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Joyce Maynard was eighteen years old when her 1972 New York Times Magazine cover story catapulted her to national prominence. Published one year later, Looking Back is her remarkable follow-up—part memoir, part cultural history, and part social critique. She wrote about diving under her desk for air-raid practice during the Cuban Missile Crisis, ...
Joyce Maynard was eighteen years old when her 1972 New York Times Magazine cover story catapulted her to national prominence. Published one year later, Looking Back is her remarkable follow-up—part memoir, part cultural history, and part social critique. She wrote about diving under her desk for air-raid practice during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and catching the first glimpse (on the cover of Life magazine) of a human fetus in utero.
Extraordinarily frank, sincere, and opinionated, Maynard seemed unafraid to take on any subject—including herself. But as she reveals in a poignant and candid new foreword, she carefully kept her inner life off the page. She didn’t write about her difficult relationship with her mother, or her father’s alcoholism, or the fact that her best friend at college had struggled with the knowledge that he was gay. And she did not mention the most important part of her life at the time she was writing this book: her relationship with reclusive author J. D. Salinger, who read and corrected every page, even as he condemned her for writing it.
In this special anniversary edition, Maynard’s candid introductory reflections on the girl behind the girl who wrote Looking Back lend a new dimension to this iconic analysis of a generation.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Joyce Maynard including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
I didn't know till years later that they called it the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I remember Castro. (We called him Castor Oil and were awed by his beard—beards were rare in those days.) We might not have worried so much (what would the Communists want with our small New Hampshire town?) except that we lived ten miles from an air base. Planes buzzed around us like mosquitoes that summer. People talked about fallout shelters in their basements and one family on our street packed their car to go to the mountains. I couldn't understand that. If everybody was going to die, I certainly didn't want to stick around, with my hair falling out and—later—a plague of thalidomide-type babies. I wanted to go quickly, with my family. Dying didn't bother me so much—I'd never known anyone who died, and death was unreal, fascinating. (I wanted Doctor Kildare to have more terminal cancer patients and fewer love affairs.) What bothered me was the business of immortality. Sometimes growing-up sorts of concepts germinate slowly, but the full impact of death hit me like a bomb in the night. Not only would my body be gone—that I could take—but I would cease to think. That I would no longer be a participant I had realized before; now I saw that I wouldn't even be an observer. What specially alarmed me about The Bomb (always singular like, a few years later, the Pill) was the possibility of total obliteration. All traces of me would be destroyed. There would be no grave and, if there were, no one left to visit it. Newly philosophical, I pondered the universe. If the earth was in the solar system and the solar system was in the galaxy and the galaxy was in the universe, what was the universe in? And if the sun was just a dot—the head of a pin—what was I? We visited a planetarium that year, in third grade, and saw a dramatization of the sun exploding. Somehow the image of that orange ball zooming toward us merged with my image of The Bomb. The effect was devastating, and for the first time in my life—except for Easter Sundays, when I wished I went to church so I could have a fancy new dress like my Catholic and Protestant friends—I longed for religion.
Oyster River Elementary was not a good school. They told us constantly that it was one of the best in the state, but the state was New Hampshire, and that was like calling an ant hill the highest point around because it rose up from the Sahara Desert. One fact of New Hampshire politics I learned early: we had no broad base tax. No sales or income tax because the antifederalist farmers and shoe factory workers who feared the Reds and creeping socialism acquired their political philosophy from William Loeb's Manchester Union Leader (the paper that, on the day of Joe McCarthy's death, ran his full page photo edged in black). We in Durham were a specially hated target, a pocket of liberals filling the minds of New Hampshire's young with highfalutin intellectual garbage. And that was why the archaic New Hampshire legislature always cut the university budget in half, and why my family had only one car, second hand (my father taught at the university). And the Union Leader was the reason, finally, why any man who wanted to be elected governor had first to pledge himself against the sales tax, so schools were supported by local property taxes and the sweepstakes, which meant that they weren't supported very well. So Oyster River was not a very good school.
But in all the bleakness—the senile teacher who fell asleep at her desk; the annual memorization of Kilmer's Trees, the punishment administered by banging guilty heads on hard oak desks—we had one fine, fancy new gimmick that followed us from fourth grade through eighth. It was a box of white cardboard folders, condensed two-page stories about dinosaurs and earthquakes and Seeing Eye dogs, with questions at the end. The folders were called Power Builders and they were leveled according to color—red, blue, yellow, orange, brown—all the way up to the dreamed-for, cheated-for purple. Power Builders came with their own answer keys, the idea being that you moved at your own rate and—we heard it a hundred times—that when you cheat, you only cheat yourself. The whole program was called SRA and there were a dozen other abbreviations, TTUM, FSU, PQB-all having to do with formulae that had reduced reading to a science. We had Listening SMI Builders too—more readers' digested mini-modules of information, read aloud to us while we sat, poised stiffly in our chairs, trying frantically to remember the five steps (SRQPT? VWCNB? XUSLN?) to Better Listening Comprehension. A Listening Skill Test would come later to catch the mental wanderers, the doodlers, the deaf.
I—and most of the others in the Purple group—solved the problem by tucking an answer key into my Power Builder and writing down the answers (making an occasional error for credibility) without reading the story or the questions. By sixth grade a whole group of us had been promoted to a special reading group and sent to an independent study conference unit (nothing was a room any more) where we copied answer keys, five at a time, and then told dirty jokes.
SRA took over reading the way New Math took over arithmetic. By seventh grade there was a special Developmental Reading class. (Mental reading, we called it.) The classroom was filled with audio-visual aids, phonetics charts, reading laboratories. Once a week the teacher plugged in the speed-reading machine that projected a story on the board, one phrase at a time, faster and faster. Get a piece of dust in your eye, blink—and you were lost.
There were no books in the Developmental Reading room—the lab. Even in English class we escaped books easily. The project of the year was to portray a famous author (one of the one hundred greatest of all time). I was Louisa May Alcott and my best friend was Robert McCloskey, the man who wrote Make Way for Ducklings. For this, we put on skits, cut out pictures from magazines and—at the end of the year, dressed up. (I wore a long nightgown with my hair in a bun and got A-plus; my friend came as a duck.) I have never read a book by Louisa May Alcott. I don't think I read a book all that year. All through high school, in fact, I barely read. Though I've started reading now in college, I still find myself drawn in bookstores to the bright covers and shiny, PowerBuilder look. My eyes have been trained to skip nonessentials (adjectives, adverbs) and dart straight to the meaty phrases. (TVPQM.) But—perhaps in defiance of that whirring black rate-builder projector—it takes me three hours to read one hundred pages.
I watch them every year, the six-year-olds, buying lunch boxes and snap-on bow ties and jeweled barrettes, swinging on their mothers' arms as they approach the school on registration day or walking ahead a little, stiff in new clothes. Putting their feet on the shoe salesman's metal foot measurer, eying the patent leather and ending up with sturdy brown tie oxfords, sitting rigid in the barber's chair, heads balanced on white-sheeted bodies like cherries on cupcakes, as the barber snips away the kindergarten hair for the new grownup cut, striding past the five-year-olds with looks of knowing pity (ah, youth) they enter elementary school, feigning reluctance—with scuffing heels and dying TV cowboy groans shared in the cloakroom, but filled with hope and anticipation of all the mysteries waiting in the cafeteria and the water fountain and the paper closet, and in the pages of the textbooks on the teachers' desks. With pink erasers and a sheath of sharpened pencils, they file in so really bravely, as if to tame lions, or at least subdue the alphabet. And instead, I long to warn them, watching this green young crop pass by each year, seeing them enter a red-brick, smelly-staircase world of bathroom passes and penmanship drills, gongs and red x's, and an unexpected snap to the teacher's slingshot voice (so slack and giving, when she met the mothers). I want to tell them about the back pages in the teacher's record book, of going to the principal's office or staying behind an extra year. Quickly they learn how little use they'll have for lion-taming apparatus. They are, themselves, about to meet the tamer.
I can barely remember it now, but I know that I once felt that first-day eagerness too. Something happened, though, between that one pony-tail-tossing, skirt-flouncing, hand-waving ("I know the answer—call on me") day and the first day of all the other years I spent in public school. It wasn't just homework and the struggle to get up at seven every morning, it was the kind of homework assignments we were given and the prospect of just what it was that we were rousing ourselves for—the systematic breaking down, workbook page by workbook page, drill after drill, of all the joy we started out with. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that, with very few exceptions, what they did to (not for) us in elementary school was not unlike what I would sometimes do to my cats: dress them up in doll clothes because they looked cute that way.
We were forever being organized into activities that, I suspect, looked good on paper and in school board reports. New programs took over and disappeared as approaches to child education changed. One year we would go without marks, on the theory that marks were a "poor motivating factor," "an unnatural pressure," and my laboriously researched science and social studies reports would come back with a check mark or a check plus inside the margin. Another year every activity became a competition, with posters tacked up on the walls showing who was ahead that week, our failures and our glories bared to all the class. Our days were filled with electrical gimmicks, film strips and movies and overhead projectors and tapes and supplementary TV shows, and in junior high, when we went audiovisual, a power failure would have been reason enough to close down the school.
But though the educational jargon changed, the school's basic attitude remained constant. Anything too different (too bad or too exceptional), anything that meant making another column in the record book, was frowned upon. A lone recorder, in a field of squeaking flutophones, a reader of Dickens, while the class was laboring page by page (out loud, pace set by the slowest oral readers) with the adventures of the Marshall family and their dog Ranger, a ten-page story when the teacher had asked for a two-pager—they all met with suspicion. Getting straight A's was fine with the school as long as one pursued the steady, earnest, unspectacular course. But to complete a piece of work well, without having followed the prescribed steps—that seemed a threat to the school, proof that we could progress without it. Vanity rears its head everywhere, even in the classroom, but surely extra guards against it should be put up there. I remember an English teacher who wouldn't grant me an A until second term, an indication, for whoever cared about that sort of thing, that under her tutelage I had improved. Every composition was supposed to have evolved from three progressively refined rough drafts. I moved in just the opposite direction for the school's benefit: I wrote my "final drafts" the first time around, then deliberately aged them a bit with earnest-looking smudges and erasures.
Kids who have gone through elementary school at the bottom of their class might argue here that itwas the smart ones who got special attention—independent study groups, free time to spend acting in plays and writing novels (we were always starting autobiographies) and researching "Special Reports"—all the things that kept our groups self-perpetuating, with the children lucky enough to start out on top forever in the teachers' good graces, and those who didn't start there always drilling on decimals and workbook extra-work pages. But Oyster River was an exemplary democratic school and showed exemplary concern for slow students—the underachievers—and virtuously left the quick and bright to swim for themselves, or tread water endlessly.
It always seemed to me as a Group One member, that there was little individual chance to shine. It was as if the school had just discovered the division of labor concept, and oh, how we divided it. Book reports, math problems, maps for history and even art projects—we did them all in committee. Once we were supposed to write a short story that way, pooling our resources of Descriptive Adjectives and Figures of Speech to come up with an adventure that read like one of those typing-book sentences ("A quick brown fox ..."), where every letter of the alphabet is represented. Our group drawings had the look of movie magazine composites that show the ideal star, with Paul Newman's eyes, Brando's lips, Steve McQueen's hair. Most people loved group work—the kids because working together meant not working very hard, tossing your penny in the till and leaving it for someone else to count, the teachers because committee projects prepared us for community work, (getting along with the group, leadership abilities ...) and, more important, I think, to some of them, they required a lot less marking time than individual projects did. The finished product didn't matter so much—in fact, anything too unusual seemed only to rock our jointly rowed canoe.
The school day was for me, and for most of us, I think, a mixture of humiliation and boredom. Teachers would use their students for the entertainment of the class. Within the first few days of the new term, someone quickly becomes the class jester, someone is the class genius, the "brain" who, the teacher, with doubtful modesty, reminds us often, probably has a much higher IQ than she. Some student is the troublemaker black sheep (the one who always makes her sigh), the one who will be singled out as the culprit when the whole class seems like a stock exchange of note passing, while all the others stare at him, looking shocked.
Although their existence is denied now, in this modern, psychologically enlightened age, teachers' pets are still very much around, sometimes in the form of the girl with super-neat penmanship and Breck-clean hair, sometimes in the person of the dependable Brain, who always gets called on when the superintendent is visiting the class. Teachers, I came to see, could be intimidated by a class, coerced or conned into liking the students who were popular among the kids, and it was hard not to miss, too, that many teachers were not above using unpopular students to gain acceptance with the majority. They had an instinct, teachers did, for who was well-liked and who wasn't; they learned all the right nicknames and turned away, when they could, if one of their favorites was doing the kind of thing that brought a 3 in conduct. We saw it all, like underlings watching the graft operations of ambitious politicians, powerless to do anything about it.
That was what made us most vulnerable: our powerlessness. Kids don't generally speak up or argue their case. No one is a child long enough, I suppose, or articulate enough, while he is one, to become a spokesman for his very real, and often oppressed, minority group. And then when we outgrow childhood, we no longer care, and feel, in fact, that if we went through it all, so should the next generation. Children are expected to be adversaries of school and teachers, so often, in the choosing up of sides, parents will side with the school. Nobody expects children to like school; therefore it's no surprise when they don't. What should be a surprise is that they dislike it for many good reasons.
It would be inaccurate to say I hated school. I had a good time sometimes, usually when I was liked, and therefore on top. And with all the other clean-haired girls who had neat penmanship and did their homework, I took advantage of my situation. When I was on the other side of the teacher's favor though, I realized that my sun-basking days had always depended on there being someone in the shade. That was the system—climbing up on one another's heads, putting someone down so one's own stature could be elevated. Elementary school was a club that not only reinforced the class system but created it—a system in which the stutterer and the boy who can't hit a baseball start out, and remain, right at the bottom, a system where being in the middle—not too high or low—is best of all.
I had imagined, innocently, on my first day of school, that once the kids saw how smart I was, they'd all be my friends. I see similar hopes on the faces I watch heading to the front every September—all the loved children, tops in their parents' eyes, off to be "re-evaluated" in a world where only one of thirty can be favorite, each child unaware, still, that he is not the only person in the universe, and about to discover that the best means of survival is to blend in (adapting to the group, it's called), to go from being one to being one in a crowd of many, many others.
Excerpted from Looking Back by Joyce Maynard. Copyright © 2003 Joyce Maynard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 23, 2014
I was 16 when I first read this book in 1975. I remember buying the paperback from the Scholastic Book brochure. I was the product of a divorced disfunctional family that dealt with alcoholism and mental illness. I felt attached to this book because it described my life - my life without all the really hard parts. Little did I know that the author in the orange sweater was compartmentalizing her life, too. However, I still love this book for capturing the banal events of my school life. It is a trip back in time. Joyce, thank you!
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