Monday, April 10, 2006

My Most Embarrassing High School Moment

Aircraft Gunnery_Ball Turret

"From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose."
Randall Jarrell, Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

You'd think any girl's most embarrassing high school moment would have something to do with boys or sex or--at the very least--PE. Not mine. My worst high school moment was an academic faux pas. Don't laugh. Even decades later I still cringe at the memory.

To be sure, I had my share of minor humiliations along the bumpy road of early adolescence. The unfortunate "pixie" haircut. The perfectly executed high dive which lowered my bathing suit. The rope climbing incident. The unrequited crush. All pale in comparison to the mortifying Poetry Debacle.

First, some background. I come from a long line of academic and professional achievers. All the way from my grandparents' generation to the present, we're lousy with PhD's, MD's, JD's, MBA's and MA's.

From pre-school through prep school we know we're going to college and to grad school. We're not hounded by flash cards as tots or played classical music in the womb. Instead, from earliest childhood we're lovingly introduced to the power of imagination, words, intellect.

There was no Clifford the Dog in our house. Our bedtime stories were Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. And oh, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women -- my all time favorite. Our mother would read one chapter a night. Which we'd discuss the next day and try to predict what would happen.

Little Women introduced me to literature -- and the wonder of a compelling story. My connection to the March family was so strong that the chapter-a-night rule became agony. So I taught myself to read. And finished the book on my own. I was four years old.

I'm not unique in our family. We're smart, engaged, competitive, curious and accomplished. That's not hubris or elitism. It's the natural outgrowth of a confluence of culture, dedication and genes. And a tradition that stresses educational excellence. Intellectual fulfillment. Personal best.

So it's no wonder I still shiver with embarrassment over my unbelievable gaffe in Miss Pabst's 10th grade Advanced Literature class at The Baldwin School, best of the best. To this day I don't know where my head was, why I spoke before I thought, who spiked my morning cocoa with Idiot Juice.

We were studying poetry. Specifically Randall Jarrell, new to all of us. My first clue should have come when Miss Pabst warned, "This is not Elizabeth Browning, Young Ladies. Nor does it resemble those trashy romantic novels you all love so well. This is about Real Life."

Then she read aloud his poem, Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, quoted above, as we followed in our books. The title alone should have been my second clue. The words themselves should have clinched it.

But I wasn't paying attention. And I certainly wasn't thinking. So when Miss Pabst asked me, one of her shining lights, for my impression of the poem I winged it. I said (God, how I hate this, even now), "I think it's sweet. And sad that little guy left his mother."

Sweet? The agonizing death of a WWII soldier?

Dead silence in the classroom. Then a few nervous twitters. Miss Pabst's face frozen in shock. Turning red before my eyes. And finally, twelve 15-year-old girls exploding with laughter as I quickly reread the poem and grasped the enormous stupidity of my bluff.

Here's my paltry defense. I didn't know that a ball turret was an attachment to the rear of a B-17 bomber. Or that ball turret gunners were the soldiers who squatted painfully in that small space, manning machine guns to protect the plane during its bombing runs.

Plus, I was a city girl. The only animal life in our neighborhood--aside from the ubiquitous fancy dogs--were squirrels. Dirty balls of fur. I saw the words "mother's sleep," "wet fur" and "washed me out" -- and made the leap. Down a rabbit hole.

Death of a Ball Turret Gunner is a small poem encompassing a huge idea. Every one of Jarrell's words was meticulously chosen to convey the visceral and impersonal horror of war.

Regardless of my own knowledge--or lack of it--had I shown respect for those words, I would have learned from them. And spared myself the humiliation of trivializing a fiercely important anthem to peace.

I had other high school moments. My slip fell off at the prom, for example. (I just stepped out of it and continued dancing, leaving it on the floor with--I hoped--no connection to its owner.) But that's not nearly as shameful a memory. At least not to me.

It's been years since I thought about the Poetry Debacle. Thank you, Jesse. Not for calling up my most embarrassing high school moment. But for reminding me that the written word has power beyond imagination. And that war is hell.

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Blogger Dwight said...

Hmmm. My HS Teacher's Subject Take on the Poem was Abortion. Just found your Blog watching the Scroll-by at You're a good read.

Dwight (Mission Viejo, CA)

9:07 AM  
Blogger MamaQ said...

You know, I know this won't make you feel any better, but ... in English class in high school we were doing Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" and a kid in the class said he thought the poem's narrator was Santa Claus.
The poor kid. He's probably forgotten all about it, but all these years later I feel bad for laughing at him. How pathetic and bitchy is that?

4:57 PM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

Don't feel bad for laughing, I laughed reading about it... plus you were kids, fer cryin out loud.

I'd feel bad for the guy if he still thinks the same thing as a grown man.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you have the right interpretation on it. When I read it in high school all I could see was the literal. The guy in the gunners seat. But when my teacher mentioned the abortion aspect of it I immediately understood what it was saying. You shouldnt have been embarrased to see a deeper meaning to the poem than most everyone else...

1:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trust me... I hav done way worse.
I also need some advice.
On friday, My english teacher told me to write some things in my book.
But that night when i got home, I relised that i had left my book in my locker.
Now i dont know what to tell the teacher. And i cant do it before that class because i also fogot what top write!
Please help!!
Thnx and great story!! xxoo

2:51 AM  

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