Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 4, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward





When an aging writer runs out of material for memory stories, where is (s)he to turn? Having written stories based upon working as a bellhop in the Catskills (summers during the late 1950’s), my first two jobs after college (1963), a contentious P.T.A. meeting (2008), and a recurring dream (multiple dates), and having based parts of a novel on my Peace Corps days in Nigeria (1964-67), I thought the well had run dry.

But last month, a timely invitation arrived. As part of the Zoom reunion for the K-12 school where I had taught secondary English for thirty-two years (1976-2008), I was invited to a virtual cocktail party by the classes of 1980 and ‘81. After checking with a friend and erstwhile colleague, now also retired, to make sure I would not be the only teacher “there,” I accepted.

I should point out that I had not attended any previous reunions, either before or after my retirement from teaching. When the subject of reunions had come up, during the 1970’s or ‘80’s, my waggish dentist advised me not to go to any because, he said, the constant smiling might crack a tooth. Seriously, the reasons for my non-attendance were in two phases. While I was teaching, between the rigours of the job, family responsibilities, and my attempts to keep my writing from falling off the back burner, I did not attend any non-compulsory school events. When I retired, and my nest emptied, I probably should have gone to some reunions, but a change of administration took place, and my dislike of the new Principal kept me away. Besides, now that my writing career was my day job, when the reunion notices would turn up in my in-box, I deleted them, because (I told myself), “That was then . . . ” But this year, I changed my mind: the isolation of the Covid era brought renewed value to social contacts. So I signed on for the 1980-81 virtual cocktail party, thinking it might be fun to catch up.

A few days before the party, I had an idea: why not write a story in which I projected from my memories of a few students in those classes, and created imagined histories for them? It would be a new kind of memory story -– at least for me. That I decided to play this game may also have been a way to make the prospective event more appealing.

I chose the two alumni who would be hosting the Zoom, both of whom I remembered well. (My wife tells me I have a good memory for names, and I can usually match the way people looked and acted to the names.) The two students were Michael Sinclair and Robin Laksis. (The event’s co-host was listed as “Robin Sunderland,” but Ms. Laksis was the only “Robin” I remembered from those two classes.)

How convenient: two characters, one for each gender! In those days, although there were a few students who were openly gay, and more (how many?) who were closeted, there was not yet any gender switching or blending, at least to my knowledge. Not only that, but Michael and Robin were very different, in other respects. Although both were, loosely speaking, endomorphs (i.e. hefty), Michael was short and broad; Robin, tall and shapeless. When I imagined their clothing, both wore crewneck sweaters in somber colors: gray, navy blue, or brown; and dark corduroy pants. (These must have been cold-weather memories.)

As student personalities, Michael and Robin were also very different. Michael was bright, verbal, and slyly sarcastic. In one class, for instance, I remember arguing that a dog that was disrupting a funeral service, in Huckleberry Finn, and the preacher who killed him and then told the congregation what had happened, were a combined alter ego for Mark Twain. My “theory” was that Twain, as satirist, “killed” his targets, but within a coherent narrative. After expounding on this theory at some length, I asked the students for their reactions. Several hands were raised, and I called on Michael.

“Well, Mr. Singer,” he said, pushing his black-rimmed glasses up on his nose, “your theory is ingenious. But . . . ” He went on to say, pretty much, that there must be a hundred other theories about that episode that were just as good –- or bad — as mine.

Michael’s reaction was spot on. My idea was not really a theory, but a sort of half-baked hypothesis. That was the kind of teacher I was, full of lively, plausible ideas, but always needing to be reigned in – i.e. tethered to the text. In hindsight, I’d say I was both the dog and the preacher.

In passing, I should also point out that, in that era, the school administration allowed teachers to choose whether to be called by their first name, or surname. At the beginning of a course, I always said I would leave it up to the students, but thereafter, I sometimes took umbrage when a student I didn’t particularly like called me “Ron.” Michael (never “Mike”) was among the minority who switched back and forth, presumably because they did not know which I preferred. (Did I know?)

So what life did I imagine for Michael Sinclair in the forty years after high school? I imagined –guessed—that he had been a lawyer. After college and law school, his career followed a familiar trajectory for graduates of liberal institutions like ours. He started out working for progressive causes, and little money. He prosecuted Title IX cases for collegiate women athletes, litigated in support of the Brady law (gun control), and once even defended (as a Public Defender) the rights of a sex offender who had fallen afoul of Megan’s Law. In the last case, I went so far as to imagine Lawyer Sinclair’s closing statement to the jury.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he would say, pushing his glasses up on his nose, “please understand that I am a committed supporter of Megan’s Law, with all that this implies about protecting the rights of child victims of sexual predators. But Megan’s Law simply does not apply to my client, Mr . . .

“The law requires convicted sex offenders to register with several entities, up to and including the U.S. Attorney General. But Mr . . . did not think to register because he was exonerated –found innocent-- in the single case previously brought against him, which involved photographing children at a municipal swimming pool, without first asking their parents’ permission. As his attorney argued in that case (State of New Jersey v. . . 1981), his client was merely indulging a hobby, and had also taken several dozen photographs of adults at the same pool, on the same day.” At this point, Michael removed his glasses and allowed himself a small smile.

“But, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me ask you all a question: which of us is without sin in such situations? Think back! Have you never taken a photograph at, say, a family party where you have had a few drinks, of an attractive fifteen year-old niece or nephew?” And he continued in that vein, trying to sow reasonable doubt by appealing to the jurors’ own human foibles.

It didn’t work. The photographer got one-to-two years.

Michael Sinclair’s subsequent career also seemed predictable. (At least, I thought I could predict it.) When it came time for him to marry and father children, he realized he needed to make more money. So he joined the opposition, so to speak, signing on as an associate in a mid-level private firm. And you guessed it. Lawyer Sinclair wound up representing universities in Title IX cases, and so forth. His nadir came when he defended a gun manufacturer after a notorious school shooting. That the jury was hung, in that case, represented a major win for Sinclair, since the case was never retried. (He was the one who should have been hung –- or is it “hanged”?)

As for Robin Sunderland, nee’ Laksis, I was also able to extrapolate from the student I knew to the four decades after graduation. Unlike Michael’s life, which hung a 180 in mid-voyage, hers, as I imagined it, would follow a fairly straight line.

In high school, Robin was strongest in the sciences. (She was so-so in my classes, diligent, but uninspired. I taught her as a freshman and a junior.)Robin would go on to get, I imagined, a B.Sc., and to work in a lab for a few years. Then, put off by the drudgery and sexism she encountered in the world of scientific research, she returned to school to become a registered nurse. After that, except for the decade in which she married, and birthed and raised, two little robins, her nursing career was uninterrupted. She was so diligent and well regarded that she rose to become CNO (Chief Nursing Officer) at one of the city’s most prestigious private hospitals.

To give you the flavor, here is Robin’s reply to the hospital’s CEO when he offered her the CNO position, in the presence of the entire nursing staff.

“Thank you, Dr. . . It is my privilege to accept your generous offer. I’m fully aware of the heavy responsibilities this position entails, and will do my best to meet them. Again, thank you.”

By now, Robin Sunderland (who has chosen to go by her married name, a throwback) is fifty-nine. Having logged thirty-two years as a nurse, she is contemplating retirement, after two or three more years, when she plans to pursue her interest in music (she sings) and to travel, perhaps around the world. That Mr. Sunderland is a prominent civil engineer, a few years older than her, and that they are financially “comfortable,” make Robin’s plans practical. Even in high school, as Robin Laksis, this was a markedly practical young woman.

The reader has waited, patiently or not, for the other shoe to fall --to learn, that is, the reality, so (s)he can compare it with my predictions, or guesses. Here it is, in the form of a transcript of relevant excerpts from the “show-and-tell” segment of the Zoom cocktail party. Of course, as an interested party, I had an important speaking part.
Ron Singer: So what’s everyone been up to, for the last 40 or 41 years?

Michael Sinclair: Oh, this and that. As many of you know, I dropped out of college during sophomore year. That year, Jimmy Carter re-instated the draft, but my number never came up, thank God. I worked in the Garment district for a number of years, doing this and that, before joining my dad’s import-export business. When he passed away, in 1993, I took over the business. I still run it (hopefully, not into the ground).

Emily Blaustein: I think I met your wife at a previous reunion, Mike. A physician, right?
How is she? And you have two kids, a boy and a girl?
MS: Yep, Andrea is Head of Otolaryngology at . . . Hospital now.
Peter Preston: Lucky your family has one serious earner, right, Mike?
MS: Ha, ha!
RS: Still a clown, Peter? PP: Right, Mr. S. Once a clown . . .

Robin Sunderland: How come no one has asked me what I’ve been doing? I’m hurt.

Laurie Moskowitz: Oh, Rob! Everyone knows how successful you are. You’re a big-time fashion editor, right?
RoSu: Not anymore! Now that the nest is empty, the paper has switched me over to Travel. I visit exotic places, and they pay me to write about them.
RS: I think I saw your byline on a piece about Bhutan a year or two ago. It was very good.
RS-L: Why, thank you, sir! That’s like the Pope praising the work of a humble parish priest.
RS: How do you manage to keep traveling in the Covid era, Robin?
RoSu: I don’t. I’ve just been doing follow-up pieces, features that rely on local informants. But I’m seriously thinking of retirement. I mean, I have a nice garden, and I sing in a serious choir. And I’m getting too old to keep up all the travel. By the time the “new normal” kicks in, I may be a hundred-and-ten.
MS: Can’t you get back into fashion, Rob?
RS-L: Are you kidding, Mike! Have you seen what women are wearing these days? Be grateful you’re a man! You can wear the same suits you’ve always worn.
MS: I hate to disillusion you, Rob, but men don’t wear suits, anymore.

So I was almost completely wrong (other than my hunch about Robin and travel). I suppose it was foolish even to try to guess what my students had turned into. Luckily, I hadn’t shared these guesses with anyone! On a more positive note, during the virtual cocktail hour, several former students said my classes had made them lifelong readers.

One interesting highlight of the virtual cocktail party was an actual lawyer’s account of a dream. The lawyer, Mark Rabin, had been a tall, bright, diligent, but quiet student, as I recall. I don’t remember how the alums got onto the subject of dreams -- someone may have had a cocktail too many. Anyway Mark dreamt he was chatting about cars with a famous artist –- Franz Kline, perhap -- and they both waxed eloquent about the 1966 Dodge Dart. After noting the famed Slant Six engine, they proceeded to rhapsodize about something they referred to as the “butterfly carburetor.”

I mention this only because it struck me as strange that anyone would recount a dream about a famous artist and car parts at a class reunion. Perhaps, it was just a form of bragging, like my old theory about Mark Twain’s alter egos, the dog and the preacher.


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