New York, New York

Photograph by Mark Houtzager

Still a Moron After All These Years

New York City schools operate in a ferocious caste system. What’s to be done when your school is viewed as subpar, and you along with it?

The toll that going to a third-rate high school in New York City can take on one’s self-esteem shouldn’t be underestimated. My own misfortune was made even worse by my being classified as a “moron” by the father of a childhood friend who was kind enough to remind me of the appellation on a regular basis. A few years ago, a therapist I was seeing was intrigued by this and thought it a rich area of my psyche to delve into. So at his recommendation, I visited my old school to get a new take on this experience. Though that first trip succeeded only in affirming the worst of my beliefs, a more recent one led me to realize time had changed us both for the better.

Back when my friend and I were in school, I was pretty sure my friend’s dad was right in the judgment he’d made about me. Not only did he have verified data to support his thesis—the not-so-good high school I went to—but his family name happened to be the same as one of the creators of I.Q. testing (a test, needless to say, I never came close to acing). I felt that somehow qualified him—I’ll call him Mr. I.Q.—to measure my intelligence. And his assessment hit home especially hard since I’d been branded at an early age as learning-disabled—in other words, “clinically stupid.”

Over the years, I have gone so far as to embrace Mr. I.Q.’s label as my own. Whenever I was riding high, I reminded myself, preemptively, that I was nothing but a moron with delusions of grandeur. This had the effect of bringing me safely to earth.

As a freshman, I’d been only dimly aware of my high school’s standing in the grand scheme of New York education, because of more pressing concerns like acne, wet dreams, and, of course, the Mets.And then earlier this year, the full force of the epithet came back to me when an old friend crossed paths with Mr. I.Q. in the building where they both live. According to my old friend, the moment Mr. I.Q. heard my name, he uttered the m-word, having preserved the association for 20 years with a senility-defying tenacity. If he’d been a lexicographer, he might’ve used my image to illustrate the term in the dictionary. But he was in sales and was eager to sell my friend on his insight. The moron, he said, had gone to a low-grade high school while his son had attended an elite institution, whose curriculum he had not found particularly challenging.

As a freshman at Dwight, I’d been only dimly aware of my high school’s standing in the grand scheme of New York education, because of more pressing concerns like acne, wet dreams, braces, unattainable girls and, of course, the Mets—who, unlike me, were on the verge of going all the way. And though I had applied to Riverdale and Fieldston for that fall, thinking I could improve my lot, all that came of it was the permanent nickname “Riverdale,” levied by my gym teacher. In the pecking order of New York academia, my lower-rung school got the rejects from the Riverdales and Fieldstons. A few notches below mine was Rhodes, which was the end of the road. After that, I guess there was just reform school.

But then, in my senior year, I subverted the high-school hierarchy by dating a Dalton girl. God only knows why she chose me. For a few months, I felt sort of smart, and cool. But that changed when she dumped me. Afterward, I no longer needed my friend and his father to remind me of what I was. I became fixated on the stupid things I’d said, like when I thought “in vogue” referred to something that was in the magazine. Or when one day, walking in the Village, my girlfriend and I saw a funny sign that said, “No Unnecessary Noise.”

“Who’s to say what noise is unnecessary?” I asked, fancying that to be a pretty astute comment.

“I suppose it’d be something super obvious. Like what you just said,” she answered.

Desperate to make noise of a higher order, I stumbled upon just the right piece of motivational literature—a yellowing copy of Merriam-Webster’s College Dictionary, which I began reading at A. It was the beginning of quite a linguistic adventure, and though all those new words may have given my I.Q. a little bump, I ended up abandoning the project just shy of O when the dictionary fell apart.

Then in my 20s I realized sophisticated words didn’t matter much anyway because, though high school was technically over, there would always be an invisible connective tissue that joined me to it. I learned this from other native New Yorkers I met who would ritualistically ask the cringe-inducing Big Question: Where’d you go to high school?

High school was over, but there would always be an invisible connective tissue that joined me to it.I was on a blind date in my mid-30s with a Fieldston grad who asked me the Big Question and then said, “Oh, a Dwight boy.” I was used to that condescending inflection, which I understood to be a coded reference to the infamous acronym, “Dumb White Idiots Getting High Together.” It wasn’t the insult that stung so much as what I perceived to be its pinpoint accuracy.

This was why my therapist had recommended confronting my complex head-on by returning to my school: to revisit my past and overwrite my outdated sense of myself—“a self-image upgrade,” as he put it. I imagined replacing the feeble Commodore 64 I was running inside my skull with a PowerBook.

But where the little, grimy redbrick building once humbly stood, on East 67th Street off First Avenue, I found a vacant lot. I believe the Dwight I knew had joined up with another school in one of those ‘90s sink-or-swim mergers. It was a business, after all—unlike the non-profit, board-run prestigious high schools I had once dreamt of getting into. The kind whose remains tend not to get bulldozed and trucked out to Jersey.

Finding my former school reduced to rubble seemed inauspicious, and soon after I left therapy and tried to forget the whole affair. Yet, this spring, after hearing Mr. I.Q.’s most recent pronouncement, I returned one more time to East 67th Street, and this time found an anonymous-looking high-rise.

I stood where Dwight’s entrance used to be, visualizing that 14-year-old pimply kid with braces and a mullet scurrying to school, hunched over—dressed in a red leather tie, brown penny loafers, khakis, and a navy blazer. At that moment, he struck me as just about any insecure, clueless teenager, a process in flux rather than some fixed entity. Although Mr. I.Q. would beg to differ, I’m no longer the same moron I was. A little dense, sure—but trying my best, despite my deficiencies, to make only the kind of noise that’s necessary.