Friday, April 8, 2011

Back to the Old School

I was the guest speaker at my old high school yesterday afternoon as a part of their quote, "Distinguished Alumni," unquote program. It's a little hard to swallow being referred to as a distinguished anything in Vin World, considering I put my socks on one at a time just like everyone else, the only difference being my socks probably have holes in them and maybe I've been wearing them for a couple of days now. I'm a bachelor. You gotta let me slide on certain things, like clean clothes for instance.

Ok, back to school.

A little background. My old school, The Albany Academy, was once a private, all boys, military academy. It's also old. Really old, having been established in 1813. When I attended the place from 1978-1982, the military component was still in full swing. We wore uniforms that matched West Point's, and drilled on a daily basis. The halls of our bottom floor were lined not with posters of peace, love, and understanding, but Springfield 03-A3 rifles. We had a shooting range upstairs, a Major, a Colonel, and strict haircut regulations. Anyone who received a certain amount of demerits at inspection was expected to march around the front "flag-pole"circle, even if it was raining.

It was all good fun...Wink.

Some pretty big notables, literary and otherwise, have passed through the Academy's corridors through the years including, Herman Melville, the Roosevelt kids, and even Andy Rooney.

The school has changed radically since my time. It has now merged with the girl's school located across the street. Participation in the military is no longer required, but instead a "volunteer" extra curricular activity. The West Point uniforms are gone, giving over to preppy blue blazers, rep-ties, and khakis. Gone are the guns, the Colonel's, the inspections, and, in a word, the junk that used to keep me up at night.

The place has evolved into a country day prep school that boasts a whole bunch of happy-go-lucky students, and that to me is a refreshing sight to see (Believe me, when I was there I used to sweat out the polish on my shoes, not to mention my math homework, and holy crap, Herman Melville went here. When do we start reading Moby Dick?).

I was greeted by the new headmaster, who immediately took my hand in his, and told me he was reading THE REMAINS on Kindle, and that he was "loving it." This same man graduated from the school in 1958 and despite our generation gap, proudly pronounced his love of the E-Book. When I told him how many I was selling these days (2-3,000 per day) he nearly fell over. Next on his list is THE INNOCENT. I promised him a nice endowment if my sales keep up...Wink again

Then came the moment of absolute truth.

I was led to a podium inside the "Chapel" where I began to deliver an address to two-hundred or so students and faculty. I spoke about writing my first story at the school, and the influence one writing teacher by the name of Frank Nash had on me. Nash had turned me onto Papa Hemingway and from that day forward I knew I wanted to be like the adventurous writer. I wanted to do what he did, minus the suicide of course.

I offered bulleted advice to the students regarding the writing life, which included, "Live in Europe for a year," "Don't get married," and "You must learn to develop the ability to write interestingly about a teabag," a quote which originates from my RT South African journalist colleague, Lizette Potgeiter. By the time I was finished with my worldly advice the students were applauding, laughing, cheering. And then something strange happened.

From what I was told later, the students almost never raise their hands and pose questions at the completion of a Distinguished Alumni speech. Being kids, they usually want to get the hell out to burn some steam. But in this case, dozens of hands were raised while some pretty intelligent questions were posed to me. Everything from, "Do you speak Italian?" (not yet) to "What are your books about (check out my website , to "Are you Harrison Zandri's father?" (Yup, he's home writing his first novel and bench pressing 250 pounds).

I'll be honest here. It isn't easy going back to your old school. I was a crappy student, and usually ended up in summer school for math. Some of my classmates must surely be more distinguished than I am. Andy Rooney graduated from the school for God's sakes. I couldn't imagine what I had accomplished that would make the school want me to share my wisdom with the students. With these thoughts stirring in the back of my brain, I simply spoke the truth.

But later on, when it was all over, the headmaster once more warmly shook my hand, and he told me something that will stick with me forever. He told me that the advice I offered the kids was "real." And that's why they invited me back to school, and keeping it real is what made the difference in their young lives, if only for one brief sun-filled afternoon in April.


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