situation. We did this fairly regularly and over time I became stronger. But not the kind of stronger that was visible. More the durable kind, the strength that lets a person keep on going, longer than the other person.

Because of my speed, slight build, knowledge of what was possible and being stronger than someone else might assume, I’d get the other guy on the ground as fast as possible, sit on his chest with my knees hard on his arms and then, unlike just about everyone else, ask them to give in, or tell me they were sorry, or whatever I needed to hear them say so I could safely let them go. I wanted to let them go. With the endless slapping and punching to my own face in my home, it was no mystery to me how horrible an aimed punch to an unguarded face would be.

I never wanted to actually hurt anyone.

I just wanted them to leave me alone, regret their words and let it be over.

Mostly, after their surprise of not getting punched in the mouth or the nose, they were at first relieved, then confused, and then decided it was a good time to stop. If not, things progressed as expected until one of us quit.

But, if it was an anti-Semitic situation, erase all of the above.

My father who had great influence upon me, made that quite clear.

Not hitting back reinforced the illusion that Jews couldn’t fight, or wouldn’t fight which is why so many died, which I overheard from both adults around my neighborhood and sometimes from kids in my school, too, that we lined up “like sheep” in the concentration camps, perfectly willing to die. The War was recently over, five years after I began going to school.

Is this answer more than you wanted to know?

Your question seemed deserving of truth, or my concept of truth, in my writing.

Bottom line: Hitting other people was emotionally conflicting for me.

Didn’t involve “courage” or getting involved to defend another person in trouble.

My secret and horrible life at home turned everything outside of it on its head.

What was normal?                                                                                                                               How could someone like me have any concept of that?

Will this explanation be interesting to a stranger who reads about my life, or be too convoluted?I am thinking that this is an essential part of my story, John. What do you think?”

Dear Reader, I will stop now because my rapidly flowing tears are obscuring the computer keys. At ninety-six years old, to me, Paul Moulton was far too young to die. I hope as you read this unlikely story, you can understand what he understood from the beginning, and how unique it was for me to find a person like him in a virtual emotional desert with no other relationships to help guide me on my way.

More, later.

Thanks.

 

Contact:robertmkatzman@gmail.com

6 Comments »

Comment by Jim Williams

January 30, 2018 @ 9:26 am

I enjoyed every word. I’m sorry about your friend. I wish he were my friend. Thank you so much for sharing.

Comment by Susan Liedel

January 30, 2018 @ 10:20 am

Bob, you openness as always touches my heart. Don’t stop sharing.

Comment by Jim Payne

January 30, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

Wonderful story, really a memoir, of how you saw you from the outside. The rebel knows himself always apart from all others yet always seeking one other to be connected with but always losing them. You the writer knows how to present yourself to others. You are a gifted writer, and this story shows it.

Comment by Charlie Newman

January 30, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

well-done as always, Bob…you got your style down rock hard

Comment by Brad Bliss

January 30, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

One of the great things I never expected to experience as a new teacher is realizing the adage, “You don’t reap in the same season you sew.” To look at a person not as they are, but with an eye to what they can be, and to realize what an honor it is to have a part in that future is the core and mindset of teaching. Another great story brought to life Bob.

Comment by Bill Skeens

January 30, 2018 @ 8:08 pm

Thank you for sharing you story. My thoughts and prayers are with Paul and with you.

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