When Boys Swam Nude in Public High Schools: UPDATE

The experience still haunts men. Older men. They had to swim in the nude in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere around the country.

I wrote about the psychological effects here: When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public High Schools. If you don’t think such trials should have made such a difference to those teens, then why have about 20,000 thousand people read my post, not to mention other posts on other sites?

Boys searched for reasons to get excused from swimming. They suffered distress over psoriasis or sundry obvious “defects.” Shame, bullying, and potential arousal at the wrong moment were inevitable; especially anything that might betray a homosexual inclination (long before the word gay meant men who favored other men).

Today, however, I want to answer a question I could not in 2014, when I wrote the post linked above: how did such a practice begin?

According to WBEZ Radio’s Monica Eng:

The country was … obsessed with fighting disease and promoting personal hygiene, which in the 1920s, was also associated with “good morals.”  Health officials worried that allowing potentially dirty fabrics into public pools could introduce germs, and bacteria-killing pool chlorination had still not been perfected.

Plus, at the time, swimming pools had fairly primitive filters that could easily be clogged by fabric fibers from swimsuits, which were made of cotton and wool – yes wool.

So, in an effort to minimize bacteria, keep pool filters from clogging and ensure male swimmers were clean, the American Public Health Association (APHA) recommended the following in their 1926 standards handbook:

Those recommendations, nothing more, turned the tide (pun intended) as one school system imitated another and made the practice compulsory. Thus, we have another example of the often observed human tendency to cause unintended side-effects growing out of an effort to make the world a bit better.

Read or listen to the whole story as reported by Monica Eng here: Why Boys Swam Naked.

How Important is “A Room of One’s Own?”

poor schools

How many of you, I wonder, have a room of your own? Most, I would guess, but that doesn’t mean that everyone does; certainly not in the current economy. And what is life like if you don’t have such a place where you can retreat from the world, be silent, think, read, write, watch TV, go on the computer, or do whatever you want?

Virginia Woolf, the great English author, presumably thought it desperately important, especially for women. I will take only a moment of your time to think about a few of the ideas she expresses in her short fictionalized essay/novel, A Room of One’s Own, published in 1928. Her book was written nine years after English women won the right to vote.

The essentials that the book’s narrator believes to be required for the life of a writer are a room of one’s own (with a lock that you control) and the equivalent of $33,283 dollars per year. The actual amount she names is 500 pounds in UK currency, but I’ve converted it to 2014 U.S. dollars. That precise number isn’t crucial. She — Woolf’s character — is trying to name a figure that will make you sufficiently independent to have the intellectual freedom to do some serious writing.

Woolf anticipated some criticism of these ideas. Here is one that might have occurred to you already:

…I think you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men.

Woolf then looks to a man to defend her position, one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a famed literary critic of the day and the author of On the Art of Writing (1916). He begins by naming 12 famous English poets of the last 100 years. He continues:

Of these, all but Keats, Browning (and) Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do. It may be a brutal thing to say and a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius (is to be found) equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those 12 were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. As a matter of hard fact, of the remaining three you know that Browning was well to do, and I challenge you that, if he had not been well to do, he would (not have succeeded as a writer)…

Quiller-Couch goes on to describe poor, but talented writers who became psychologically troubled out of their frustration or committed suicide. Then comes his powerhouse conclusion:

…It is — however dishonoring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for 200 years, a dog’s chance. Believe me — and I have spent a great part of 10 years in watching some 320 elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

Money = intellectual freedom. Usually only with enough money do you automatically have the time and space and opportunity to “think” about something other than how you will receive your next meal and who you must answer to in order to earn it. That is the belief both of Woolf and Quiller-Couch. Woolf also confronts the historical “belief” that women were incapable of serious thought and inferior to men in almost every other important way.

Yet we live in a more liberated time you might say. My answer to that would be to ask you to realize that Quiller-Couch is referring only to men. Moreover, I have seen yearly one such school of the kind I believe he is describing, although it is not an elementary school. Chicago’s Mather Public High School is my alma mater, much changed from 1964 when I graduated. The poverty induced stress in the homes of many of Mather’s students is heartbreaking.

We know this from talking to these kids, reading their personal essays, conversations with their teachers, and reading the letters of recommendation written by those instructors. We know that by age 16, at least for some of them, they have already been so discouraged by their circumstances that they believe the “American Dream” does not apply to their lives. Indeed, we know that many of the friends of the best students tell them that their academic hopes and career ambitions are unrealistic.

As some of you have read on my blog, my graduating class created and has supported the Zeolite Scholarship Fund for 15 years, to give some of these poor kids better than “a dog’s chance” to receive an education and make a good living sufficient to the intellectual freedom that has been described here — the education needed to get a job that allows you to rent or buy the room and the lock and create an atmosphere conducive to serious thought.

As Quiller-Couch said of the England he knew, it is “dishonoring to us as a nation,” in the USA, that his words apply to our time and place as they did in his. I know there are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean one should wait for someone else to do something. It could be tutoring, mentoring, donating money for books or scholarships, or becoming a teacher yourself. It could mean voting for those who have some good ideas about how to change the situation or running for office yourself. Many other actions — governmental, social, educational, and nutritional — are possible.

Nor is this simply a matter of dishonor or unfairness. It is a waste of young lives, plain and simple, some of whom would benefit the world given the right conditions.

My suggestion? Start by visiting a public school in a poor neighborhood. Unfortunately, they are very easy to find.

When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public Schools

swimmingnude

At a time when teens expose lots of flesh, it will probably surprise a few of you that high school boys used to swim in the nude when everyone else was much more “covered-up” than today. That practice happened in many places, but it was routine in the (CPS) Chicago Public High Schools in the middle of the last century. Research suggests it stopped at some time in the 1970s, but this post isn’t about how long it lasted. It is about the effect on those of us who lived the experience.

The privacy concerns of today were then unknown. Social Security numbers that would open the door to identity theft in 2014 were unprotected by most people 50 years ago. So, too, were the nude bodies of teen males from about age 13 to 18. It was part of what was called physical education (PE), but the lessons of this particular class were perverse.

We followed orders. We didn’t question it the way one might today. Our fathers, many of whom had been subjected to the same expectation, didn’t ask about it either. I don’t remember having any conversations with my folks or my friends, the latter until many years later. Then the injured skeletons finally popped out of the pool closet.

Organized nude male exercise dates as far back as Ancient Greece. Socrates talks about it in Plato’s Republic and even suggests at one point that male and female potential “guardians” of one’s ideal municipality should be required to work out together buff naked! At least nothing like that happened at Mather High School or elsewhere in the CPS system. Physical education wasn’t co-ed. The young ladies wore unattractive “tank suits” covering crucial parts. Males alone followed the drill sans a bathing suit and did so out of the sight of anyone but their classmates and the teacher.

Believe me, for some people I knew, just standing around nude in the confines of a cold swimming area was bad enough without an audience. Let’s start with the fact that you’d just come out of a shower warmer than the air and water in the “pool room.” The swimming area was tiled. Sitting at pool’s edge or on tile benches always felt like squatting on blocks of ice. Teeth chattered. That was just the start.

Once fully in the water, of course, brought relief from the ease with which others could inspect your “equipment.” There were always some kids who were “advanced” in this department. Others could rightfully have been called “developmentally delayed” in terms of secondary sexual characteristics like pubic hair. There were size differences, too. Comparisons were both inevitable and impossible to avoid, although most of the boys tried to be discreet about it.

Embarrassment came to those targeted by bullies, as their successors surely do today too, especially from the “big guys” who had no problem in any area of growth and enjoyed a little sadism. Mocking occurred, egos crumbled like cookies. These were the stories uttered for the first time (in my non-professional experience) by classmates I saw at the 40th Class Reunion. For a few, the memories remained painful. Young men are enormously insecure in the sexual development and attractiveness department. An entire class devoted to seeing nude bodies of your classmates could only turn out badly for some.

I wonder what the teachers were thinking, not to mention the school administrators who sanctioned this practice. I’ve heard it said that some claimed it was a matter of cleanliness. Or perhaps, somewhere way back, someone had read about Ancient Greek physical ed. and thought it sounded great. “It will make men out of them, maybe even the next Achilles” he must have been thinking.

The eventual decision to require swim trunks might have been the result of increasing concerns over discrimination bubbling up in the 50’s and ’60s about other things, notably race and eventually gender bias. Since only the boys had to swim nude, it was the male gender being disadvantaged. I really don’t know with certainty why the course changed. Surely it didn’t end all at once everywhere that it was happening in the USA.

Nor must anyone who required male nudity have considered the excruciating circumstance it must have created for gay teens at a time before the word “gay” meant anything but being jolly — when custom permitted more pejorative and degrading names for those kids with a predilection for same-sex relationships. And remember, teen-aged boys have enormous difficulty controlling the automatic arousal that can happen anytime, anywhere.

That reminds me of Mae West, a femme fatale of early talking movies. She commented to an attractive male, “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” But I’ll tell you from personal experience that erections often happen to 16-year-old males at the most inopportune moments. I find it rather ironic, in light of the overwhelming number of commercials for middle-aged men with problems of sexual performance these days.

To end, here’s  a story I was told by someone who saw it happen in another CPS swim class. Doubtless it wasn’t the only one of its kind. The teacher wanted someone to demonstrate the back float. The first couple of kids were chosen at random, but couldn’t manage the task, frustrating the instructor. “Hey Murray, you’re the finest swimmer here, show these guys how it’s  done,” he finally barked. Murray tried his stalwart best and did, indeed, display the ideal back float form for the 30 or so fellow-students assembled around him.

There was only one problem for good-old Murray. In the middle of everything, the poor Murray-meister had an erection that popped up like the opening of a switchblade, automatic knife. No sooner did it appear, than one of the class wags yelled out, “Up periscope, Murray!”

For an update on the reasons nude male swimming became mandatory, please read: When Boys Swam Nude in Chicago Public High Schools: Update.

Honoring Jim Lustig: Speech on Behalf of the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

Most of you now know that the Zeolites, our 1963/64 high school park district softball team, had a reunion on January 1, 2000. But there were just a few people who knew about it from the start. The adjacent lunch table in Chicago’s Mather High School cafeteria included female friends who’d been told of our plan back in 1963, the year that the idea was hatched: to meet on the front steps of the Museum of Science and Industry in 37 years time. That group included Carolyn and Cathy Bell, Olivia Wasserman, and Judy Maloff.

We got back in touch with them in late 1999 as the reunion day approached, and later let them know that the Culligan Corporation was giving us a grant of $2000 to create something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund. Some of them even sent us money in support of the project. But, before too long I got an email out of the blue from a man who probably had never heard of the Zeolites and whom I hadn’t seen since 1965. He’d been told about our college scholarship philanthropy for graduating Mather seniors by Carolyn Bell and contacted me to ask if he could help. Soon thereafter we received a very large check from him, one of many that were to follow. To date, he has contributed nearly $5000 to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, making him our third largest individual contributor. The two guys ahead of him, as you might expect, are Zeolites.

In the 12 years of our existence, that is the only time we received money from someone we didn’t solicit and whom we hadn’t told what we were doing; someone who just happened to hear about us and thought giving money to the project was a good idea. That someone is Jim Lustig, and the story I’ve just related tells you as much as you need to know about the behavioral definition of the word generosity.

Of course, Jim is a University of Chicago Medical School graduate and a highly respected pediatrician. I could tell you much more about his professional accomplishments* — about the recognition he has earned, what he has written and what he has done — but our attachment to Jim is more personal than that. At least four members of the Zeolite Scholarship Committee have gone to him with our own medical concerns or seeking advice about a loved one. Jim is always there, always helpful. Sue Leff Ginsburg will tell you a little bit about her contact with Jim. Then I will say a few more words.

Left to right: Barbara Orloff Litt, Pat McAvoy, Sue Leff Ginsburg, Jan Kozin Gordon, and Joan Lustig

Sue Leff Ginsburg:

In 2006, when our high school graduating class had its first “mini-reunion” dinner at Via Veneto, I was sitting next to Gerry telling the story of my new granddaughter, who was a preemie (premature birth) and wouldn’t eat. My daughter and son-in-law could not find a doctor here who could help and they were so worried and frustrated.  Gerry suggested I ask Jim’s advice, as he was a pediatrician. Now, I knew Jim in high school, he was an acquaintance. So I made my way to his table and started picking his brain. In his very calming, comforting tone, he informed me of the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital and their eating clinic.  My daughter, with Jim’s direction, was able to find doctors who not only had dealt with this before, but had a proven plan to solve it.  Not only did Jim calm two worried parents and a crazed grandmother, but in the process, I made two wonderful friends in Jim and Joan, Jim’s wife.

Thank you, Sue. All of us who have consulted Jim have had the kind of experience Sue just described. To me, Jim is the embodiment of the best qualities of a physician as they were represented on TV and in the movies back when we were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s: someone who is very smart, someone who is very experienced, someone who is calmly reassuring — quietly confident; someone who you know will do everything that is required to make sure that things turn out well.

Jim is the guy you want in your corner. He is the guy you want on your team, whether it is your softball team, your scholarship team, or your medical team. In a difficult moment, he is the person you want by your side any day and every day, any week and every week, any season and every season.

And so, Jim, we have an engraving for you. It reads as follows:

JIM LUSTIG

“A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”

FROM THE MATHER CLASS OF 1964/65 AND THE ZEOLITES

MAY 4, 2012

But there’s more, as they say on TV. Last year some of you will recall that I gave you a short German history lesson, or at least, a history of the Zeolites in German class at Mather High School. Jim was there in German class, along with most of the Zeolites, and people like Bob Ferencz and Michael Kaplan. As I said last year, after four years of German study we’d learned, perhaps, only 10 words; and seven of those words were swear words! But happily, one of those words has to do with Jim! No, not one of the swear words.

The word is “lustig,” which means cheerful or jolly. Now, my guess is, that it is not every day, Jim, when someone comes up to you, slaps you on the back, and says, “You know, Jim, you are a ‘jolly good fellow.'” But, today isn’t every day and we are about to do just that. So, all of you, please join me in paying tribute to our good friend Jim, by singing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

The top photo is Jim Lustig. In the second photo, left to right, are Barbara Orloff Litt, Pat McAvoy, Sue Leff Ginsburg, Jan Kozin Gordon, and Joan Lustig (Jim’s wife). These pictures were taken at the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 “Mini-Reunion” Dinner at Sabatino’s Restaurant on May 4, 2012. They come to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund courtesy of Michael Kaplan.

*Jim is the Program Director, Asthma/Allergy of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. He is also Professor of Pediatrics (Allergy/Immunology), Medical College of Wisconsin and Member, Children’s Specialty Group.

Of Teachers, Tests, and the Luck of the Draw(ing)

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As the old saying goes, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

But sometimes, being good helps a little in determining whether you get lucky.

Now, you wouldn’t think that luck would be an important variable at M.I.T. But the human equation is almost always in play, even in that citadel of rationality and even on a physics test.

The year was 1965. The class was Physics 8.02, the second semester of freshman physics, a course required of all 900 new students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barely 40 of these young people were women.

As the only National Merit Scholar from Stephen Tyng Mather High School on Chicago’s North Side, you’d have thought that a first year college physics test wouldn’t have presented a problem for Rich Adelstein. But then, you probably haven’t been to M.I.T. As Rich remembers it, the school was a brutal place for those who were not succeeding.

He was succeeding, but barely. He hoped to be on the Dean’s List for the term, but needed at least a C as a final grade in physics to get there. Unfortunately, he’d also begun to get the feeling that he wasn’t quite the scientist that some of his classmates were, but maybe more interested in things like history.

Yet science was what mattered at M.I.T; anything else and people didn’t give you the time of day — didn’t really respect you. These were the sort of kids who, just by a look, let you know that “I can do something really hard and you can’t.”

The culture of excellence, in other words, could be crushing as well as inspiring. The accomplishments of faculty members intimidated you into jaw-dropping awe. And Rich had already heard of suicides occurring at the school. Had the pressure to achieve at the highest level gotten to these students?

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An important test was coming up on Friday morning at 9 AM toward the end of the first year. Rich had done his best to study for it, but had the distinct impression that most everyone else was better prepared than he was. And, as he entered the large exam room, where 300 of his classmates would be tested, he felt a little like a man hanging on to a slippery ledge — just beginning to lose his grip.

Rich’s group was in a brightly lit armory, while the remaining 600 examinees were divided between two other locations, all enduring the same event at just the same moment. Sitting there nervously, he waited for the proctor to pass him the blue book on which he would write his answers, and then the test itself.

The first question had to do with “Coriolis forces,” named after the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis. But it might as well have been in French, a language Rich didn’t know. He read it, he thought about it, and he knew that he had no idea how to get to the correct answer. “Oh, crap,” he thought to himself, while the anxiety thermometer inside of him started to climb from its already elevated state.

Second question. Again, no idea — just a feeling of being hopeless and helpless. Everyone else seemed to be working industriously, writing away. But Rich’s blue book was still blank and a state of panic-induced “brain-lock” was descending upon him. Rich had never — never ever — failed an exam. Would this be the first?

“I’ve got to get a grip on myself,” Rich thought. “I’m starting to come apart. I’ve got to calm down in order to have any chance of passing this.”

And then, an inspiration. “I’ll draw for a bit. That will calm me down.”

And so it was that our hero began to sketch a three-masted sailing ship, like the one at the top of the page.

Little by little, drawing was doing the job. Rich was “in the zone,” captured by the task he had set for himself, something he could do well and that began to soothe the whirlpool of feelings inside that made it hard to think.

Unfortunately, however, he had not accounted for everything.

“Times up! Hand in your blue books!” announced the proctor in charge. Rich had lost track of the clock. And all he had to show for an hour-long physics test was a picture of a ship.

Rich signed his name to the book and passed it on to the proctor. He didn’t want anyone to think that he’d simply blown-off the test and not even come to the exam room.

There was only one possible way to deal with this. In a state of disoriented numbness, like the survivor of a train wreck, he walked out of the armory in a fog of surreal devastation and went directly to his professor’s office, the man who taught his section of the course as his “recitation instructor.” One Nathaniel H. Frank.

Dr. Frank was then a man of about 60, until recently the head of the physics department, a person particularly respected for his leadership in revising high school physics curricula throughout the country. During World War II, he had worked at the M.I.T Radiation Laboratory. Indeed, it was in that place that radar was developed.

Frank was not just a well-known scientist, but someone who cared deeply about education. Himself a graduate of M.I.T, he was short and stocky; had a full head of wavy, graying hair; and wore glasses.

The academician had been teaching just about 40 years when he first encountered Richard P. Adelstein.

Rich did the only thing he could think of doing. He told Dr. Frank that he had just come from the armory ordeal. Rich related his panic, his attempt to calm himself, and the fact that time had gotten away from him.

He did not want the scientist to think that he was trying to be disrespectful by drawing a boat; nor did he ask for or expect a second chance at the test. Rich simply hoped to make Dr. Frank understand that he took the course seriously, but, somehow what was left at the end of the hour was only a sketch.

“Well, don’t worry about it now,” the teacher said in reply. “Let’s just see what happens when we grade the exams.”

Then Frank gave the young man a grandfatherly smile. The kind of smile that an old man gives to a young man when he has seen many such students — earnest and terrified — all feeling as if the world is coming to an end; and, when he can tell which of them are sincere and which of them are just jerks.

“Let’s see what happens?” Rich thought to himself. “I know what is going to happen. I’m going to get a zero! This isn’t good. I took a physics test and I turned in a picture of a boat!”

But Rich kept all this to himself. Soon he was walking back to his Baker House dorm, and a room that now seemed like a cell on death row.

The weekend was miserable. Waiting is a terrible thing when you can see the ax that is soon to fall on your neck. Sleep was difficult, each daytime second gruesome. Monday and the end to the calamity, whatever it might be, couldn’t come soon enough.

Monday did arrive, finally. Perfect scores on tests were exceedingly uncommon at M.I.T. Indeed, exams were graded on a curve. As Rich sat in the classroom, he looked at the grade equivalents that the professor was putting on the black board. The highest scores fell short of perfect, but there were actually lots of poor scores that were still good enough to pass, with 30 being the lowest grade that permitted a D.

Below 30 and you failed.

In due time the blue books were handed out. Rich was beginning to be resigned to his fate. He would certainly fail with a zero, he thought to himself. But, at least, he’d be 30 points from a passing grade on the exam, not nearly as far from a D as he feared. If only he could have obtained a 30, however, the chance of getting a C as a final grade in the course might still have been within reach and allowed him to get on the Dean’s List.

He forced himself to look at his blue book.

Twenty-nine.

He rubbed his eyes.

It still said 29.

“There must be some error here,” he said to himself. And then, once again, the same recurring idea: “I just took a physics test and turned in a sail boat picture! This can’t possibly be right.”

When the class ended Rich made another death march to the office of Dr. Frank.

“Professor, I think there was some mistake on the grade I got. The blue book was marked with a 29.”

“Oh, no, young man, there was no mistake,” said Professor Frank while looking at Rich warmly.

“How can that be?” asked Rich.

“Well,” said the good doctor, “that was by far the best picture of a sail boat on any of the exams.”

And, in that moment, Rich felt the small breeze — the puff of air — that one feels when one of life’s little bullets whizzes past harmlessly, narrowly missing its mark.

One has “dodged a bullet,” as the saying goes.

Richard Adelstein, Faculty Mentor

Of course, it was not really “the best picture of a sail boat,” but the only such drawing that anyone turned in. This was simply the professor’s funny way of saying that there was no mistake here — of letting young Rich know that the world hadn’t ended, that the sun would rise tomorrow giving him another day to prove himself; that he understood that “things happen” even to the best of us.

He was a man, after all, who knew first hand what it was like to be a freshman at M.I.T.

And Rich did get a C for the course and did make the Dean’s List.

You should also know that this is a story that Rich, now himself a college professor at Wesleyan University, retells from time to time, when he sees a similarly lost student, terrified but earnest, worried that his whole future is about to go under water for the last time, and makes the same judgment that Dr. Frank did in 1965.

And in so doing, throws the young person a life buoy from the imaginary ship that almost sunk him, but ended up saving him 46 years ago; the ship commanded by Nathaniel H. Frank.

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If you’d like to read a rather different story about Rich Adelstein, please see: The Long Road to Becoming Rich.

The top photo is a Naval Ship of Brazil Taken by the Brazilian Navy, followed by an Image of the Dome at the M.I.T. Campus by Fcb981 (edited by Thermos); both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of Dr. Nathaniel Frank comes from http://www.webmuseum.mit.edu/ The picture of Dr. Richard Adelstein that follows it is sourced from http://www.wesleyan.edu/ The final image is a Life Buoy, by Shirley, also from Wikimedia Commons.

In Honor of Jay Perman: Speech to the Mather High School Class of 2011 on Behalf of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

Jay A. Perman

It isn’t very often in life that you meet someone who does good and who is good. But today, you will get a chance to meet such a man and it will be in his name that we will make scholarship awards to a few of you.

He is a leader who does not glory in his leadership. He is a healer who works for the good of his patients and for the common good as the head of a great university. And he is a friend who has not forgotten his old friends.

The man is Dr. Jay Perman and all of us up here and in the first two rows are proud to say that we were his classmates.

Here at Mather.

Forty-seven years ago.

Not exactly yesterday.

All of us represent the Zeolite Scholarship Fund and graduated from Mather in June of 1964 or January of 1965.

Like you, most of us didn’t have very much money.

Like you, most of us had parents or grandparents who came here from another country.

And like you, most of us were more than a little unsure of what was possible for us in the future.

Jay’s parents came to Chicago from 5000 miles away in Eastern Europe and struggled to make ends meet. When Jay was in his first year in high school his father died. Thereafter, Jay’s mom supported the family by working as a seamstress, paid by the number of hats she completed in a day.

Jay is probably the only Mather graduate in history to become the President of a major university, in Jay’s case, the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

That school is about 700 miles east of Mather. But the interesting thing is, that in order to go from being a student at Mather to becoming the President of the University of Maryland, you have to travel an even greater distance.

It is not like the distance of an airplane flight from here to there.

It is not like the distance that Jay’s parents traveled from the Ukraine to Chicago.

Rather, it is the distance in here (your head), between where you are now and what you can imagine might be possible in your future.

And it is the distance in here (your heart), when you set your heart’s aim on what seems like an impossibly far away goal and give everything you have to achieve it.

It is easy, too easy for you sitting in this auditorium, to think that nothing very special will be possible for you.

It is easy, too easy, to think about the difficult economic conditions that prevail in the world today, and wonder if you will even be able to make a living.

In other words, it is easy to give up — too soon.

Let me tell you a story about that.

Two shoe salesmen were sent to Africa about 100 years ago by two different British shoe companies. Back then, Africa was a very primitive place and these men were sent to the most primitive parts of it.

The salesman from the first company wrote back to his home office in despair: “SITUATION HOPELESS. PEOPLE DON’T WEAR SHOES HERE!”

The second salesman also contacted his office, but his message was rather different: “GLORIOUS OPPORTUNITY. THE PEOPLE HERE DON’T HAVE SHOES YET!”

The point is, sometimes things depend on how you look at them.

If, like Jay Perman, you have talent, courage, and the imagination to see what might be possible for you, then, just maybe, you can become a pediatrician, as Jay is, and eventually a university president.

Sometimes thinking it is possible, makes it possible.

All of us here are waiting, putting some of our money in the form of scholarship awards for a few of you, betting on the possibility that you will do something both great — and good.

And if you do, your classmates will be as proud of you as we are… of Jay Perman.

The photo of Dr. Jay Perman above is sourced from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.