THE SECRET MANSION

 

George Saunders

When I was a senior in high school, my career plan was: There was this kid in our school who knew someone who knew someone who knew this guy who knew someone in The Eagles. This kid was putting together a sort of all-star band that would, through the special intervention of the guy who knew the guy who knew the guy, be opening, next fall, for the band that opened for the band that sometimes opened for The Eagles. My initial incredulity was disabled a bit when I went with this kid to a local music store, and he pulled out a check, to the store, from United Artists, in the sum of $10,000, to buy a new P.A. I still don’t understand what the heck was actually going on there. But, flash-forwarding: The band never played a single gig.

I was, in other words, on the path to nowhere, but would have only found this out a year or two later.

Luckily I was in the sphere of influence of two wonderful teachers.

In Ms. Williams’s English classes, she sometimes showed filmstrips on the topic of “great American authors.” Here was Melville, gesturing at a whale, who was obligingly surfacing. Here was Nathanial Hawthorne, looking pensive under a cherry tree. Ms. Williams seemed to love these writers. Like every other kid in our school with any taste, I had a big crush on Ms. Williams. She was beautiful, luminous: her intelligence fierce, her sense of humor dry. What did she love about these American authors anyway? I sat entranced, wondering. Their minds, it seemed, their boldness, the lives they’d led, full of thinking and caring, devoid of indifference, habit, servility. I longed to be worthy of her attention, someone who might appear in a filmstrip himself someday. Perhaps that filmstrip would show me sitting right here, in my little fold-down desk, at Oak Forest High School, praying for Ms. Williams to glance my way and approve.

Ms. Williams was actually dating my geology teacher, Mr. Lindbloom. They made a kind of intellectual power couple. Every Friday he gave his class over to free discussion. Why are we here? Why does evil so often win? How should we live? Those things that you know: how do you know them? Are you sure about them? During one of the Friday sessions, I raised my hand and said … something. I don’t remember what it was. Given my reading at the time (Kahlil Gibran and liner notes for art-rock bands), it was probably something along the lines of: “Suffer the children to learn that love, shall leaven the bread by which, children of the stars, ye shall thrive, if only you do not, like sages of yore, wrest your eyes in futile languor.” Whatever it was, Mr. Lindbloom saw something in it, and after class, asked me to write it down. It was always better if you wrote it down, he said. It was good discipline. It clarified the thought.

That night, as I sat in front of a clean sheet of paper, I imagined—well, I imagined Mr. Lindbloom and Ms. Williams and a few of the other young teachers, gathered at a bar in … not a bar, no. That was common. A mansion. A secret mansion one of them owned, reserved for intellectual discussion.

Mr. Lindbloom takes out my paper.

“Here’s something interesting,” he says to his friends. “I won’t tell you who wrote it. But see if you can guess.”

Then he reads: “Even as the stars are aloft, so too may we, rending unto Zeus, saying nay to Mordor, rise above the blackened plain of the Timid, exalting the stars, even unto the generation.”

A respectful silence.

“Shakespeare?” someone says.

“Kahlil Gibran?” someone else says.

“Lincoln?

“Actually,” Mr. Lindbloom says, “this was written by one of my students.”

“Must be someone pretty special,” Ms. Williams says.

“Saunders,” Mr. Lindbloom says.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” says one of the lesser members of the group, who will soon get kicked out for being so mundane.

“I had a feeling,” Ms. Williams says. “There’s definitely something going on there.”

A more honest part of me knew very well where this was headed and was thinking: I’m going to all this trouble and he’ll never even mention it again. He probably already forgot he asked for it. And then I’ll have to stop loving him. That’s sort of how it was in our school. Teachers were busy. Most of them seemed a little heartbroken to me, as if the time when they’d actually expected a kid to bene t from their attention was long past.

I wrote it out anyway.

I handed it over on Friday. Mr. Lindbloom pulled me aside on Monday. To thank me. That afternoon Ms. Williams told me that she read it, too, and thought it was good, really interesting, I should keep it up, keep writing things down as they came to me.

Together, they conspired to get me a copy of Atlas Shrugged, and I took it home over Christmas break. I read all 1,084 pages of it, on a car trip, and when I finished the novel, there in the back seat of Andy Fiedler’s Nova, I had a sudden image of myself, wearing what I thought of as “a college sweater,” pacing feverishly across a tree-dense campus, strenuously explaining my philosophical viewpoint to a group of braless co-eds much taken with philosophers and philosophy, and then we all headed over to the football game, holding those little shouting-cone deals.

When I got home, I called the guy who knew the guy who knew the guy, quit the band, and started trying to get into college.

But there was a problem: I had flunked two classes and had literally never studied outside of school, except once, when I made a cassette of the answers to a biology quiz and went to sleep with the tape on, hoping to learn by aural osmosis. I was rejected by Notre Dame (fair enough) and the Berklee College of Music (ditto, didn’t actually read music) but got into a state school where the main requirement seemed to be ownership of a bong. Mr. Lindbloom felt I deserved better. He made a call, to the Colorado School of Mines. As a grad student in geology, he’d met a number of heavy-hitters in the field who had gone there. Somehow, in a single 10-minute call, he persuaded them to give me a try.

How did he do it? Why did he do it? Would I have done it? Would I go to such lengths for one of my students, now that I’m a teacher myself? Good Lord, I hope so. But I don’t know. Time moves fast, and, in teaching, at a real-life pace, you never really know who needs what.

All I had to do, the School of Mines said, was pass 18 summer-school hours of remedial math and science.

Which, appalled at the thought of letting Mr. Lindbloom/Ms. Williams down, I did.

And that fall I went off to college.

Now, at this distance, I can see how important and unlikely these teacherly interventions were. They were young teachers (in their mid-20s), they were making lives for themselves, they were surrounded every day by hundreds of us blustering, cynical, musk-smelling 1970s kids, resisting positive influence with all our sneering Aerosmith-inflected might. It all could have been different for me and would have been, if not for whatever it is that makes an older person—busy person, tired person, finite person—turn toward a young person and say, in whatever way is needed: “Of course you can. Why not? Give it a try.”

Slight p.s.: Mr. Lindbloom and Ms. Williams married a few years later, taught in that same school another 30 years and only recently retired. I do the math of that sometimes: how many kids, over the course of those years, got the benefit of their loving attention? How many people are incrementally more thoughtful, curious, and open—how many people think slightly better of themselves and their abilities, are more capable of change, love, generosity, rebound—because of these two examples of that precious race, the true teacher?

It must run into the hundreds, even thousands, if you count (as you must) the children of those children directly influenced. As one of those thus benefited, I retain the mute, head-shaking gratitude of someone snatched back from the edge of an abyss.

I would have lived, sure, but not nearly as well.

Copyright © 2011 by George Saunders
Originally published in the New York Times Magazine

GEORGE SAUNDERS, who attended Oak Forest High School in suburban Chicago, is the celebrated author of many short story collections. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, GQ, Harpers Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2006, he received a MacArthur “genius” award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. His eagerly awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, will be published in 2017.