Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or is it the other way around?)

Yearbook photo

My parents and I were at Seniors, a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, to celebrate my high school graduation. The ceremony was earlier in the day. I started to say, “I feel really bad…” and my dad threw down his fork. “Don’t!” he said, “We’re celebrating your graduation. You have nothing to be sad about!”

“But…” I started to explain, but the look on his face shut me down. I fought back tears and concentrated on the food on my plate.

The end of high school was a strange time for me. I was so unhappy and lonely in junior high school and came to Canarsie High School feeling like an outcast. I was terribly insecure, between my eyes, my weight and general self-consciousness, I began high school in a hole. Things did turn around, but not like in a fairy tale or Hollywood movie. The ugly duckling didn’t emerge as a swan and float off happily ever after. Painstakingly, over the course of the three years, I dug myself out.

I started by joining some activities. I was in the chorus of Sing, a school show of sorts. I connected with some of the girls who stood near me in the alto section during rehearsals (some were friends from elementary school who went to a different junior high). I still had trouble knowing how to extend the friendships beyond the rehearsal, but I was making progress.

Sing senior year (1976). I am the last person in the last row on the right (picture from our yearbook).

I tried out and made the girls basketball team. We were God-awful, except for one or two players, but I loved basketball and I was happy to be part of the team.

I wrote for the Canarsie Campus, the school newspaper, and by senior year I was the editor-in-chief. I started out doing okay in my classes and by the senior year, I was doing really well. The trajectory was headed in the right direction. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates and had my picture, along with Alan Schick, in the yearbook commemorating the designation. I both enjoyed the attention and felt disconnected from it. Inside I still felt like the girl who sat in the junior high school cafeteria eating lunch alone, worried that I would be the target of teasing.

So, in June of 1976, I was in a much better place than in September 1973 when I entered high school. But, my newly formed self-esteem was still pretty fragile, and oddly enough the graduation ceremony itself delivered a major blow.

Canarsie High School held its graduation at the Loew’s Kings Theater in Flatbush, a huge old-time movie theater with some 3000 seats and ornate plaster walls. With more than 750 graduating seniors (there were more like 1100 students in the senior class, but the rest didn’t qualify to graduate) and their families, the high school auditorium couldn’t accommodate it.

I don’t remember who from my family came. My Dad drove our monster-size Chevy Impala, with my Mom and me (and perhaps others – it’s possible that Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were there), and dropped me off to gather with the graduates. They went to find parking.

Some students were invited to sit on the stage, those who were speaking, receiving an award or performing. I was receiving an award so I marched in and climbed up on the stage with maybe 30 other students. I was told beforehand that I would receive the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award, given in honor of Canarsie’s beloved representative to the New York City Council who unexpectedly died a year earlier. I didn’t know why I was being given the award, but I took my seat on stage and took in my surroundings.

The stage was huge; the whole theater was huge. I looked out and searched among the thousands of faces for my mother. I couldn’t spot her. My dad, who had been a dean at Canarsie High School but left to become chair of the social studies department at another city high school two years before, was invited to sit on the stage, too. He was seated on the other side with faculty and other dignitaries. I couldn’t see him either.

The ceremony proceeded in the usual way. Eventually they got to the presentation of awards. I heard our principal, Mr. Rosenman, announce the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award and I started to make my way to the front of the stage. Mr. Rosenman was saying something like, “Linda virtually single-handedly put together the school newspaper, without a faculty advisor and with very little funding.” I was standing next to him, smiling, one hand extended to receive the award and the other hand extended to shake his, when someone screamed out, “That’s not true!!” Despite the crowd, unfortunately at that moment it was pretty quiet in the theater.

I looked around, wondering, did that just happen?! Though the comment wasn’t repeated, I knew what I heard. It rang clear as a bell, echoing in my ears, “That’s not true!!” Mr. Rosenman paused briefly and then continued on as if nothing had happened. Finally I took the envelope with the award and found my way back to my seat on wobbly legs.

There may have been applause. I actually didn’t know what was happening because my head was spinning. I sank down in my seat, shaking like a leaf. I felt exposed. Everyone knew I was a fraud. I looked frantically around the theater to see if I could figure out where the comment had come from, but the words didn’t leave a vapor trail. There was no telltale sign, except in my vibrating body.

My friend Laurence, who was sitting a couple of seats down from me, reached over and patted my knee. He asked if I was all right. I nodded that I was, though I suspected that my face said otherwise. I’m sure all the color had drained from it.

I don’t remember the rest of the ceremony, but I kept breathing and made it through. I found my family afterwards. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than my mom telling me that someone said it was a parent who yelled out. Maybe that should’ve made me feel better, but I was still in shock. My father, who was quite hard of hearing, was learning of it for the first time when we gathered after the ceremony was over. He dismissed it as sour grapes. I wished I could do the same. We got back into our Chevy and went back to our house in Canarsie.

It didn’t occur to me to be angry. I felt humiliated and it confirmed my worst fears, that I was undeserving. I hadn’t asked for the award and I didn’t write the comments Mr. Rosenman delivered.

At dinner with my parents, when I tried to bring it up, I think my Dad wanted to ignore that it happened and he didn’t want me to be hurt.

I couldn’t let go of it, but I had to pretend to.

All these years later, I remember the incident so clearly. I know that I went that night, after dinner with my parents, to celebrate at a bonfire at a nearby beach with friends. I don’t remember what my friends said. It is unlikely that I would have mentioned it because it was so embarrassing, but maybe I did. I don’t know if words of comfort were offered, but maybe they were. It is interesting, the memories we carry with us, and what we forget.

16 thoughts on “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or is it the other way around?)

    1. Linda
      i remember much of that day and how you felt and a jumble of my own feelings. it was a long emotional day and. night. i hope i was some comfort to you as i was going through my own whirlwind of emotions.


  1. I couldn’t finish because I was interrupted and then couldn’t get back to tell you how angry I was at the time. I don’t know how I could have spoken to you at the time and still don’t know what I could have done then. it was an unforgivable act by I also think it was a parent. With my not so good talent for making excuses, (there is never an excuse) for that behavior. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an erasure in my minds that could eliminate all thoughts that remind us of embarrassing acts or actions we wish could change. However that isn’t possible. I hope you are comforted in the friends you have made (including and more importantly the ones from HS ) that have continued to value you and love you. How brave of you to write something that still gives you pain and I still don’t know what I should or could have done at tha time. I


    1. I suppose it would be wonderful to erase painful and embarrassing memories, but I think it is part of the journey and we wouldn’t be who we are. I do find it curious, though, that I seem to have a facility for remembering those events more than others. I wish I remembered them equally.


  2. Please consider the following:
    1. If I were there, the so called “parent’ who made the comment would have had a knuckle sandwich so I was not there.
    2.Onto Dad- one of the very few areas where Dad did not excel was in the need to discuss, and not ignore, the bad events which had occurred (note your prior posts on grandpa and how we were not allowed to discuss with grandpa life in europe, much less the holocaust). He made a mistake – as we all do- and the matter should have been discussed. You would have still been hurt; you would still remember it; but you would have had more support.
    3. Remember the name of the Congressman who interrupted OBAMAs State of the Union by yelling “you lie?” No you don’t because that person is completely unmemorable (if that is a word) – he, along with the brooklyn parent, was not raised properly, lacks the most basic training in manners, and is a disgrace. We will however remember OBAMA, and, as your blog has proven, your merited the commendation, as you are skilled in writing/editing and most significantly, undertaking bold endeavors.
    4. Quite frankly, as skillful as your writing is, it is not nearly the most important aspect of you, your skills and your contributions. And by contributions I do not mean “just” being the parent of Leah and Dan) but I mean the contributions you have given to your community (family, school board, work on countering prejudice, and so much more). Did I mention that you are the parent of Leah and Dan????
    5. I am now off to Brooklyn to conduct an investigation; I will locate that (now 85 year old no doubt) parent and deliver the appropriate knuckle sandwich. (Of course, at my age, by the time I get to brooklyn I will probably forget why I went, so don’t worry.)


  3. Well it was probably a good thing Dad did not hear the shout as I’m sure he would had done something regretful. It’s a good thing I was not there as well for I know I would have done something regretful.

    You are a thoughtful and giving person in many aspects, family, community, etc.. Perhaps these events have shaped you, made you into the influential, positive contributor that you are to your family and community.

    We may disagree on certain things but always know at the end of the day family comes first and I along with your other brother got your back.


  4. I just need to mention that I know who made that comment. HIs name is Tony and he was an unemployed toilet bowl cleaner at the time. His child, Tony Jr. who once wrote an article for the newspaper that was rejected because it contained no actual words is now also an unemployed toilet bowl cleaner. You know, these new toilet bowls are so complicated.

    Tony senior died when he failed to pay back a bail bondsman. His funeral was not attended. Tony Jr. got lost on the way there.

    Ok, it’s way to late to take back the hurt, but it is fair to say that the obnoxious, stupid, incorrect and cruel statement, looking back at it, may not have actually revealed anything at all-at least not about you.


    1. Both your comment, Gary, and Linda’s blog, have brought tears to my eyes for very different reasons. The two of you write so very well.


  5. Linda
    As a person who has witnessed first hand many of your best professional accomplishments—please know that you are indeed deserving! You are awesome and always will be.


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