I missed the Ivy League experience.
I missed the sorority houses, I missed the keggers. Unlike Walter Kirn, I pretty much took the low road through higher education.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t have a road map, marked with red arrows, even. My siblings are all doctors & lawyers…when the song gets to ‘and such’, I raise my hand from the back of the room. I wound up eight blocks from my childhood home, selling jewelry in Big Sky Country.
Last year when I read Lost in the Meritocracy, I thought about my own formative years in public school. I remember warm milk and soggy graham crackers in kindergarten. I remember Dick. To be fair, I also remember Jane and Spot.
The pivotal memory I have of grade school is hearing that I killed God.
It was the fall of 1966, and I refused to sing Christmas Carols. I was in fourth grade.
Wanda Button pulled me away from a spirited game of Chinese Jump Rope at recess. Wanda and I were not friends. She had bad news.
“You killed God.”
I was nine years old and I denied it. “Did not.”
“My mom said the Jews killed God.”
I knew a little about Judaism, but I didn’t remember this part. Flat dry matzo, I knew. Dressing up at Purim, I knew. Passover Seders, I knew.
I was only nine, but hearing that I killed God explained a lot.
It explained why I was the only Jew in class. Who else would fess up? It explained why the Germans, who were probably Christians, had been so mad at us. It also explained why my dad was home dying of cancer. He was a German, and he married a Jew. We were being punished.
I barely realized what it meant to be a Jew, and I was already riddled with guilt.
Even then, though, I wondered, if we killed God, God is dead. Why are these Christians still going to churches? If we killed God, I mean like, what’s the point?
Out there on the Emerson School playground, I started to cry.
I went home and confronted my mother, who had problems of her own, with five kids and my very sick father. Alone after dinner, her red hands dripping over the sink, I asked her if what Wanda said was true.
Mom was tired. She may have been having her own crisis of faith. “It was a long time ago. Some people think Jewish leaders killed Jesus,” she said. “But it’s not your fault. It’s not my fault, and it might not even be true.”
It was a weak defense.
Three months later my father died. I took a week off school, and everyone in my class signed a sympathy card. Even Wanda.
Because there is an Air Base in Great Falls, there were always a couple of military kids in my class. There was a Bully, a Fat Kid, one Black Girl, a slew of Indians, and I got to be…the Jew.
Walter Kirn was the Smart Kid. This may have driven him slightly nuts, but it gave Walter plenty of tragicomic fodder. All that stuff that teachers tried to pour into poor Walter—he literally got the last word. For the rest of his life, all Walter has to do is push his hand down his psyche and make smart shit from shit that smarts.
When I reach down my psychic gullet, all I get is a gag reflex.
Given the role of Montana Jew, I guess I made it my job to be strange. After Wanda’s diatribe, I perfected a look that told my classmates not to come any closer or I might crucify them.
When I picked up Walter’s book, I thought that Lost in the Meritocracy would be heavy and literate and full of footnotes to prove we are depriving ourselves of creative thinkers by shoving square brains through progressively smaller round holes. Instead, Kirn, by recounting his own dysfunctional youth, picks up all the shavings and ignites a fine cautionary tale.
The book isn’t cautionary enough to discourage aspiring miserable literati, however. If I’d read it when I was in high school, I might have actually been enticed into being the Smart One just to suffer through the bookish fodder of degradation, adoration and isolation, which may have resulted in enough ‘fuck you smarts’ to earn a fellowship of my own.
Sometimes, though, instead of getting lost in the meritocracy, it’s safer not to open the door.