From the Memoirs of Alex Newman
Dedicated to the Peter Dunmans in all our lives
When I was young, I dreaded school.
It wasn’t because I was bad at school, or that I disliked my teachers - well, most of them. And I was quite good in all my classes. It was because of my classmates.
Oh, I had friends, sure. Not many, but they were close. But aside from those few, well...
The others, they were who made me dread school.
One in particular, in fact. His name was Samson Greenberg, and he was a born ringleader.
In retrospect, he was a scrawny, snot-nosed little brat who was no larger than me. In the eye of my memory, though, he was a giant.
Perhaps it was because of the overlarge shoes he wore, hand-me-downs from an older brother. Perhaps it was the way he always wore muscle shirts to show off the muscles that he did not, in fact, have. But it was probably the way everyone else deferred to him.
Like I said, he was a born ringleader. He had an air of command, the kind that even larger kids paid attention to. He knew what people’s insecurities were, and if you showed him disrespect he would reveal them. And, of course, he had a pack of other bullies who followed him around, who would get their hands dirty on his behalf. They didn’t fear words, but they feared that if they disobeyed Samson, he would turn the rest of the bullies on him. An entire group of kids kept under Samson’s control by fear of the rest of the group.
And he was always Samson. Never Sammy, never Sam, never Sonny. Samson. If you tried to call him a nickname, you would draw his ire for certain. Of course, many things could draw his ire. Samson was easy to anger, and he was angry he lashed out. If you were lucky he would set his gang of bullies on you. If you weren’t, he’d use his words. Samson was good with words.
I was a favorite target of his. My parents and the teachers always told me that I just needed to ignore him, that he wanted attention and if you didn’t give it to him, he’d find someone who would. They were wrong, of course. Samson wanted attention, it was true, but if you ignored him, he wouldn’t move on. He’d keep going until he got it. And he’d get angry. Like I said, Samson was easy to make angry.
Two or three times a week, he would pick me out from the crowd. “Hey, Alex!” he’d call, “Hey, Newman! Get over here!” and when I heard those seven words I knew my life was over for the day. It would have been better if it was every day – I could just wait for it, knowing that it was coming. But some days he’d leave me alone, which left me anticipating it, worrying.
Sometimes I would ignore his demand. But that just made it worse – he would send his gang to grab me, and I’d run, and they’d catch me, and then, well... it wasn’t pleasant. So usually, I’d go over to him.
In the eye of my memory, he stood far taller than the bullies he carried with him, kids who actually loomed over either me or Samson. It was probably because of how they hunched over when they were near him, making themselves smaller, going to any lengths not to appear taller than their leader.
Samson would stand there smugly, a faint smile on his face, as I approached. He would talk to me, asking how my day was going. He always started by being friendly. But the façade never lasted long. Only a few minutes at most before he would demand his tribute. And lunch money didn’t interest him, he wanted words. Compliments, to him, and never one that he’d heard before.
Words were always one of my talents as well, so I was pretty decent at this game, which was perhaps why I was so often Samson’s target. Over and over again he’d demand compliments, until you repeated one. Then he’d mock you, and then he’d set his gang on you, and then, finally, you could escape.
I was usually able to keep it going for a while, long enough that we’d need to get going to the next class. Sometimes Samson cared about that, and it would be over. Sometimes he didn’t.
Samson made my life hell all throughout elementary and middle school, and then we went to high school. And there, finally, I escaped him forever, because we went to different high schools. Perhaps his reign continued where he went. Perhaps he was finally stopped, by teachers or older kids.
And as for me? Well, I mostly moved on from Samson, and joined the theater. Improv club. My experience with Samson served me well – I was excellent at thinking fast and coming up with original lines and plots and characters. And I never used the same one twice.
If my middle school years were dominated by Samson, then my high school years were dominated by Rebecca Lewis. It was in an entirely different way, mind you. Samson made my life miserable, while Rebecca...
Well, to be honest, Rebecca also made my life miserable. But really, that was my own fault. She herself never even noticed me.
I was in love with her from the second day of high school up until I went to college and ended up with my first boyfriend, but I never made a move - I was always too scared, or she was dating someone, or I was too scared, or she was dating someone else, or I was too scared, or I was dating someone else, or I was too scared, or we were going to different colleges.
I first saw her on the first day of high school. At the time, I thought that she was kind of cute, but nothing special. She wore crop tops and short skirts, but so did every other girl in the school. She wore high heels every day, but that wasn’t unusual either. Her hair was died a vibrant shade of blue - at least, it was the first time I saw her, she changed it on a monthly basis - which did make her stand out a little, but on first glance nothing drew her to me.
The second day of high school, that’s when she stole my heart. I remember the very moment it happened - it’s easy to remember things about your first love.
It was in an English class, with old Mrs. Dowd. She was a kind old woman with a passion for classical literature eclipsed only by her love for her innumerable children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And they loved her back just as fiercely - every day she wore a tie-die shirt that had been made for her by one of her descendants, and she would share a picture of the kid holding it when it was made and tell a story about them. Sometimes the pictures were as recent as a week or two before, but others dated all the way back to the 50s or 60s.
On the second day of high school, our first class with her, Mrs. Dowd was trying to get us to be interested in the classics by reading us her favorite passage from Hamlet:
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! Oh god, god,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this,
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on. And yet, within a month,
(Let me not think on ’t; frailty, thy name is woman!)
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears—why she married with my
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her gallèd eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
She tried to explain to us why she loved it, but I was distracted by Rebecca, sitting in front of me, who leaned over to the girl she was sitting next to and whispered, “In other words, Hamlet is very emo.”
The two quietly began cracking up, and this piqued my interest. But the moment that truly made me fall in love was Rebecca’s next joke: “And Hamlet’s all ‘if this is where the monarchy is headed, count me out!” That made me start laughing too - combining The Lion King and Hamlet? Genius! Genius by the standards of a ninth grader, anyway.
Mrs. Dowd noticed, of course, and told us to share the joke with the class. Rebecca went red and was too shy to do so, and her friend and I were laughing too hard. But I was already in love.
For four years, I loved Rebecca, watching distantly as she changed hair and boyfriends and hair and girlfriends, as she overcame her shyness and became one of the most popular girls in the school, as she was made prom queen (with Robert Steinhardt as prom king, the lucky bastard), became valedictorian and eventually went to Harvard.
I, on the other hand, remained in my small circle. Theater certainly helped me with my own anxiety issues, but not enough, really. The theatrical circle at our high school was small, and I knew few people outside of it. Eventually I went to college, still in love with Rebecca, and started hanging out with my friend Joseph until one day he kissed me, and I realized that we had been dating without me noticing, and I fell in love with him instead.
In middle and high school, my life was defined by others - first Samson and then Rebecca. And of course, my path through life had always been defined by my parents. But in college, I came into my own and began defining my life for myself.
The first step was changing my major. My parents sent me to college intending for me to become a lawyer. I had always enjoyed arguments, I suppose - verbals sparring matches were still very much my forte. But the law itself, no. I had no passion for the law, no interest in becoming a lawyer. I had just been drifting along in the path they had set for me.
This caused problems when I first came to college. I was alone there, and my friends gone to different schools and so not really knowing anyone yet, and I wasn’t yet involved in any clubs. Friendless, uninterested in schoolwork, but with nothing to do that work, still hung up on Rebecca... it was a bad combination. Depression set in quickly, and I began to have thoughts of suicide.
At the time, I felt very alone. I thought that no one else could possibly be going through what I was going through. And more than that, I thought that no one else could possibly understand or care about my own struggles. And I thought that no one would care if I died.
I was wrong on all three counts. As it turns out, many people have trouble with the transition to college. Many people have faced anxiety and depression. And many people would have cared if I died.
I learned this when I missed all my classes one day and spent it lying in bed. Going to a liberal arts college, I had to take classes outside of my major. Classes like Theater History. A much more informal class than the three lecture courses I was taking along with it, a class in which I was able to make my own observations and comments on what we were learning. I had done it throughout high school, too, adding snarky commentary to classes for the benefit of my friends and I, and I continued to do so in college. The only person to hear them was the guy who sat next to me, Peter Dunman. He would always laugh quietly to himself, and occasionally make a comment of his own.
That was at the beginning of the year, anyway. Over the course of that first semester, I got quieter and quieter as depression wrapped its fingers around me. Peter noticed, although I didn’t notice him noticing. And he grew worried. So when I missed Theater History in early November, he sent me an email asking if I was okay. And when I didn’t respond, he showed up at my dorm room and almost broke my door down before I got out of bed and let me in. He dragged me outside into the sunlight and did his best to cheer me up.
Peter convinced me to go to the college’s counseling center, and I did, for a few weeks, but really the thing that helped me climb out of the pit of depression I had spiraled into was knowing that someone cared. Peter had noticed when I wasn’t there, and had come to find me.
Peter and I talked a lot, after that. He helped me realize that I really didn’t enjoy learning about the law. What I liked was words. Words and language were my passion. A mastery of words what what I had been developing when Samson cornered me, a love of language was what I had been indulging when I tried to ignore Rebecca and instead buried myself in improvised theater.
So I changed my major. From Government and Law to English wasn’t a huge change, but it was enough to revitalize me. I took English courses, and continued taking theater classes as well - similar enough to still interest me, but different enough that doing one was a break from the other. After that first year, I added a Theater major as well. I found an improv theater group at college, and began trying out for shows. I even began writing one of my own.
That was the first step, disentangling myself from my parent’s plans.
The second step was romance. I came to college still in love with Rebecca. Rebecca, hundreds of miles away - Rebecca, who had never noticed me - Rebecca, who was far too good for me. Those were my thoughts not just through my unfortunate first semester, but well into second semester as well.
It was after Peter had dragged me into the light. I was doing improv again, I had started playing Ultimate Frisbee every week, I even joined a monthly book club. And there I met Joseph Mercer.
Joseph was a football player and a star athlete even as a sophomore, but he was well-rounded. Not one of those guys who has to take ‘rocks for jocks’ or another easy classes made to pass star players. No, he was getting a degree in engineering. From there, he once told me, he planned to go to grad school, and then to NASA. It was an ambitious plan, but I always believed he would manage it.
I met him first in Ultimate Frisbee, which he played when he could as a break from football. Then I started running into him at improv. Then at the book club. Then, since our interests aligned so well, we started hanging out. We would sit on the quad together, get lunch and dinner together.
Then we went to a movie together, and after the movie Joseph kissed me, and I realized that we had been dating for several weeks without me noticing.
I had been surprised by the first kiss, but I initiated the second one.
Joseph and I dated for two and a half years, and then he graduated. We agreed that we couldn’t handle a long-distance relationship, and so we broke up amiably, wishing each other good luck with the rest of our lives. Maybe if we find ourselves in the same place someday, we said to each other, hoping desperately. It hasn’t happened, but I still think fondly of him.
That was the second step, breaking free of my longing for Rebecca.
But as for Samson’s influence on me, that I never truly escaped. His verbal attacks and demands had begun my lifelong fluency and interest in language of all types, and I never took a step away from it. I never really wanted to. To this day, words and language are my passion. And in the end, I have Samson Greenberg to thank for it.
No work of art exists in a vacuum. All things have their influences. Although it would be impossible to identify everything which influenced me in the writing of Memoirs, I do wish to pay tribute to those which I am aware of as well as to those I paid conscious tribute to.
This was written as part of a short story class in college, taught by then-professor Alix Ohlin. The prompt was to write a story about childhood.