|I'm in the middle, second row, dark shirt; Harry Cuthrell is behind me to the left, Bernard Neally two guys to his left, Bill Grayson is the third guy right of me, with his head slightly tilted.|
My column on graduation weekend at Pomona got a lot of feedback last week, particularly after
a colleague wrote a response: White privilege is getting to write a column about the time you felt left out.
While the assumption behind that phrase—"the time you felt left out," as if there was only the one—is quite mistaken, I didn't want to argue. I'd had my say, now she gets hers. That's how it works, and in the range of unfairness, this is one I could accept. So I retweeted it, mentioning my experience of not lettering in 9th grade wrestling, a sly wink to telegraph, "We all have our woes."
My former editor, Andrew Herrmann, said he'd like to hear more about my season as a wrestler.
Hmm... I don't usually take requests—I'm not a short order cook. But it seemed a story worth telling, perhaps one that can move the discussion along, about exclusion, and effort, and "white privilege." I don't want to re-open the whole debate. But it isn't as if the issue is going away either.
I hated being a fat kid. No good at sports. People making jokes. It's unattractive. Uncomfortable. My right upper arm had stretch marks. I had to buy my clothes in the Husky Department.
So I tried to do something about it, at age 15.
I joined the junior high school wrestling team.
The idea was to force myself to exercise.
And forced to exercise I was. We all were; we had to run "wind sprints." Run a certain distance—to the center of the gym, back, then to the far end, and back. If everybody didn't do it in a certain amount of time, then we all had to do it over again. And again.
I hated wind sprints. You haven't lived until you've made the entire squad do extra wind sprints because you're so out-of-shape you can't do one in the allotted time. Winded, sucking air, humiliated and receiving the angry glares of your teammates.
Still, I endured. I had made a commitment. I wanted to stick it out. Besides: I liked being on the team. I belonged. We had uniforms, these black spandex body suits. We had headgear. We wore special shoes. We struggled. Guys wrapped themselves in the mats, sweating, to make weight. It was dramatic: I remember Wayne Carroll slamming his locker, crying—after losing, I assume.
One practice, drilling a maneuver designed to roll your opponent over, using your head as a lever, I was trying it out on Mr. Reese, the assistant coach, a mountain of a man, and something snapped in his back. He had to be taken away in an ambulance. I felt bad, sure, but there was also an unspoken coolness involved. I might be a fish, but I had sent Mr. Reese to the hospital. He was a huge guy.
What I hadn't thought of was that I'd have to wrestle in meets. Against other schools. But that was the general point.
At 191 pounds, I was a heavyweight. There were three other heavyweights. Bernard Neally and Harry Cuthrell, football linemen keeping in shape in the off-season. And Bill Grayson, who, I seem to recall, lived in the youth home.
We wrestled each other, every week, to see who got to go to represent the school that weekend. Each opponent was a unique experience. Bernard would stand there, hands on his hips, and order me to shoot in—"shooting in" was the term we used for the lunging motion to go at someone's leg. Rather than trying to evade me, Bernard would just stand there, tensing his tree trunk of a leg. I would wrap myself around it and try to lift. It was like trying to lift a fire hydrant. He would stand there and laugh while I squirmed and struggled to budge his leg. Then he would pin me.
Harry Curthrell was even stronger. I remember shooting in, and he did something with his hands, a quick motion, and suddenly the blue mat was where the ceiling had been, and visa versa. Then gravity did its thing. In a comic the sound would be written as: "WHUMPF!!!"
And Bill Grayson, the worst of all. You get points in wrestling, for reverses, for getting on somebody's back, for holding on—"ride time"—they called it. You can win on points and never pin the other guy. Bill would hardly do anything, and let me rack up the points, do everything but pin him—I'd be winning, I don't recall the score, say 20 to 0. Then they would mark the last 10 seconds of the match—I remember them tossing a rolled up towel, to signal the 10-second mark. At that point he would come to life and pin me. He knew that I knew that if I could hold on for just another 10 seconds I would win. I would finally win. But I never held on. I couldn't do it.
It seemed cruel.
So I never got through wrestle-offs. Never competed against another school in a match. But I lasted out the year. Went to every practice, every match. At the end of the year, at our banquet, every guy on the team got a white sweater with a big blue "R"—for Roehm Junior High School—trimmed in gold. Except me, since I had never actually wrestled against another school. Thus I didn't earn a letter. I remember wondering why they couldn't cut me a break—I was on the team, right? I had done my best all year. I had stuck it out. That sweater would have meant a lot to me. But I understood, rules are rules.
It's sort of a woebegone story, which is why I haven't told it before. I don't like painting myself as a victim. And it's a minor exclusion, compared to the larger injustices and tragedies of life. Compared to actual sorrows, it's nothing.
But like all people, I don't compare my personal sadnesses against the weight of all sadness, don't measure my life against the range of all lives. It was significant to me.
Nor was it the only time I felt cut out. I hate to list them all. Though maybe overdue, in a society where slights and sufferings have become a strange sort of currency, chits we flash to show how ... well, disadvantaged we are. Because that makes us somehow worthy, somehow better, almost morally pure, in our own eyes at least.
Not that all of them add up to being disadvantaged. But they do show that my colleague's imagination—he's a white guy, he's sitting pretty in the white guy club—is out of kilter with reality, with my reality as I experienced it. Everyone is privileged, compared to someone else, and maybe one reason why the speakers at Pomona College were so insistent about trotting out their bona fides of disadvantage was to obscure, to themselves if no one else, that they might have had humble beginnings, but they've sure as hell ascended into the elite now. Most people don't go to college at all. They were the advantaged now, holders of privilege, whether they liked it or not, and no amount of blowing kisses at the janitors changes that.
We all have our privileges, and our exclusions, and they seem very tangible to ourselves. I was not only fat, but the sole Jew in my elementary school—being Jewish isn't considered a minority anymore, I suppose because many Jews do well. Like Asians, we've succeeded so much we've voided our minority status card. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean being Jewish doesn't put you on the outside Christian society, squirming while the rest of the class sings their carols and goes to their church camps. People still fucking hate us, and part of that hate is pretending all Jews are bankers and movie makers and George Soros, basking in privilege. All the obstacles of being a minority and none of the contact cool. Or so it can seem. One reason my upbringing was so solitary is because half of my family was back in Poland, buried in a pit. If that isn't a disadvantage, what is?
All of this is beside the point from the perspective of the truly disadvantaged. Minor boo-boos compared to, oh, having your parents deported. So what? There's a joy in running down the lives of others, in using your story, whatever it is, to cast shade on the ease you imagine everyone else enjoys. I'm not looking for sympathy. Instead, I'm asking: why does your struggle need to trump mine? What is the point of you finding your voice if the first thing you say is that others are somehow no good because they didn't climb the mountain you climbed? Why do we have to be in competition at all? That's the part I don't understand. So you can come out ahead? Okay, I yield, you come out ahead. You win the suffering race. Now what?
Once we're done comparing hardships, we need to seek commonalities. We have to tire of bickering and find ways we are similar, rather than highlighting differences. That's what bugged me about the Pomona graduation. I did not, as some leapt to assume, resent the hoopla over these various ethnicities and groups. Good for them. I applauded. But what bothered me was their shattering the student body into its component pieces in order to show off each sparkly shard, without ever making the slightest effort to gather the fragments back up and show how they might fit together, into something that everyone can be a part of. Because I believe they all fit together, somehow. They have to.