Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Minnesota: Rochester Senior High School

Written by Mike Spock

The hotel operator cheerfully embellished her morning wakeup call: "Good morning. It's 8:00 o'clock and 20 degrees below zero!" We were in Rochester, Minnesota. My father was being wooed by the Mayo Clinic--but my deeply skeptical mother was unenthusiastic. Baby and Child Care was out but fame had not yet overtaken Ben Spock. Not only was it frighteningly cold, but the town seemed provincial and single-minded--at least to my mother. Rochester was a one-horse town dominated by the clinic and its legions of medical people. There were even signs in Holland's Cafeteria, a favorite hangout among clinic staff, "We know your operation was perfectly fascinating, but please don't share it with your fellow diners." My father was intrigued by the opportunity to do longitudinal research on newborns, all of who were neatly folded into the closed shop of the clinic's practice. My mother knew it would be a comedown for her and from life in sophisticated New York. She loved being on top of things. I thought Rochester might be just fine: low-key, manageable, less challenging. We moved.

After a lonely adolescent spring with the prairie wind moaning though our storm door, I began to get the hang of Rochester and school. The summer of the first year I was tutored by the principal, finishing up a course left behind in the interrupted Fieldston year. There was no Ancient History offered in the curriculum at Rochester Junior High. The makeup sessions felt collegial. I appreciated the deescalated demands of a medium-sized public school about equally divided between the children of doctors (there were 500 MDs in a community of 30,000), families who attended to the needs of the clinic and its patients, and the kids from black-soiled farms who grew peas and sweet corn for the Libby cannery at the south edge of town. I walked or rode my bike. We lived in a neighborhood of medium-sized houses. Everyone was so normal, so uncomplicated! There wasn't a hint of cynicism or ill health to be detected, anywhere.

By the next fall and ninth grade I was let into a small circle of friends who observed gently that I wasn't obliged to compare Minnesota to New York, thanks just the same. I made a stab at football in the heat of late summer and tried not to feel dismissed by the bullying coaches. Although it had seemed like a reasonable ambition I hated it and lasted only a week. Soon after in a PE class the swimming teacher leaned over the edge of the pool and got my attention. Had I ever thought of trying out for the swimming team? Evar Silvernagle (that really was his name) had come that year after coaching a string of state champions in the nearby meat-packing town of Austin, Minnesota, home of Hormel Foods. He had his sights on creating a similar dynasty in Rochester and was recruiting prospects, wherever he could find us. That sounded interesting and a lot more appealing than being yelled at on a broiling practice field. I had passed Life Saving and could hold my breath. underwater. Years later Silvernagle remembered me as having big feet, but it seems more reasonable that I had impressed him with my ape-like arms.

I took to him and the sport immediately. Although I was extraordinarily awkward and unpracticed at the start, I worked hard and improved. By the first meet I had the second backstroke position on the team. In a few weeks I was winning races and was moved up to the first lane. I also was given a role in the individual medley and relay teams. Next year I won the state backstroke title.

Next: New Haven or Yellow Springs?