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''Seems never to achieve his potential. Indolent.''

Already looking skeptical: The author at 11 or 12 in Kensington Gardens

There can be few things more likely to induce a state of profound melancholy than looking through one’s old school report cards. That sentence doesn’t quite satisfy, but I’m going to let it stand. The reason it doesn’t satisfy is that it all depends on what’s in the report cards, doesn’t it? And there my troubles begin.

I went to school in England, and now that I think about it, which generally I try not to, it was a disturbingly long time ago. The report cards I’m writing about come in the form of a booklet (“To be returned on the first day of each Term,” is printed sternly on the inside page), measuring 6 inches by 8 inches and bound in cloth the color of an old bloodstain. Inside are the handwritten comments of the “Masters” (i.e., teachers) charting the feeble academic progress I made between the Easter term of 1969 (“age 9.3, height 4 ft 5¼ ins”) and the Summer term of 1973 (“age 13.6, height 5 ft 1¾ ins”). The booklet bears the pokerfaced title Reports, but could more accurately have been called Acutely Perceptive Remarks That Will Haunt You for the Rest of Your Life (You Dumb Bastard).

It is now clear to me that I was unlucky enough to have had attention deficit disorder at a time when it was known simply as being “a lazy sod.” Had I been going to school in America in the 1990s rather than England in the 1970s, I would have been up to my eyeballs in Ritalin and family therapy and dressing like a miniature gangster. As it was, family was far away. I was in a boarding school.

“He continues to occupy a very low position in the form due to his inability to concentrate on his work,” runs a typical comment from the Science Master, a dandruff-plagued Scotsman who pronounced the word “film” as “fillum,” something I occasionally do today, just for the moronic thrill of it. “If he can maintain concentration, he should have no difficulty in this subject,” observes the French Master, who, being actually French, regarded his pupils with amused condescension and appeared to consider his geographical location in the English countryside to be the result of an inexplicable cosmic error. “Still too fidgety to concentrate for long and this is his real weakness,” puts in the Headmaster, whose grotesquely overweight wife, to the slack-jawed astonishment of the students, was being passionately pursued by the Latin Master, a hypersensitive redhead who flew into terrifying rages during class. “He has plenty of imaginative ability, but has to work harder on the work in which he is not so interested,” wrote the History Master. Minus the complimentary part, that’s pretty much what my editor told me just the other day.

Certain subjects I was particularly weak in. Take the “Mathematics” portion of my report card, for example. Through four successive terms (Christmas, 1970–Christmas, 1971), I was described as “Rather a slow worker,” “Still rather a slow worker,” “Still a slow worker and not always a careful one” and “Still very slow . . . Exam results poor.” Even a snail might take offense at that.

Let’s try Science, Christmas term, 1971:

His exam result and form position reflect his attitude towards work — lazy.

Easter, 1972:

His position has improved somewhat but it still reflects his attitude towards his work — lazy!

Filling out my report card was obviously a breeze for a teacher. All you had to do was flip the page to the previous term’s report, see what you’d written last time, and then, with a few minor changes, repeat it word for word. The question is, Why didn’t I burn the damn things at the first possible opportunity? (Answer: because it took years for their essential accuracy to reveal itself.) Now stray phrases float through my mind like epitaphs queuing up to be chiseled on my tombstone. Top prize would probably go to this comment by one of my many despairing math teachers:

Found himself out of his depth but could have at least made some effort.

Others are less lapidary but compensate with cold-eyed analysis. “Brendan needs constant spurring on to keep him up to the mark and seems to have no sense of urgency himself. He has a curious diffidence which hinders him committing himself fully to any activity” (Headmaster’s Report). “Seems never to achieve his potential. Indolent” (English). And my favorite, the brutal “He is not very good at this,” which technically refers to History but which seems increasingly pertinent to, er, Life.

If teachers wrote these sorts of things today, they’d probably be sued for defamation of character and imprisoned on charges of advanced psychological cruelty. Now my eye alights on statements such as “He panics when faced with anything difficult” (Scripture). “Is easily distracted and easily distracts” (Music). “I think he is rather lazy, and I am afraid he deserves his low place” (History).

 

Even the vaguest compliments tend to come courtesy of nibs dipped in either irony or acid. “He has done quite well for himself without actually wearing himself out, which is quite sensible” (the French Master, bravely dissenting from the Anglo-Saxon work ethic). “Rather as I expected. Brendan has continued to work well, but results have eluded him” (Latin). “Makes only very indolent use of such talent as he has” (Art). “Content to bury his talent” (Art).

Still, I shouldn’t overemphasize the negative — a tendency of mine. (And no wonder!) There were times — even terms — when I did quite well, coming first in the odd exam and earning warm praise from my teachers. But having done so, I soon returned to my old ways. Before long, I was indulging in “mischief” and “silly behavior in class,” which was apt to get you sent straight out of class and into the corridor. There you were made to stand face to the wall, hands behind your back. I remember that wall quite well, having stood in front of it many a time. It was constructed of glazed brick and lined with framed black-and-white group photographs of all the other poor bastards who had passed through the same establishment. Standing there, you would tremble with fear lest the Headmaster, brooding savagely over his wife’s rumored infidelity, should happen to pass by. Often he did.

Scene: the Headmaster’s gloomy, book-lined study, blinds discreetly drawn. Instruction: “Drop your trousers.” Trembling, you did so as the Headmaster picked up a sneaker (known as a “plimsole”) only slightly smaller than Shaquille O’Neal’s. He then gravely intoned a single word: “Bend.” After gazing at his quivering target for what seemed an unnecessary amount of time, he would mutter: “Six.” Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack (followed by, if he was in a really bad mood), THWACK!

After this, you would pull up your pants, try to keep the tears sprouting from your eyes, and walk with unexaggerated stiffness to your next class, which was invariably something truly horrifying like Double Science.

Fortunately, there was the occasional respite. Acting, for instance. “What an excellent Dauphin he made,” enthused the Headmaster in my report card (Easter, 1973), referring to my role as Charles VII in Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc. “One of the highlights of the term.”

My pleasure in reading this was slightly marred when, not recalling much about either the Dauphin or the play, I did a Google search to see exactly what kind of character I had so convincingly impersonated. The results were not quite what I’d hoped for. A 2001 theater review in the SF Weekly of a performance of Saint Joan characterized the Dauphin as “a highstrung, whiny young man in a sacklike outfit” who “knows he’s being pushed around by the bishops and feudal lords of France but can’t help it.” Hmm.

At least there was Sports — best of all, soccer — in which my attention deficit disorder was joyously trampled to death in the soaking mud of a lopsided English field. Sports show up on my report card, too. In fact, my favorite comments come under the subject line Soccer:

Christmas term, 1970: “He has become a valuable asset to the Colts Team. His ball control is good [what do you mean, ‘good’? It was brilliant] although he occasionally keeps the ball rather longer than he should.” [Okay, but so does Ronaldinho.]

Christmas term, 1972: “He played as a link for the 1st XI most successfully and thoroughly deserved his Colours.” The Headmaster chipped in by noting that while “Maths is still a very great weakness . . . his soccer has been first-rate.” I received similarly high marks in cricket (“a first-class close fielder”) — my position on the field, believe it or not, was called Silly Mid-Off, “silly” being a euphemism for “suicidal,” since it involved standing about five feet in front of the batsman — and slightly lesser ones for rugby (“quite a strong runner and tackler, but his handling is weak”).

Nonetheless, it’s well known that failures on the sports field tend to traumatize us far longer than seemingly more important ones in the classroom. Dylan Thomas, surveying his place in English poetry, reverted to a sports metaphor when he referred to himself as “Captain of the Second XI.” In other words, he wasn’t quite up there with the big boys like Donne and Byron and Auden, who were on the first team. I’m still proud, of course, of that scintillating hat trick I scored when I was 16 or so against Westminster, but what of that open goal I missed, the entire goal mouth gaping in front of me, in that much more important match against . . . I still cringe when I think about it, not because I failed to score, but because, mysteriously, I didn’t even try. I sometimes believe all of my life is captured in that moment.

 

The truth is that, much as I loved sports, I only really loved them in an informal setting — pickup games rather than the real thing. A “serious” soccer match between two rival schools on a proper field with 11 uniformed players on either side, a referee and a few bored spectators freezing on the touchline (parents never went near these things back then, thank God), was never as much fun as playing three-a-side in a concrete corner of the schoolyard.

That I could do for hours and hours of sheer mindless bliss — “mindless” being the operative word. I was never so content as when functioning on pure instinct, all thought forgotten. Likewise the lengthy sessions of what we called “hand tennis” played over a small wooden playground fence, “sword-fighting” with 12-inch rulers rather than sabers, and “boxing” with open palms. And then there was always Ping-Pong — the perfect example of a sport that no one can quite take seriously. And thus the perfect sport for me. It was all pure, unadulterated happiness. In a word, childhood. It was only when I was 17 or so, and got to play for a senior team, with spartan training drills and grim coaches and snarling captains, that I discovered I didn’t like soccer nearly as much as I thought I did. Like Dylan Thomas, I wound up on the Second XI. Only, in my case, I wasn’t the captain, and it wasn’t a metaphor either.

Literature did have something to do with my gradual disillusionment with sports. Suddenly, I started reading and everything began to change. At 14, I bought my first hardcover novel, the week it was reviewed in the London newspapers in 1974 — Joseph Heller’s forbiddingly glum and plotless portrait of middle-aged corporate despair, Something Happened, on whose every word I hung. I’d moved on to a different school by then and had started to demonstrate a certain amount of talent in one subject (English) and just enough to hoodwink examiners in two others (French and History). Not only was I reading novels, but I’d started to read poetry as well — always a bad sign.

Dylan Thomas was my hero. So was Rimbaud. Catch-22, Heller’s madly funny first novel, was my bible. I read Thom Gunn, an initially orthodox English poet who’d exiled himself to San Francisco, gobbled vast quantities of LSD and gone completely native. I loved D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love (both required texts) and Sartre’s The Age of Reason, still a potent portrait of postwar Parisian bohemia. One of the book’s characters shoplifted useless items for the sheer existential pleasure of it. Impressed by his nihilistic cool, I started doing the same, but cheated by stealing things I wanted (like a new Bob Dylan cassette).

The high point of my Sartrean shoplifting phase came, appropriately enough, on the Left Bank of Paris itself, when I spent two hours planning and then sweatily executing the theft of a shrink-wrapped edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals in a huge, brightly lit bookstore open late into the evening on the Boulevard Something or Other. I was 15 at the time and, like a cat dropping a mouse at the feet of its owner, proudly presented my paperback trophy as a gift for my iconoclastic half brother, Brian, who was twice my age, far more talented and incomparably better-looking. It was 1975, and he was living with a sullen Frenchwoman who didn’t love him in a studio once owned by the American painter Hilaire Hiler, a friend of Henry Miller’s. When I handed him the Ginsberg, the first words out of his mouth were “Did you steal it?” That was Brian all over. He died of tobacco, alcohol and ineradicable inner demons in 1992. The last time I saw him, he was living in an apartment building that overlooked the Seine rather than another apartment building. This was fortunate, since it was Bastille Day, and to celebrate the occasion he fired a gun out the window — twice. He was a lot more Sartrean than I was.

Not all my reading was highfalutin. I was obsessed with Frederic Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, the best-selling thriller about an attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle by a smooth-talking English hit man with an ice cube for a heart and a ruthless way with women. For months I crept around pretending that I too was plotting a hugely important assassination, though since I never read the papers and could barely name a world leader, I was stumped as to whom I should knock off. (The Headmaster?) So I just kept skulking through the shadows, my imagination fed by ­surrealist poetry (“The secret police have eyes the color of dust/and bicycles filled with perfume”), until eventually I moved on to other enthusiasms.

 

Politics wasn’t one of them, although I did have a faint attachment to anarchism. (Oscar Wilde’s “Selfishness is not doing what you want to do, it is asking other people to do what you want them to do” was my motto.) As for Marxism, I fell asleep reading the Communist Manifesto on the London Underground, which, as Jamie Lee Curtis reminded Kevin Kline’s delusional CIA agent in A Fish Called Wanda, “is not a political movement.” Philosophy in general was beyond my mental capacities anyway, except for Nietzsche, who was really an aphorist. Curiously, the girls I would later date often read philosophy for pleasure, including, eventually, my wife. My only explanation was that they all shared a “philosophical” approach to life — and thus to me.

Picturing myself on the streets of London when I was 17, I wrote a poem heavily influenced by the Beat poet Harold Norse, whose work I’d found in a Penguin compendium on the polished wooden shelves of the school library. My poem began:

I, a spy,

hovering on edges

of rain & loose ends . . .

I was coming of age without a true sense of self, perhaps no more than the banal consequence of a mostly absent father. I couldn’t quite take myself seriously or put myself forward as a person who wanted something definite or who had clearly articulated “goals.” (The only kind of “goals” I could conceive of were the ones professional soccer players score, which I still dreamed about endlessly.) As the Headmaster at my earlier school had perceived (Summer, 1973), “Brendan is still loathe [sic] to commit himself fully, and really ‘give,’ though he has all sorts of ability, acting art and games.” And I’m still loath to commit myself fully. Commitment is death. But so, I’ve gradually come to learn, is its opposite.

A teacher nicknamed “Vast,” whether because of his girth or the breadth of his knowledge I’m no longer sure, was on to me. He taught Divinity and English Literature. I still remember his discussion of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds “that fall onto rocky ground” and are soon gobbled up by the birds, and how I instinctively thought, “That’s me.” Meaning I sensed immediately that I was not composed of the “fine soil” that brings forth grain “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold,” but of something if not rockier, then considerably less fertile. We know everything about ourselves before we know it, and our parents and teachers know it even before that, and I knew I was, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, in some deep sense superficial. I lacked the temperament to try to accomplish great things, and it was years before I realized I might just have the chance to pull off a few small good things.

Though I can no longer find the report cards that cover my adolescence — thank God — I do remember Vast’s sneakily profound final comment on my capabilities in my best subject, English, when I was about 17 and being touted, much to everyone’s astonishment, as a possible candidate for Oxford or Cambridge. His words are etched on my brain. In fact, I once typed them out and stuck them on my computer monitor:

Brendan can write quite well, but he must have something to write about.

Aside from the unspoken dig (“If Brendan read a set text once in a while, he might actually have something to discuss in his essays”), I see a genuine insight in this apparently unremarkable statement: the recognition that a) my only discernible academic talent was for writing, and b) that fiction was not my forte. Put those two things together, and you may possibly have the makings of some sort of journalist. I emphasize “possibly.”

At Cambridge I ended up doing quite well without, in the spirit of my old French Master, actually wearing myself out. If you took English Lit, this was quite easy to do. (I knew one “student” at Cambridge who spent most of his three years there living in Paris. He’s now an annoyingly successful writer.) I did go on playing Ping-Pong, however, though this time it was a version of the game chemically enhanced with “Pakistani Black,” a form of hashish so oily and potent it might as well have been opium personally handed to you by a time-traveling 19th-century Chinaman.

The Pakistani Black raised the pleasure to be had from executing cute back-spin dinks and ferocious top-spin smashes while grinning inanely to an unprecedented level, though I suspect a neutral witness might have observed that those “smashes” were crossing the net at a peculiarly slow pace. I played with a fellow American expat who was studying Economics — i.e., smoking massive quantities of dope and rarely rising before noon. Such was the languor that prevailed among our set of English contemporaries, however, that it was concluded that only two Yanks could possibly do anything so vigorous as play Ping-Pong, out of their heads or otherwise.

 

Not that we were such great Yanks, or even capitalists. After we’d both moved back to America, we met a few times in New York. It was the early 1980s, the dawn of the yuppie era, the Age of Reaganomics, and I had announced my ambition to take the New World by storm by applying for, and getting, a minimum-wage job as a foot messenger. (“This position is far too low . . . His attitude is contrary, even disaffected” — the English Master, Easter, 1972.) Still, for years I’d been in the habit of wandering the streets aimlessly and often thought I’d end up a tramp. Now at least I had an address to go to and a package to deliver. My friend wasn’t in a particularly capitalist mode, either: He was studying to become a yogi. After a while he floated off on mystic clouds and I never heard from him again.

Now, of course, I care for capitalism (i.e., money) more than I did then. I read less of the footloose Rimbaud, and rather more of the sedentary Philip Larkin (required reading), who worked in a library and wrote piercingly of the fear of unemployment, of being “one of the men/You meet of an afternoon . . ./Turning over their failures/By some bed of lobelias/Nowhere to go but indoors/No friends but empty chairs . . .” (Well, they do say journalism is a dying profession.)

On balance, I suppose I’d prefer to have these handwritten comments on my early years than not, though it’s a pretty tough call. Report cards, if they’re written honestly, can be instructive, but also depressing and distressingly prophetic. On the one hand, they reactivate the ever-present urge to wage war on one’s own character, to “pull oneself up by the bootstraps,” as the quaint phrase goes, and set about rectifying all one’s faults. On the other, they are equally likely to provoke a sense of fatalism, even inertia, now enhanced by the popular neuroscientific belief that (in Tom Wolfe’s phrase) “the genetic fix is in” and we’re all hardwired to become more or less precisely who we were to begin with.

In short, we’re doomed from the start, or as the Arabs like to say, maktoub, “It is written.” What to do about it? In the very English words of V.S. Naipaul, “Take it on the chin and move on.”

Brendan Bernhard’s White Muslim: From L.A. to New York to Jihad?, a study of converts to Islam in the West, is published by Melville House.

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