In March 1984, there were a lot of changes taking place in my life. I’d been living in California for 6 months, after having lived on the east coast for all my life before that. I was turning 12 years old. I was in sixth grade. And my teacher had given us an assignment to write an autobiography.
This was a big project and we were expected to do a good job on it. For reasons that I can’t explain, I took to the task like no assignment before it and I ended up doing a pretty good job on it. This afternoon, while going through some old papers, I came across that autobiography and I thought it might be amusing, at least, and insightful, at most, to quote from portions of it. There is a table of contents that indicates there were 10 “chapters.”
At any moment in your life, you feel as grown up as you can possibly be because you are living on the very cusp, moving forward. So I think at the ripe old age of twelve (and I was likely still 11 when I was doing the writing), I had what I felt was a very world-weary view of things. I’d been around for quite a while, had seen my share, and was going to report on it as colorfully as I could. In writing about my “childhood” here is what I had to say:
This will not be a long chapter because it will be hard to remember a lot of things.
When I was very small (under one year old) I would smear my food all over my face. I went on my first big trip when I was four months old. We went to Chicago to visit relatives. Just before we went to Chicago I fell off the table and bumped my head. I was taken to the hospital but I was okay.
We had a big party on my first birthday. We could have about fifty to sixty people now that we had moved to New Jersey and into our new house. It was our first house. It was a ranch with three bedrooms and two baths.
When I became about two, I came for my first time to California. I came to visit my Uncle, Aunt and cousins with my mom. While I was there I went to Disneyland, but I know that from looking at pictures. The only thing I remember clearly was walking up the stairs and seeing a moth fly by.
The only thing I remember from when I was three is going to the Bronx Zoo, getting toy golf clubs and getting an electric train set.
Finally, when I was four I went into pre-school.
In the chapter titled “My School Years” I had a bit more to say. Some of it, upon reading it today, I had no memory of, like getting dropped a level in math class.
My first year of any school was in 1976. That was my first and only year in nursery school. I was four years old. Strange things happen to everybody in their first year of school. The strange thing that happened to me was I always enjoyed going to school and playing. Well during the middle of the year I didn’t want to go. I would walk in with my father. He’d say hello and then he’d walk out to go back home and I’d say good-bye and try to sneak home with him. It never worked but I didn’t know any better.
The last day of pre-school I graduated. They had a really nice graduation. We dressed up in caps and gowns and got diplomas.
In 1977 I went into kindergarten. There I learned the alphabet1. The only thing that was interesting that happened in kindergarten was the circus. Our school kindergarten had a circus every year. We sang songs, dressed up as animals and animal trainers. I was the strong man. It was fun.
During the summer my brother and I joined a parks and recreation group called Safety Town. There we learned how to ride safely, about the danger of fire and poison. I went there for two years2.
In August of the same summer3, we went to Arizona. We stayed at my grandparent’s house when we arrived there4. While we were there, we went to Oak Creek Canyon, we went swimming a lot, we went to Montazuma’s Castle, and we visited several ghost towns.
Well, it was time to go back to school. I was entering first grade. Everything went well until one week in the middle of the year. I was walking home from school and two bigger kids started bugging me. So I spit at them. The next day I told the principal the reason I didn’t want to go to school was because I thought I would get in trouble for spitting at them.
I did some creative compression in that last paragraph, impressive even for a 12-year-old. The event, in my mind, even 28 years later than when I first wrote about it, was much more dragged out and dramatic. First of all, the “bigger kids” were second or third graders at the most. Everything is relative. I can’t recall why they were picking on me, but I remember them pushing me once while walking home. I didn’t know what else to do so I turned around and spit at them. That began a period of time that, in my mind, dragged on for weeks. I went to bed at night riddled with guilt at having done something I wasn’t supposed to do (spit) and certain that I would be called to the principals office to answer for my crimes. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I would throw tantrums in the morning to the point where on at least one occasion, my mom locked me out of the house and I banged on the door, pleading with her to let me back in. But she wouldn’t and I had to go to school anyway. Eventually it all became too much for me and I confessed my crime to my parents on tear-filled night. Soon, thereafter, I was called into the principal’s office and the walk there felt like the walk to the electric chair. But all he wanted to know was the names of the boys who were picking on me. I refused to tell him, but after that, I wasn’t bothered any more, and my guilt was gone. I felt so much better!
Second grade started out bad. I was going into school late. I was not completing my work. Then we moved to Rhode Island. I completed second grade much easier there.
I remember getting to school late in New Jersey. I remember not doing my work in class. I have absolutely no explanation for it, and there was a time, years later, when I thought back on that period with dread. If we hadn’t moved, what would have become of me? Would I have flunked out of second grade?
That summer we went to many places. We went to Fall River, MA to see Battleship Cove, Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, Sturbridge Village and finally, we went to Washington, D. C. We went to the Air and Space Museum, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and more.
The summer ended, time to go back to school. 1980 I entered third grade5. In third grade I had one of the nicest teachers I’ve ever had. It was a normal year. That is also the year I won second place in a drawing contest.
The “nicest” teacher’s name was Mrs. Taft. At the beginning of the year, we would start the day with 5 minute of “aerobics” at our desk. Over the course of the school year, that grew and grew until I think we were doing the aerobics for half an hour. After the exercise, Mrs. Taft would read to us, usually one chapter from a book each day. The book I remember best–and the reason I just loved going to school each morning–was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothin by Judy Blume. My first experience with that book was “serialized” in the morning after aerobics.
Fourth grade I dropped badly in math and reading
In April6 I went to get my tonsils out after April vacation. I got out of the hospital the same day I went in, April 19th.
Everyone told me about all of the ice cream I’d be given when I woke up from the surgery. A bunch of liars, each and every one of them. I woke up in the recovery room, and my very first thought was, “Okay, where’s the ice cream?” I saw a nurse nearby and I asked her. She shrieked at me that I should not be talking. I think she was just surprised that I could talk. Eventually, I was given an lime ice-pop. That was the extent of my vast quantities of ice cream and my introduction to the injustice in the world. I stayed home for a week after the surgery and did my school work at home. I recall reading a fantastic story in one of my books during that week, called “How Baseball Began in Brooklyn.” And speaking of baseball:
Another chapter we had to write was to be titled, “Outstanding Me.” It was perhaps the only chapter I didn’t struggle with at all.
I have already mentioned earlier one of the outstanding things that happened to me. I was in an electric safety drawing contest. I drew a picture of a bathroom with running water in the sink and a wire of a dryer in the sink. On the top it said, “Water and Electricity a Deadly Combination.” With that I won second place in the contest.
I’d completely forgotten about that until I read it a few years back. Yet once I read it, I remembered the picture I drew quite well. The legend across the time came from a commercial I’d seen on TV, but I guess they didn’t consider that plagiarism; maybe because it was a “public service” announcement.
One outstanding thing I did was two summers ago in Spring Valley, NY. My brother, my friend, my cousin and I were playing outside and we smelled smoke by the laundry room. So we went to look and there was a fire. My friend stayed down by the laundry room with my brother and my cousin and I ran to tell my grandmother. My grandmother called the superintendant9 and he came to stop the fire. He said that if we didn’t say anything the whole building could have burned down.
I have absolutely no memory of this event now. Not a thing. I can guess which friend and which cousin might have been involved, but other than that, my mind is a blank.
We also had to include a chapter on “My Hobbies.”
My first real hobby started when I was in pre-school. My hobby was studying astronomy. That is what I really enjoyed doing. I even had a scrap book I was making of pictures of Jupiter10.
By the time I was in kindergarten I could recite the planets in order in distance from the sun. The only books I would check out of the library were books on astronomy. When I was in first grade, my mom and dad got me a telescope. By that time, I knew how to use star charts and that summer I found Saturn in my telescope and could see the rings.
I can remember going into the back yard in New Jersey and looking up and seeing Saturn with its rings poised just so. It was absolutely incredible to a 7-year old. I could also name many of the stars in the constellations, but I guess I didn’t that that was impressive enough to mention.
After about three years I got into drawing. I would draw anything. I used to draw so good, that I won second place in a school drawing contest. Today, I still draw and I am as imaginative as ever.
I don’t draw anymore. I haven’t for a couple of decades. At my peak, I could do credible perspective drawings of cities. But whatever creative element there was in me that went toward drawing withered away, thankfully, and was put to use instead in writing.
Every autobiography has to have its little controversies. I tried to tackle a recent controversy head on in the last part of my discussion on hobbies. My gaming friends will find this amusing, I’m sure.
During my period of drawing I found out about a game called Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a fantasy role-playing game in which you make characters with their own opinion on things to fight as good or evil classes in the realm. Speaking about Dungeons and Dragons, I recently stopped playing because it was banned from our school. I played that game for three and a half years. After a while of just drawing and playing Dungeons and Dragons after school every day, I decided I needed another hobby. As if it’s a hobby of finding hobbies, I found another one. I got into airplanes. Then I would mix hobbies. I read a lot about airplanes and my father told me a lot about them. So, I drew pictures of airplanes from every angle including the cockpit.
And one more remark on the drawing. I recall a period during 4th grade when me and my friends would draw these 2-D pictures of Ozzy Osbourne concerts, with elaborate stages. We’d even do this during class. Maybe that’s why my math grade suffered.
Finally, we had to describe where we saw ourselves in the future. This part, of course, is the most interesting part because here I am, 28 years later almost to the date, on the verge of turning 40. What did my twelve-year-old self expect of the future?
I’ll start with what I’ll be doing after High School. After I graduate High School I will join the Air Force. I will stay in the Air Force for three to four years. I would like to acquire training as a test pilot and astronaut.
After the Air Force, I want to go to Harvard University for four to six years. When I am there, I want to take courses in mathematics, computer science, astronomical science and aerodynamics.
I also would like to take the required flying time to become a pilot. Then I want to take training to become an astronaut.
During my regular time11, I would like to get married and raise a nice family.
So how did I do? Well, I never joined the Air Force, but I did get a private pilot license back on April 3, 2000, some sixteen years after the autobiography was written. I didn’t attend Harvard University. In fact, I never considered applying. Instead I attended the University of California, Riverside. I did take some computer science and math classes while there. Ultimately, though, my degree was in political science and journalism. But you know what? I did get married and I am raising a nice family so everything is good after all, and in the end, that’s the only prediction that really matters.
What did my teacher think of my ego-laden creation? We were graded in four categories: story, spelling, organization and grammar. I received an A in story; an A in spelling12; an A+ in organization; and an A in grammar. My teacher wrote:
Jamie, this autobiography is superb! It is beautifully organized and very well written, but then most of your stories are exceptional… I was dazzled by your collection of photographs.
Ah, yeah, photographs. No autobiography is complete without them. I think I included 20 or so with mine. But here are two that show me (and my brother and sister) in the long years before I wrote my autobiography.
And then there is this:
I think I look like the Little Man in this picture. And I’m holding a couple of cars (that I remember very well) and so his affinity for Matchbox-type cars is quite possibly genetic. Can you believe that between the three of us, my sister, brother and I have 8 kids! And it’s only been 31 years since this picture was taken. Ah, how time flies. Thank goodness for autobiographies.
- There was a flip chart with Milton the Monkey. Each page had one letter of the alphabet, one page for the capital and another for the lowercase. Milton would have an adventure and discover the letter and objects that began with the letter. I’ve looked for those flip charts in the years since but have never found them. I remember them with great fondness. ↩
- What I didn’t recount in the autobiography was how I wailed and cried for no apparent reason at the graduation from Safety Town. Also after the circus in Kindergarten. I can recall crying when I got home, but I have no idea why. I think it was because it was all over and I was no longer in the spotlight. ↩
- I have the timeline wrong here. I think it was 1978 that we went to Arizona because my mom was pregnant with my sister at the time. ↩
- Another incident that I didn’t report: I had a glass of ginger ale that I set down next to my mother’s glass of scotch in my grandparent’s kitchen. The glasses and their contents looked identical. I accidentally picked up the glass of scotch and drank it like it was ginger ale. It may be that was the reason that thereafter, I didn’t touch alcohol until I was 33 years old. ↩
- And my favorite era of music was about to begin. ↩
- 1982, I believe. ↩
- I think our team name was Scungio Oil. ↩
- It is quite possible that everyone in the league made the all-star team. ↩
- Why not the fire department? ↩
- I clipped these from the newspaper. This was when Voyager 2 was doing its flyby in 1979, I think. ↩
- That sound you hear is the sound of my laughter. “Regular Time”? ↩
- A completely remarkable achievement that my mom is most likely responsible for since she typed the thing up for me. ↩