Brooklyn Boro

The Teenage Years

April 5, 2021 William A. Gralnick

Take a breath, go to the bathroom, this article is longer than most. So too seemed being a teenager.

Aside from school, the life of an average teenager revolves around girls and pizza. As a colleague of mine who was a child psychiatrist once said, “Normal teenagers are abnormal.” Think on that a bit.

In my family, grades were gods, but in my head, girls were goddesses. Then came, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” And while it has been said that “all mothers are Jewish mothers,” the Jewish mothers of America were ground zero for the book. My mother, who was always trying to have Kennedy-esque discussions at dinner was one of the book’s first readers in our neighborhood. She started—and ended—one dinner discussion thusly: “Have either of you read this Portnoy’s Complaint thing?” My brother piped up instantaneously, “Read it—I’m living it!” I burst out laughing, thinking of my own special sweat sock hidden away upstairs. My mother turned crimson, stood bolt upright, began erupting, and dinner was over. Only my father, seemingly oblivious to the torrents of emotion raining down around him, continued eating. He hadn’t read the book.

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They ended at 17. Why 17? I guess because I changed environment. However if you want Abnormality Redux you’ll pick up my next opus. It starts with stories just like I’ve been writing for you for a while now except the they grow older as do I and take place in Washington, DC. It is tentatively titled, “And George Washington Didn’t Sleep Here Either.” 

Getting Ready for College

For about 18 months, mid 15 to 17 years of age, I was a very unhappy puppy. My older brother, rock and at times savior as well as gleeful tormentor, had left the house. I don’t recall if it was the army first and then college or vice versa. What was important was that I felt like a quarterback whose line decided to leave the field right after the ball was snapped. My mother was getting sicker and sicker from alcoholism and drugs, drugs that theoretically were to deal with what made her drink, but in fact enhanced the impact of that drinking. Lacking her favorite target, she had only me to direct her ire at. My father became more and more withdrawn from the troubles in the house. Two of my close friends had transferred to Adelphi Academy and I saw them less frequently. The girls I pined over wanted to be friends. The girls I wanted to be friends with pined over me. I had a wonderful internship with a veterinarian who thought I was such a natural he was going to support my entry into Cornell, then vet school, and bring me into his practice—until I had an overwhelming allergy attack to cats. How many of you can say you lost a career at 16? 

It was all very confusing and frankly, for me, school was my best friend. It was someplace to go where I was appreciated and did well. Even though I got cut from the basketball team, didn’t make the baseball team, and got my nose broken on the first game of the soccer season, I was still co-captain of the rifle team, had my own gun, and was universally liked by my teachers. I was running an A- average, prospects for college looked good.

Only standing between me and the fulfilling of promise were the dreaded college boards. I took the PSAT’s. While I didn’t do terribly, they showed I was not good at standardized testing. Of course, I was enrolled in prep course. Came the fatal day, I was assigned to a high school far from my own. I felt nervous and isolated. My results showed it. In fact they showed that maybe I shouldn’t go to college at all. In math, my weakest subject, I got a 408 out of I forget what, 800 I think. In English, my best subject I barely broke 500. The saving grace was that in those days there were afternoon “achievement” tests in which you could choose to be tested in two, maybe 3 subjects. While I didn’t knock anyone’s socks off with the scores, my answers to questions based on fact not theory were more promising, high 500’s and 600’s. To say the results didn’t exactly change the mood in the household would be an understatement, way under.

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Then something really confusing happened. I had also taken the New York State Scholarship exam and damned if I didn’t do so well that I won one. I could go tuition free to any school anywhere in the state. 

Sometimes when a hole is dug in one’s life it gets filled. Feeling shovel-less facing my holes without my brother, God sent me someone with a shovel. Dr. Lindsey Perkins was a neighbor, a minister, and a professor at Brooklyn College. He stopped me one day to ask how things were going with college. It was like lancing a boil. My parents had offered me a deal. If I went to Brooklyn College, literally across the street from my high school, I could live at home and have a car, so long of course, as my grades held up. I knew living at home was a bad idea. Dr. Perkins agreed, but for a much wiser reason.

“Son,” he said in his mild southern drawl, “half of what you learn in college you learn outside of the classroom. If you go to Brooklyn you get a good education, but you’ll be going with the same kids you went to high school with even if they have different names.” I knew what he meant. Brooklyn College would become sort of AP high school. Once I got to college, The George Washing University in Washington, DC, and realized his wisdom had saved my life, I considered constructing an alter to him in my dorm room. Best of all, years later I was able to thank him.

Back at 12 Waldorf Court began the filling out of applications. I wanted to go to Michigan, a revered cousin was a graduate. Michigan loved Midwood students and took a lot of them. But as luck would have it, the class before mine sent a record number of kids to Michigan. This time Michigan had chosen poorly. Several of the students got involved in a cheating scandal, and my year’s class was blackballed. They would take no one.

Then I lost my seat at Rutgers to a football player. My mother was a graduate and her aunt a huge donor. But as a state school they had an absolute number of out of state kids they could take and they needed an all-star right guard more than a skinny, Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

For reasons that make no sense to this day, I applied to Harvard. They didn’t laugh, nor did they accept me. I still have the rejection letter.

In the middle of this assault on my self-worth, my mother sat me down for a talk. It was at the zenith of what the Irish called “the troubles” between us. She was trying to make a peace overture; I was having none of it. Her peace overture? A simple question: “Where would you really like to go to school?” My response? “The University of Hawaii.” Her response? “We could afford to send you, but we couldn’t afford to bring you home (a joke).” My response? “It’s a deal!” In a nano-second, I was on the floor. She had slapped me so hard across the face that it literally knocked me out of my chair. So much for peace.

The father of our country, or the university established in his name, came to the rescue. They were interested in me, but because of my board scores they would require an interview. Dr. Perkins urged me to go for it and prepped me. It was the dead of winter, so cold that the inside of the Greyhound Bus was cold. I was wearing a gray wool suit, so heavy it probably weighed as much as I did. I get to school and am ushered into a room and offered a wooden chair in which to sit, a chair whose open slated back pushed up against a steam radiator that was pumping out steam like John Henry was shoveling coal into its furnace.

As the introductions began I felt a bead of sweat form just below my collar and slowly, ever so slowly, roll down my neck, fixing itself in the track of my spine, and then wandering down to my belt. Came another, then more, until I could feel my undershirt begin sticking to my back, and then my shirt, where it met an impenetrable wall of wool, stuck too. It was miserably uncomfortable. I don’t think put under hypnosis I could recall who interviewed me, what they asked, or what I answered. I left beyond depressed. Yet somehow I was still in God’s circle of protected children because two weeks later I got “the letter.” I was in! I remember opening the letter, yelling to anyone and realizing no one was home. I ran out onto the street yelling to anyone and realized none of my friends were outside. But that didn’t change what it said in the letter. A university actually wanted me.

Life would begin again — along with another book.


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