My Turquoise Years: A Memoir

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As Chicago schools went, Bryn Mawr fell somewhere between a bad school and a good school. Racial and economic sorting in the South Shore neighborhood continued through the s, meaning that the student population only grew blacker and poorer with each year. There was, for a time, a citywide integration movement to bus kids to new schools, but Bryn Mawr parents had successfully fought it off, arguing that the money was better spent improving the school itself. As a kid, I had no perspective on whether the facilities were run-down or whether it mattered that there were hardly any white kids left.

I knew nearly every teacher and most of the kids. For me, Bryn Mawr was practically an extension of home. Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. The inference being that failure was coming, that it was inevitable, that it had already half arrived.

You could get caught up in the ruin or you could escape it. My mother bought into none of this. She was a straight-down-the-line realist, controlling what she could. At Bryn Mawr, she became one of the most active members of the PTA, helping raise funds for new classroom equipment, throwing appreciation dinners for the teachers, and lobbying for the creation of a special multigrade classroom that catered to higher-performing students.

The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir

This last effort was the brainchild of Dr. But it was also gaining steam as a movement around the country, and for my last three years at Bryn Mawr I was a beneficiary. I joined a group of about twenty students from different grades, set off in a self-contained classroom apart from the rest of the school with our own recess, lunch, music, and gym schedules.

We were given special opportunities, including weekly trips to a community college to attend an advanced writing workshop or dissect a rat in the biology lab. Back in the classroom, we did a lot of independent work, setting our own goals and moving at whatever speed best suited us. We were given dedicated teachers, first Mr.

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Martinez and then Mr. Bennett, both gentle and good-humored African American men, both keenly focused on what their students had to say. There was a clear sense that the school had invested in us, which I think made us all try harder and feel better about ourselves.

The independent learning setup only served to fuel my competitive streak. I tore through the lessons, quietly keeping tabs on where I stood among my peers as we charted our progress from long division to pre-algebra, from writing single paragraphs to turning in full research papers. For me, it was like a game. And as with any game, like most any kid, I was happiest when I was ahead.

I told my mother everything that happened at school. I knew that when my class was going on an excursion, my mother would almost always volunteer to chaperone, arriving in a nice dress and dark lipstick to ride the bus with us to the community college or the zoo. My mom found ways to compensate. A pool had formed; a foot wide and several inches deep. I lay on my stomach and suspended my face in the water, letting my parched skin draw in the moisture.

I drank deeply, allowed the pool to refill, and drank it dry again. I could feel it coursing through my veins like a river delta after a dam break.

Forty years on, why the Boss was born to run and run

It soothed the angry void in my stomach and confusion soon gave ground to clarity. A Boy Scout troop, one I had seen on the trail a few days earlier, rounded the bend and stopped short. They stared, gape-mouthed and silent.


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The skull and crossbones told me all I needed to know. The road is where theory collides with reality. In the months between high school and college I took my theoretical, textbook knowledge on the road — the gritty back road — and my real schooling began in earnest. Education on the road is short bursts of electric shock stimulation followed by periods of reflective solitary confinement. Adapt or perish is lesson one when becoming a road scholar. I never felt more stimulated, more inspired, or more in tune with my instincts than when I was thousands of miles from home and penniless.

Hitchhiking across the country pulled me from my comfort zone and forced me to take stock of myself. It was the satisfying autonomy, the challenging unpredictability, and the roller coaster thrill ride of being fully immersed in the moment that drew me to the road.

No, the reason I fell in love with the road was because I have always been addicted to risk. I was born with an innate knack for excess — a talent that lives on today — and I grew up the neighborhood risk taker, the envelope pusher, the thrill seeker who would go to any length, even jeopardize life and limb, to escape the cruel confines of a happy childhood. When I was nine my friends and I built a minibike out of plumbing pipes, some spare bicycle parts, and a lawnmower.


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  • When the time came for its maiden voyage, it fell on me to climb onto the minibike and pull the ripcord. Consequently I was the first one to realize we forgot to install brakes. The revelation came moments before crashing into the brick wall of Hillcrest elementary school, flying over the handlebars, through a glass window, and half way into Mrs.

    Luckily, I stopped my trajectory by catching the metal window frame with my face. I started thumbing around town in seventh grade but my serious flirtation with life on the road began when I turned sixteen and hitchhiked from Chicago to Daytona Beach during spring break. I repeated the trip a year later when, as a junior in a new high school, I hitchhiked from New Jersey to Florida, then north to Chicago and back east two weeks later.

    Well, maybe not even then. After working our way through a bottle of Mezcal I loaded my backpack with the kind of things that made perfect since after eating the worm but I came to regret when I sobered up somewhere in Missouri. I cursed these packing decisions while I was schlepping ten pounds of Frank Zappa albums through the Yuma Desert, but I rejoiced when I sold those same records to a marine in Oceanside California so that I could break a fast that was entering its fourth week. Peaches in Regalia never tasted so sweet.

    In addition to Zappa, I packed fourteen dollars and three joints it was the seventies after all.

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    The money ran out in Durango Colorado. I spent my last two bucks on my first can of Coors and a bag of granola. I correctly reasoned that this new-fangled, munchy-crunchy hippie food would sustain me for a couple of weeks. One morning I woke to the sound of a brown bear enjoying the last of my granola. I slept on a Rocky Mountain cliff so steep I had to tie one end of my shoestrings to a tree and the other end around a knot in my sleeping bag to keep from tumbling to my death.

    This high terrain bed was the consequence of scrambling up the canyon wall to evade a shotgun-toting flagman in the caboose of a passing freight train. Lines of red neon light out my bedroom window, highways drawn out into the valleys. Red bougainvillea petals on Future Street, on Isabel Street, in all the tight alleys in the neighborhood. The red frame around the picture hanging above my bed, a distorted photo of my torso.

    The blood under my fingernails when I picked my head. My red denim jacket. Red lights on the horizon all the time. The objects of my desire seemed smaller and more mundane than ever before. I fantasized about walking down the hill in my neighborhood in a T-shirt, with a flat chest and nothing binding my breasts, the wind flowing between the fabric and my skin.

    I fantasized about sleeping on my stomach, without breasts between me and the mattress. I fantasized about driving in a convertible like the teen-age boys in tank tops I remembered from my childhood. I started having dreams about walking behind my childhood self.

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    My Turquoise Years – Greystone Books Ltd.

    Her small hand fit perfectly in mine. Sometimes I lay on my back while she read to me from a picture book and stroked my hair. She wobbled through words, asking me the meaning of unfamiliar ones. I walked around with her on my back, her arms gripping my neck, her legs gripping my waist.