Tracking back my blessings on Friday got me thinking about Wykeham Rise, the wee girls’ arts school in Washington, Conn., where my mom taught music and I learned to make pinch pots while singing “Caro mio ben” (although not simultaneously) when I wasn’t combing my hair at oblique angles and squinting through my bangs. Now closed, Wykeham had about 85 kids, tops. Most everyone was an artist or musician or actor of some sort, and those who weren’t might as well have been, because we were all so gloriously and floridly eccentric.
I loved that place. No one cared that I was a nerdy introvert with clanging dental hardware; I was a Wykeham Chickham as much as anyone, and before long, nurtured and valued at a school where my voice seemed to matter, where people seemed to care, I became less introverted. Though no less nerdy. And still prone to squinting. And, for the record, a space.
The teachers at Wykeham were as eccentric as the kids. One of them, a Mr. David I Forgot His Last Name, sketched the portrait above. I was being spacey at the time. He felt compelled to capture the moment. Why this moment, I don’t know, as I was always being spacey, all the time. I still am.
Mr. I Forgot His Last Name also helped me and my buddy Tonya write a country tune called “Cat Heaven.” Of course you’re dying to know the lyrics. I am happy to oblige.
I wish I was in a heaven for kitties
With alleys and tabbies just lookin’ so pretty
They purr fer sure, both fat ones and lean ones
Their halos were shipped direct from Purina’s
Oh little cat heaven, imagine the smell
Without litter boxes it’d be a cat hell
This is how I spent my time, when I wasn’t mangling Italian art songs or handcrafting sad attempts at crockery. Tonya and I would sing this canticle of feline saintliness (I remember the tune as well, though I am NOT uploading an mp3 of me singing it, emphasize NOT NOT NOT, principally because I don’t have one) while sitting on the couch in the school lobby, waiting for the van to bring us to soccer or softball practice while Mr. David I Forgot His Last Name sketched my portrait or, more frequently, some other Wykeham Chickham sat there answering the phone after the receptionist had left for the day. “Good afternoon, Wicked Thighs,” she’d say, and even then I marveled at the joy of attending a school were teenage girls were given the license to do such things.
If it was game day, Tonya and I would be wearing our uniform shirts (see charming astronaut sketch, above) and jeans. Yes. I said jeans. This didn’t even strike me as odd until I overheard a couple of opposing players discussing the total weirdness of it, and then, with fresh eyes, I squinted with sudden comprehension at the spectacle of 11 young women running around on a soccer pitch in denim and cords.
I squinted at everything. I already used this pic on my bio page, but here it is again:
When I wasn’t squinting or staring down at my feet, I was closing my eyes. For these habits I have no one to blame but myself, as my parents had no obvious deficits when it came to keeping their eyes open and looking straight ahead at cameras or people or scenery or rampaging pumas, or whatever happened to be nearby and worth seeing. I had some sort of pathological fear of confronting life in the face; it probably went hand-in-hand with being nerdy and introverted and preferring old episodes of “Star Trek” to actual social interaction.
On the other hand, flipping through an old Wykeham yearbook, I found this:
That’s Wykeham’s headmaster. Back then we called him Boss. Nowadays I call him Dan. Sometimes I call him Dad, because that’s what he’s been to me for decades now, and my kids all call him Pop-Pop.
When I first started writing this post, I had planned on blaming him for the squint. Ha Ha Ha! It’s all Dan’s fault! We’re related by blood after all! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! I asked him for permission to use this photo, explaining that I had found a clear genetic link.
But on second thought, I’m not going to blame him for the squinting. Instead I’m going to blame him for bringing me out of my shell — for encouraging me to grow, think, say what I thought, be who I was, stay who I am, sweat hard and kick the fool soccer ball as far as I could. Blue jeans be damned.