To An Honor Society
My instructions tonight are to be entertaining, vaguely inspirational, and not too long. Not too long I can handle--we'll see about the other two. I'm going to talk to you about THE FUTURE--not because that's what I want to talk about, but because on occasions like this people my age are supposed to talk to people your age about the future, on the assumption you have more of it than I do, which is true, AND the assumption that I have some advice about the future which will keep you from screwing it up, which is not true. The best advice I know was Damon Runyon's, who said THE RACE IS NOT ALWAYS TO THE SWIFT, NOR THE BATTLE TO THE STRONG, BUT THAT'S THE WAY TO BET. True, but not particularly relevant to the matter at hand, which is the ascension of some of you to the National Honor Society. You're now officially designated smart people.
It's not often someone in my business, television, gets a chance to talk to officially designated smart people. That's not to say the television audience is dumb--just that the majority of people who watch teevee aren't doing it to be intellectually stimulated. If they were, television would be a lot different than it is today. Currently, the most highly rated single special in television history concerned the exploits of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders--a fact all of us who labor on the tube have to live with. It's been said that what's wrong with American television is that it's the kind of place where Phil Donahue is considered to be an intellectual. Think about it.
So anyway, it's nice to talk to a smart crowd, even though I confess to being the only person in this part of the room who is NOT a member of the National Honor Society. In high school I tried to convince my mother I was holding out for the Regional Honor Society, a more prestigious body. She never bought it for a moment. I suppose in the wide range of people who do television in this country I'm one of the smarter ones. But that's not saying much. A few years ago a New York anchorman somberly announced that death had taken that famous American playwright, author of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Tennessee Ernie Williams--confusing Tennessee Williams with Tennessee Ernie Ford, a country singer known as the Old Peapicker. Tennessee Williams was many things--but he was never ever a peapicker. And just a few weeks ago a local anchorman mentioned a story taking place in PRAY – GUE, the capital of Czechoslovakia. In other words, you can be one of the smart ones in television if you read more than four non-picture books a year.
So here's my vision of the future--your future, more than mine. There's going to be a whole lotta dumb people, and just a few smart ones--you--and some other guys. Why? Because the education system will continue to decline. FUNDING for public education has been put into the hands of current dumb people, who, subconsciously, want to see everyone dumb and are using the suicidal method of financial strangulation to accomplish it.
If you want a glimpse of what this future will be like, look no farther than Britain, where a few smarts and a lotta dumbs have been the status quo for a century. Only there, it wasn't caused by DUMBS strangling the whole educational system, but SMARTS strangling the dumbs' educational system. At age 13, a British youth takes a test, the results of which determine whether he's a smart, in which case he goes on and actually learns something, or a dumb, in which case he's sent down the mines or chained to a punch press for the rest of his life. If that sounds unfair, at least it's better than the OLD British system, where the test was a sham--the upper classes always passed and the lower classes always didn't. (The reason why, to this day, Britain is clogged with some extremely well educated, dumb people, generally called upper class twits.) And it's better than the American system. At least SOMEBODY'S getting educated in Britain. To get educated here, you have to fight for it and therefore you're all to be commended, not only for being smart, but for being fighters for smartness. It may come in handy in the future.
An illustrative digression. My friend Vicki is a beautiful, attractive, funny, talented, brilliant woman. A few decades ago she attended a California high school, not far from Los Angeles, not far from the beach--the kind of school where absenteeism rose dramatically on those days when the surf was up. And this beautiful girl never had a date in high school, never went to the Prom, never went anywhere. I was amazed when she told me that, because I first knew her in college, where guys were lined up in the hall waiting to take Vicki anywhere she wanted to go. She told me she was ostracized in high school for two reasons: she was the only Jew in the school, and she was the smartest person in the school, eventually class valedictorian. And it was her brains, far more than her ethnic background, that kept her home alone. "The boys resented me," she said matter-of-factly, but with, I think, a certain satisfaction that, twenty years later, most of those boys are still lying around under other people's Chevrolets working for four dollars an hour and bowling on Tuesday nights, while she is an extremely successful artist and set designer who travels all over the world and looks even better now than she did in high school.
Vicki's experience was startling but not unique. Even in an enlightened school like Shorecrest, I'm sure some of you have felt resentment from your less academically inclined classmates. That was certainly the case in my enlightened high school, Mercer Island, 25 years ago. And it was manifested there in a social system based not on economics or grade, but grades. The people who took Latin, contributed to the literary magazine and planned on going to colleges that did NOT feature animal husbandry as a major, ever associated with Frank and Larry and Jimbo and the other guys who took auto shop and hung around the Samoa Drive-In and dated Janine--and they all, at one time or another, dated Janine. If there are any women named Janine here, no offense meant--that WAS her name. And the school, quite unwittingly, encouraged this social system by never putting the different groups together in those classes we all HAD to take.
On the first day of my junior year I went to my assigned English class and ther was Larry in front of me and Jimbo behind me and Janine--yes--to my left. Sitting there, before the bell rang, I realized I'd never been in a secondary school class with any of these people before, even though we'd all grown up on the Island together. Then Miss Lovejoy, the teacher, walked in, saw me, and said WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? As if it was the locker room of sophomore girls gym. She called the office, and ten minutes later, I was in another English class, the RIGHT English class, with MY people.
It was a revelatory experience for me. I'd certainly never asked NOT to be in Jimbo's English class. We were in the same room in grade school for years, and even played together as little tots. But one junior high September, he just wasn't in the mix anymore. Someone, somewhere, unknown to either of us, decided I was going one direction, and he was going another. It seemed unfair to me, practically ... British.
Later that year I had another revelatory experience. I got a Summer job as a cook at the Samoa Drive-In, where all those guys used to hang out. And I really go to know them, as they got to know me. The following year, as a senior, I was one of the only people in the school who was a member of the smart crowd, but could also hang around with and be accepted by the auto shop crowd too. And to the surprise of some of my smart crowd friends, hair didn't suddenly grow on my knuckles and brains didn't seep out of my ears. Among the unexpected benefits, I was elected by a landslide as Associated Student Body Business Manager, even though I had no ability and little interest in business management and everybody knew it. When I appeared in the all-school play, my new friends came, and cheered whenever I entered, the first and only play I suspect any of them ever attended. Shakespeare, too.
And there was another benefit, one that, in a very real way, contributed to what I do today, and whatever success I've had doing it. My girlfriend at the time was one of the top smart people--editor of the literary magazine, an officer in the Latin Club, and eventually, the salutatorian at commencement, where she gave a stirring speech about the future and how we could all avoid screwing it up. (Incidentally, she and I have been married twenty-one years next month, which shows she didn't take her own advice.) Anyway, Cathy==that's her name--had up to that time never exchanged a word with Larry or Frank or Jimbo. For the reasons already mentioned, they simply had no contact at all. There were greasers, she was a brain, and that was that. But now she was hanging around with me, and I sometimes hung around with them. One of my strongest, best memories of that senior year is a balmy night at the Samoa after a football game. I'd been inside talking to the owner, and I came out and there was Cathy, the salutatorian literary magazine editor, wearing her sensible sweater and saddle shoes, perched on top of a red '64 GTO, shooting the ... breeze ... with Frank and Larry. And they were all laughing about something, relaxed in each other's company, and at the same time a little amazed to be in each other's company--and enjoying it, amazed that they had things in common to laugh about. Nobody was looking down his or her nose at anybody else. As they had for me the previous summer, Larry and Frank and the rest of them had ceased to be just that milling horde of dumbs for her, and became people; ultimately, they became friends. We discovered they had wonderful, down-to-earth senses of humor, a sincere--and for high school--unique loyalty to each other, and--at least to us--a unique way of looking at our mutual world. And they discovered that we were not intellectual snobs, not complete kiss-asses where teachers were concerned, and that some of the things we found interesting they also found interesting. They learned that just because a girl got straights "A"s didn't mean she couldn't appreciate a ride on a Harley or watching a fistfight after the big football game. (And when Cathy was named salutatorian, they were generally pleased, I think, and came up with a number of suggestions for her speech that would have made it a lot more interesting, though unprintable in any newspaper in America. Janine told me she was proud to see--quote--one of US up there at commencement.)
We didn't change much, and neither did they, but none of us had to. And our friendship was mutually beneficial. Later that spring, when the literary magazine was accepting student work for that year's issue, Larry submitted a poem, a perfectly sweet love poem not about cars or fist fight but about ... Janine. It wasn't a class assignment either; Larry wrote it because he liked poetry, and he was a friend of the editor of the Literary Magazine and knew she wouldn't reject it simply because he was Larry. She ran it, prominently, getting some gas from her smart friends, but nothing compared to the gas he got from his dumb friends. There aren't many pieces in high school literary magazines that represent true bravery. Larry's poem was a rare example.
Four years later he was killed in Vietnam, and with Frank and Janine and the others we mourned the senseless loss of not just a guy we went to high school with but a friend--a poet. (That was the curse of being dumb in the '60s: the smarts went on to college and got student deferments, and a lot of the dumbs got M16s and seats on one-way helicopter rides.)