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College Years

by Martin Green

Paul Lerner had set himself a task, to review the short stories he’d written since retiring and try to decide what, at his advanced age, he should write, or try to write, in the time he had left. He was surprised he’d written almost 350 short stories. Maybe he’d covered everything. He’d pretty well said all he had to say about his early years, growing up in the Bronx, his time in the Army, his leaving New York to come out to California, his working years, his family, then his retirement years and, most recently, about being really old. He saw he’d only written two or three stories about his college years.       

Paul sometimes told people that he’d gone to Yale on a handball scholarship. In high school, he’d been captain of the handball team (they considered this a varsity sport in New York) and his history teacher was the team’s coach. The teacher had gone to Yale (in those days graduates of Ivy League schools taught in New York high schools) and when he’d discovered Paul was a good student he’d recommended that he apply for a scholarship there. Paul had never been outside of the city and had only a vague idea of what and where Yale was, but his mother was thrilled at the idea of her son going to an Ivy League school. Paul didn’t think his mother knew much more about Yale then he did. This didn’t stop her from having his future all mapped out. He’d go to Yale, get his degree and then go on to teach there. The preferred path for a Jewish son was to become a doctor or a lawyer. Paul would become the next best thing, a professor.   

Paul told his mother he probably wouldn’t even get a scholarship offer from Yale, but, somewhat to his surprise, it came. This left him with a decision to make, go to a college in New York, like all of his friends, or go up to the unknown city of New Haven. He’d gone to his high school, which was in Manhattan, for four years by subway from the Bronx. If he went to either Columbia or NYU, both in Manhattan, that would mean four more years of the subway. This was the chief reason why he’d elected to go to Yale.        

What did he remember about Yale? In his first two years there, he’d spent a lot of time in the library.The library looked like a Gothic cathedral and he seemed to recall that inside it was dark and gloomy. As he was on a scholarship, he had to keep up his grades so after classes he’d gather up his books and go to the library. He supposed he was a nerd or a Dexter or whatever guys were called back then who studied all the time. He remembered that when he’d come home at Christmas his mother hard remarked on how pale he was and told him he should get out more.

Then a figure suddenly appeared before his eyes. Ed Lederer. He hadn’t thought about Ed Lederer for years. Ed was a senior and was a TA, or teaching assistant, in one of Paul’s classes. Like Paul, he was from the Bronx and Paul had become acquainted with him. He was tall and lanky with a long  face. Paul thought he looked more like a farmer than a city guy. Like Paul, he  was on a scholarship, planning to go on to grad school and then become a professor, at Yale of course.         

Toward the end of his second term, when Paul was studying for final exams, he saw Ed Lederer in the library, poring over a stack of books. Paul went over and said hello and asked how he was doing. Ed looked up said, “Lerner, right?”

     “Yes, from last term. Are you still a TA?”

     “No, I had to quit. It took up too much time. I have to study more if I want to get a good degree.”   

They exchanged a few more words, then Paul left the library and went out into the sun. After the darkness of the library, the bright light hurt his eyes. He thought of Ed Lederer, still spending all that time in the library, just as Paul was doing. Was that his own future? Sometime during that second year, Paul knew, he’d made a decision. He wasn’t going to be a scholar. He wasn’t going to grad school. He wasn’t going to become a teacher. His mother would be disappointed. Looking back, he wasn’t sure if the encounter with Ed Lederer had caused him to make that decision. Hadn’t he heard sometime later that Ed Lederer had committed suicide? He remembered the phrase: Ed Led is dead. Had that actually happened or had he imagined it because one day he’d put it in a story?   

In any case, Paul’s decision to leave academia led to many tearful sessions with his mother and he didn’t think she really became reconciled with him until he presented her with her first grandchild. The decision also set him on a wandering path that included a period of unemployment (which he’d written about) and leaving New York for California. No wonder he hadn’t written much about his college years.

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