I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the 3rd of three unplanned but successful pregnancies. My Dad was an autobody mechanic and when it was my turn to arrive he dropped my Mom off at Hartford hospital and went back to work. That’s how they rolled back then, in 1970. We lived on Allen Place, down the street f/where Jack Kerouac lived when he first left home after dropping out of Columbia. Hartford has the Mark Twain House, and when we moved to West Hartford, there was Noah Webster’s house on South Main and we had Wallace Stevens, Pulitzer Prize Poet (1955), managing an insurance company by day, writing poetry at night, while his wife managed all the important stuff.
It’s a miracle to be born, isn’t it? And existential, too.
With all the literary pedigree and a nationally ranked public school system, for my part, starting out, I basically shit the bed. I stayed back in the 2nd grade because I was clueless. May Mom said it was b/c I was an August baby on the younger side, but I think it was the combination of just not getting enough one-on-one time, and all the 2nd hand smoke.
I couldn’t read or write but my mind worked the way I wanted it to: impressions and emotions with no words to express any of it. I remember what it was like, being called on, getting pulled out of my daydreams, and being like, you talking to me? We didn’t do pre-school back then, and I wasn’t following along with anything. Called upon, even gently, I froze and couldn’t speak. I had a few speech issues and they even tested my physical coordination – I recall that clearly, being pulled out of class, and having to perform a number of physical tasks in front of three to four professionals in the gymnasium. That part is kind of funny b/c I was a serious breakdancer in middle school: “Buckski”. I had the best back spin and hand spin but could never crack the code on the windmill – we couldn’t slow down youtube back then to break down the component parts – we didn’t even have the internet.
Privilege and opportunity is to be that far behind, right out of the gate, but have a public school system watching closely, ready to take action. I owe my birth to my parents but I owe my life to Mrs. Mildred Levin, a nearly-retired 2nd grade teacher who tapped me as the final reclamation project of her career. I went to school 30 minutes early, both years of 2nd grade, to receive one-on-one instruction. She made me read, one word and botched sentence, at a time. My Mom says I was a real trooper, getting myself up out of bed early each day, and walking the two blocks alone to the school, nearly in darkness in the winter months.
Every few years I get a whiff of Mrs. Levin’s mild perfume and it brings me back to the day that someone scrawled a Nazi symbol on the blackboard during recess. Our principal entered the classroom and told us about the Holocaust. Mrs. Levin pulled up the sleeve of her blouse and showed us the number on her arm.
I had forgotten about all that until last summer while reconnecting with a childhood friend. Busy telling him about how much I owed her, he was moved, and asked if I remembered the incident. He clearly did, and I had been so focused over the years on how transformative her help was, that I had forgotten all about it. He’s a teacher himself now.
Many years later, before her Alzheimer’s set in, I did visit with her before I transferred to the University of Iowa to study English – and yes, she knew about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. My undergrad rhetoric teacher, Lan Samantha Chang, is now the Director.
I owe my life to a nearly retired public school teacher, whom pointed, taught and guided me through my darkest days of development with a horrific fascist souvenir placed there by inhumanity, just out of view. It’s chilling now to think about – that I brushed that close with World War II – or could have lost out, had she not made it through. What if I had a different teacher who just shrugged their shoulders and was like, he has a nice smile, and blue eyes, he’ll be okay? What about all the kids who don’t get their own needs met? My family was fine, everyone was just busy & doing the best they could – like so many others. I read ‘The Book of Aron’ by Jim Shepard this summer. Great novel. Maybe the efforts of Janusz Korczak, saved my teacher?
By my senior year I was high school treasurer and received the Informed Citizen Award, from the League of Women Voters. At their invitation, I also attended Connecticut Boys State and was captain of our Football and Lacrosse teams. I would soon learn about the Hartford connection to Kerouac and that it was time for another grand transformation, another tough academic slog, and that being a high school jock was not a total death sentence.
So, what happened? How was it all possible? To me it seems pretty obvious. We lived in a very old town, with mature trees, four seasons, and Thoreau was always lurking throughout the New England curriculum, botanizing and dropping essays like breadcrumbs. We were beat over the head figuratively that trees were basically the most important thing in the world – we were the Nutmeg State, there was the Charter Oak in Hartford, and that white oak appears to this day on the Connecticut state quarter and on the stamps of my childhood. Plus, nothing brought the family together more than the weekly task in autumn of raking leaves – and unlike in San Francisco – in Connecticut, there were so many leaves flying around nobody even began to bitch about which individual trees were the culprits.
Then I made a terrible mistake in the sand dunes of Cape Code, at a tender 17, wiping myself thoroughly, with poison ivy. I didn’t know poison ivy could grow in sand like that. In my defense, had it been growing near the base of a tree like it was supposed to, I would have fared better. During those two weeks of an East Coast wave of heat & humidity, I made a promise that if I survived without seeking medical attention, I would finally start learning the names of the trees and plants around me. I survived, and I’ve kept my promise.
Perhaps you can start to see that it wasn’t entirely improbable then, that this nearly comatose 2nd grader was destined to become San Francisco’s Urban Forester. Destined to become the proud owner of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (and City Lights’) pick-up truck, and announcing to nobody but myself on March 24, 2017, that if Dublin could celebrate James Joyce with Bloomsday, then San Francisco shall celebrate Lawrence Ferlinghetti on his birthday -- Ferlinghetti Day.
I think it had something to do with those walks at dawn, alone, quiet, among the trees and empty sidewalks, seeking the help for a lifetime. I wanted to learn. And like so many other origin stories I’ve come across, you tend to appreciate more, what it took you longer than others, to achieve.