Hoping to Graduate from the Second Grade


In my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic,” I include this recommendation as number 25: “Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.”  I didn’t just parrot this conviction after hearing someone else say it; I believe it absolutely.  Logic tells me the statement must also apply to me, not just to other people, but sometimes my heart is not so sure.  This was one of those days.

In French class today—a lifelong-learning course filled with retirees—I returned to second grade.  I experienced again how it felt when I was seven and knew I had become unacceptable—after six years of confidence and joy.  Since second grade, I have retained the fear that I am insufficient, will be rejected after a brief veneer of belonging.  This fear has possessed my life.  I have known where it originated, in spite of my difficulty in overcoming it.  But today I didn’t simply understand why I felt insufficient.  I once again became the essence of unacceptable, rejected, unique among others in not knowing how to fit in.

What I observed is almost certainly not a true reflection of my classmates’ motivations and actions, but I’ll share what I experienced, filtered through my negative state of mind.

In the French classroom, the woman who used to sit next to me now rarely acknowledges me, and did not do so at all today.  I said “bonjour” to a pair crossing my path as they were finding their places.  One perfunctorily returned the greeting.  The second looked at me as if to say, “Who let her in?” and continued to her seat without speaking to me.  Clumps of women found their seats and huddled together, conversing before class.  I sat by myself wondering, “Is my French so poor that I have earned ostracism?  Am I disagreeable in some way that I don’t understand?”  Tears assembled, almost ready to slip past my lower lids.  I wasn’t just remembering second grade; I was there again: unworthy, an outcast, alone.

Yes, today a man in our French class did greet me in a friendly manner.  A woman classmate who is also a neighbor is always pleasant and today asked me if she would be able to ride with me sometimes, and I did exchange a few words with a couple of other women who, while evidently much more acceptable to the class powerbase than I am, are nevertheless not full members of that oligarchy.  The substantial French-class oligarchy is for me the senior version of my elementary-school classmate Hannah and her court, whom I still hear and believe fifty-five years after I last shared a class with them.  I believe them because, perhaps through the effectiveness of self-fulfilling prophecy, I continue to find their scornful assessments true.

If my confidence and self-respect hadn’t been rocky to begin with, I would not have interpreted my French classmates’ behavior as confirmation of my lowly state.  But the message today seemed to be that I have been right all along, for the sixty-one years since I was in second grade: I am unacceptably different and deficient.  I reinforced my belief that in any setting with other people, sooner or later my fatal flaws will become known.  And because I don’t understand what these flaws are—merely know they exist—I do not know how to overcome them and earn ongoing welcome among those whose world I share.

Ironically, in French class we are reading the short novel Aliocha, by Henri Troyat, who based the story on his own childhood experiences.  Alexis, whose Russian nickname is Aliocha, is the novel’s central character.  Alexis and his parents fled Russia for France after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Throughout the book, we follow Alexis’ struggle to feel truly French, truly accepted.  Even in his happiest times, the doubts try to surface: “De nouveau, Alexis se découvrait en porte à faux dans un monde construit par les autres et pour les autres.”[1]—”Once again, Alexis found himself at odds with a world made by others and for others.”  On this occasion, Alexis quickly regains his sense of belonging in his current happy setting, with his best friend and his best friend’s parents.  Except for the three summers when I had a best friend, Louise, at camp, I found myself “at odds with a world made by others and for others” at summer camp.  I also seemed to be trespassing in others’ worlds in junior-high and high school, and often in my own neighborhood.  As happened today, the exceptions—those who included me at least to some extent—whispered, while the signs of my expulsion from society screamed.

My life has been and continues to be vastly blessed.  But when, and how, am I finally going to graduate from second grade?

A question I can answer is this: What is the gift here?  Because of my own experiences—even my mistaken interpretation of others’ attitudes and actions—I have empathy for all who are bullied or otherwise see themselves as outsiders.  I also have a responsibility to help change our we-they, insider-outcast society into one that recognizes and embraces this truth: We are all one.

[1] Henri Troyat, Aliocha (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1991), 90.

Helen MacInnes’s Paris and Venice, and My Own

Grand Canal, Venice

The idea of rereading a novel by Helen MacInnes—whose books I first enjoyed several decades ago—came while I was reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.   The Thirty-Nine Steps has been included on some lists of the 100 best books and so had made my list of books I should read.  Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is an early version of the spy-novel genre into which Helen MacInnes’s The Venetian Affair (1963) falls, and the books contain some of the same elements, including ruthless pursuers driven by their ideology and heroes who must use intelligence and subterfuge to avoid capture and certain death.  The Thirty-Nine Steps, however, is almost entirely male, with barely a mention of a woman, much less one in any sustained role.  Even the servants are men.

Claire Connor Langley, in The Venetian Affair, is an important and intelligent personage in her own right, even if Bill Fenner, the other central character, does rescue her in the end.  Claire is no Emma Peel, from the 1960s television series The Avengers; Emma Peel’s formidable karate skills never let her down.  But while Claire is always feminine in her dress and decorous in her behavior, she is neither helpless nor subordinate.  She and Bill end the novel not only with the bad guys defeated but also with love for one another, a situation I prefer over the simple defeat of the villains by the ever-manly Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.  But rereading The Venetian Affair pleased me in more personal ways, as well.  Along with presenting a world into which my imagination could escape, the novel led me back into cities, sights, memories, and a time that I myself have known.

The Venetian Affair takes place at the end of the summer of 1961, over fifty-five years ago.  And yet the world of the book—minus the high-stakes intrigue—in some ways feels more comfortable and familiar to me than the world I inhabit now.  In 1961, documents are prepared on typewriters, and copies are made with carbon paper.  Miniature tape recorders are high tech.  Phones are anchored to the wall.  Well-dressed women wear gloves all year around (I can do without the gloves), and dining on the train is an elegant experience.

The first part of the novel takes place in Paris.  It would be ten years later—the last day of 1971 and the first twenty days of 1972—that I would be in France.  The Paris that my roommate, Karin, and I explored on foot and by Métro and that my friend Louis Henri and I whirled through in his Deux Chevaux Citroën was certainly more like the Paris Bill Fenner and Claire Connor Langley know than the Paris of today, with the Centre Pompidou—built just after I was there—now forcing itself into the central-Paris skyline.  The Paris I knew seemed to be a place that would never change because it was already perfect just as it was.

As Karin and I would do, Helen MacInnes’s Bill and Claire visit cafés near Boulevard Saint-Germain.  They wouldn’t have stayed in a place as small and plain as the Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents was in the early 70s, but they would have passed nearby as they walked through the Latin Quarter.  Claire’s apartment is on the Ile Saint-Louis, where Karin and I found the best strawberry ice cream in the Western World.  The Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents still exists (with “Grand” removed from its name), considerably gussied up from the version we knew, with its minuterie lighting the halls for just one minute as we climbed the stairs to our room and with small sandpaper-like sheets of toilet paper stocking the tiny WC located one floor below our room.  We paid $3.60 each per night, including breakfast of café au lait and croissants.  Judging by photos on the Internet, rooms at the Hôtel des Deux Continents are now amenity filled and priced accordingly.  We had no television and no toilet, just the one downstairs, although we did have a sink and a bidet.  We made much use of the former and none of the latter.  We had no need of air conditioning in January, but the room was warm and cozy, if exceedingly plain.

While Karin and I were in Paris, I met Louis Henri at a party hosted by the affluent parents of his cousin, who was spending the year at the University of Delaware.  Louis Henri’s light-yellow hair bushed out like a dandelion gone to seed, and his large red bowtie contested his reserved white sports coat.  He was almost as small as I am and was known as “Petit Louis.”  We danced to “The Sound of Silence” and “Country Roads” as Louis Henri sang along softly (“Almost heaven, West Virginia”), and we ate macaroons, talked, and drank champagne.  After the other guests had left, Louis Henri and I stayed on to chat with his cousin and aunt and uncle (I mostly listened, lost in the setting and the rapid French) before Louis Henri drove me to my hotel.  He sped the wrong way down half a block of one-way Rue Jacob and parked with the Deux Chevaux’s two left wheels on the sidewalk.  Karin didn’t wake up to let me into our room, so the toothless little man from the front desk fiddled with his collection of keys until he found the one to open the door.

In The Venetian Affair, Bill considers playing “the complete tourist” by entering the Café Deux Magots, “where the existentialists had established their original beachhead.”  Karin and I had a drink of some sort there, envisioning Camus and Sartre sitting where we sat, and I returned once on my own, probably to drink coffee.  The waiter tried to convince me I owed an additional service charge, but I had enough savvy to know I’d already paid everything in full.  Karin and I were back in the Café Deux Magots when Louis Henri found me after the gap of a few days while Karin and I had been in Marseilles.  I don’t know how he figured out where I was in all of Paris.  Karin and I had moved for our last couple of nights in France to the Grand Hôtel des Étrangers, which cost us each just two dollars a night.  The overhead light in our room had burned out and was not replaced during our stay.  Our stay was also not enough time for Louis Henri and me to remain a couple after my three weeks in France concluded.

The Venice that Bill and Claire experience in The Venetian Affair probably had not changed much by the time I paid my brief visit in 2002.  Venetian buildings can be rescued, repaired, even renovated, but not much new can be added to the floating city.  As it is for Bill and Claire, in 2002, the vaporetti still served as water-borne buses, and gondoliers with straw hats and striped shirts wooed the tourists.  The arches of the Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal were just as beautiful, and the houses along the canal equally ethereal, as they certainly had been in 1961.

Like Bill and Claire, I was in Venice in late summer.  On that breezy, sunny day after heavy rain, Venice shimmered like a mirage hovering just on top of the sea, a vision that might not be there again if I turned away.  I had just enough time in Venice to ride a vaporetto around the outside of the city, past tankers and cruise ships and on to a stop by St. Mark’s Square.  I ran through the crowds and the square’s ankle-deep water to stand for a few moments in front of the cathedral, with its lacy and flamboyant angles, arches, swirls, and ornaments.  Then the vaporetto floated up the dreamway that is the Grand Canal, passed under the Rialto Bridge, and docked by the station, where the Eurostar to Rome had already arrived.

In The Venetian Affair, Bill and Claire are helping to foil a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.  When Louis Henri and I were a star in the Arc de Triomphe’s spinning galaxy of car lights, de Gaulle had been gone just over a year.  His term as president had ended less than three years earlier.  A man who helped Karin and me find our way to the correct Métro stop complained that the Étoile Station had been renamed Charles de Gaulle-Étoile.  The man was clearly not a de Gaulle fan.  Probably now the name is from too far back in history for many to care one way or another.

Bill and Claire’s world is the world of the Cold War, with vicious, power-hungry men (and the expendable women who support them) trying to take over the democratic world.  Balance and order in favor of freedom are restored at the end of the novel, but we know that eventually someone will step into the villain Kalganov’s empty place and threaten the world again.  In The Venetian Affair’s universe, the bad guys and good guys are unambiguously delineated.  By the time I was in Venice, I’d learned that the world is much less clearly sorted, and happy endings are even more transient.

It is our memories and the present moments seized that continue to endure.