the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: school

The Next Action — the ATM Password

There was this girl who was a classmate of mine from first grade through senior year in high school. She had an unusual, but beautiful first name. We were friendly, but we didn’t anything socially outside of the classroom. Our relationship was based on the activities between the brick walls of the school building.

She was very important to me. She was my class competitor.

During math class, if I didn’t raise my hand up in time to answer a question, she would get there first. We competed for awards. We each won numerous “Citizen of the Month,” citations. We always compared test scores, secretly wishing the other to flounder. We tried to outdo the other in the number of books we read per year. When I was picked to make the commencement speech at graduation in elementary school, she became the class president in junior high. We were both the literary editors of the high school yearbook. At the end of the senior year of high school, the school “ranked” all the seniors according to their grade point average. I beat her by one point; it was a very satisfying victory.

My parents were never the pushy parents who told me to succeed at any cost. I just enjoyed school. It was this girl, ambitious and super-focused, who forced me to step up my game.

We lost touch the minute we attended college. I hadn’t heard from her for years, until, well, no surprise — Facebook. I was excited, and nervous, to reconnect with her. We had a polite exchange of messages, but nothing very intimate. I think we were both too shy to have any real conversation. For all I know, she may not have give me a second’s thought during all these years.

But I have a little secret about her. This girl has been a part of my life for decades, in a very unusual way. I wanted to tell her about it, but when I mentioned it to Sophia, she told me not to tell her. It would make me look weird.

I’ll let you decide.

So what is this mystery I keep on talking about? How has this girl (now a woman) been an integral part of my life since high school?

On my first day of college at Columbia in New York, I went with my mother to open a bank account at Citibank. There was a branch a few blocks on Broadway. After depositing some money, I received my very first ever personal ATM card. I needed a password. Using my street name or middle name was too obvious. I wanted something personal, but obscure enough for a thief to never figure it out. So, I chose the first name of this girl from school, this girl with the unusual, but beautiful name. My competitor.

Since that time, years passed, and I have moved and changed banks numerous times. Citibank, Marine Midland, HSBC, Pacific Security, Wells Fargo, Bank of America — each receiving an ATM card with the exact same password — my classmate’s first name. As you can tell, I don’t change things easily.

This girl is now a woman, but I still can picture her raising her hand a second before mine in the fourth grade, and reciting the correct equation in math. She has become an iconic image in my mind. Her name, because of her association with my ATM card, has been forever connected to matters such as ambition, success… and my bank account. Has it worked out for me? Well…

Of course, by telling this story, it is also the end of an era. Once she finds out (if I choose to tell her) , I will need to change the password to my bank ATM for the first time in decades.

First, my blog template changes, now my ATM password will have to change. Again, it might seem like very small changes, but these items have symbolism, and symbolism is the most powerful God of all.

But maybe it is time to change the password on my ATM card. It is 2010, and my hair is graying. It is time to move beyond a life revolving around a competition with a girl from elementary school. This was never an effective and mature way to deal with existence beyond the 12th grade. Time to finally graduate from school — psychologically — and find my inspiration in the present.

Time for a new ATM password.

My Fellow Students


During the last few days, there has been a lot of controversy over Obama’s speech to our children, the purpose which is  to encourage them to stay in school and learn.   Was it right for a President to speak to schoolkids?   Was it indocrination?   Was he abusing his power as Commander in Chief.   As silly as these questions may sound to many of you, these are legitmate concerns.   I was surprised that so many of my “liberal” friends went into a meltdown over their fellow Americans speaking their minds.   The eggheads and granola-brains came out in force, insulting these for questioning an elected official in public, as if Stalin was still alive.  Some of these “nitpickers” were even labelled as “racists.”

I believe these nitpickers are right, and there is a problem with President Obama addressing our children, but my reason is different than the others.    I believe that Mr. Obama is an honest man, one who cares about our American youth getting a quality education, one who I VOTED for, but he is NOT the right person to be speaking to our children.

Why?  Because he went to elementary school school in Indonesia, avoiding the same traumatic experience that the rest of us had attending American elementary school as children.  He has as much right speaking the truth about our nation’s schools as I do speaking at BlogHer.   What does he know?   Has he ever had to compete with his fellow students to sell the most Scholastic books for some cheapo Radio Shack radio or go to a lame school trip to the Queens Botanical Gardens?  NO!

Who would do a better job speaking to our children?  I would!  I have the experience.  I earned it attending New York public school from kindergarten through 12th grade.  I loved school, with many fond memories.  If I could, I would go back RIGHT NOW, ambling along, carrying my looseleaf notebook with the Aerosmith sticker plastered on front.

I also have a quality that Obama does not.  I am not a politician, so I would not bullsh*t.  Kids can smell bullsh*t.  I would tell our children that yes, they must go to school and learn.  Yes, they will get nowhere in life without an education (They might get nowhere in life WITH an education, even a very expensive one, but I might skip that fact in the initial speech, since I am trying to be somewhat inspirational).

Our educational system can fill your mind with wondrous knowledge and ideas, but is that the full story?  No.  I would look our youth directly in the eyes and tell them what we already know — the years ahead will also be filled with endless boredom.  School in America is 45% learning, 35% sitting around homeroom taking roll call and throwing paper airplanes, and 20% fire drills, led by your “fire captain,” usually the geekiest kid in your class, the least helpful person if there ever was a REAL FIRE.

I would tell our youth that they must pay attention in English class, even though on Twitter, no one cares about grammar anymore!  LOL.

I would tell our youth that it is important to focus on math and science, not because I did, but because our country is a trillion dollars in debt and if we don’t start doing something innovative, the Chinese are going to take over our country by 2025.

I would tell our youth to learn Chinese, for obvious reasons.  Enough with the Spanish and French.  Let’s get serious, folks.  We’re not afraid of Spain or France anymore!  Let’s learn freakin’ Chinese!  I can order my burrito by pointing at the menu.  As for the French — who really gives a sh*t?

I would tell our youth that class attendance is extremely important.  It is a right AND a responsibility.  BUT… and this is a big theoretical BUT, if by chance there is a James Bond marathon on TBS that afternoon, and you sneak out of school early to watch it while your mother is at work, try to do it during the courses that the Board of Education makes you take solely because the teacher’s union can’t fire those teachers because of tenure.  We all know what classes I am talking about.  Wood shop.  Home Economics.  Typing.  Or those time-wasting assemblies where a children’s puppet theater performs a show on “Ethnic Diversity.”

I would tell our youth that there are classes which seem useless when you are young, but which prove important later in life — geometry and algebra, for instance.  When you are in eight grade learning you might ask, “Why do we need to know about parallelograms?”   Years later, when you are taking the audition test to get on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and they ask, “What is a parallelogram?” you will understand the wisdom of your elders.

One personal note.  As a student, I hated gym.  I was not an athletic student.   Today, I believe that physical activity is essential to America.  We have become a bunch of fat slobs, when we should be epitomizing the Greek ideal of being strong in mind and body.  If I were the President of the United States, I would require all children to take gym class.  However, as a compromise to our youth, I would make the pummel horse illegal.  What insane, sadistic individual decided that it would be wise to have scrawny teenagers attempt to jump over one of these monstrosities?

I will never forget the look of fear on my friend, Barry’s face, as Mr. Kaufman, out dim-witted gym/auto shop teacher,  brought us over to the pommel hourse.  He explained how we would run up to the horse, grab the handles and jump over to the other side.  To demonstrate this, he asked Jake, already built like a boxer at age 12, to “show us how it is done.”  I am certain that Mr. Kaufman had never jumped the pummel horse himself.  So, there was NO WAY that Barry and I were EVER going lift our own weight over this thing and make it to the other side without falling SPLAT on our faces.  Luckily, Mr. Kaufman was so dumb that you could ask for a pass to the bathroom and disappear, and he would never remember.  I never did the pummel horse.

That goes to show, students, that despite it all, and everything your teachers say, when it comes down to it, sometimes you need to trust your own instincts, and fight authority.

That is the American way.

Now, let’s go out there and kick the sh*t out of the Chinese!

Ozymandias and PB&J


I’m not a particular religious or spiritual person, but I do notice connections between events, people, and ideas that lead me to believe that there is some unifying force, sort of a Six Degrees of Life.   I usually have no idea what the connections mean, if anything, but I get a calming sense in my body when things make sense in the world, and God isn’t just randomly throwing dice onto the Yahtzee board.

Like many of us, I have reconnected with some old schoolmates on Facebook.  Yesterday morning, I had a brief chat with a girl from elementary school.  Well, when I say “girl,” I still visualize her as one, still with pigtails, when she is really a married attorney with two children.  We joked about this poem we forced to memorize in sixth grade – Ozymandias by Percy Shelley.

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

At the time, it seemed a completely useless exercise in rote learning.  None of us, at that age, had any idea what this boring poem meant, but we were required to stand, one at a time, like in one of those movies about some prep school in England, and recite it out loud.  I remember practicing this stupid poem in front of my mother for hours.

My schoolmate and I were surprised that we still remembered some of the lines, particularly the opening.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

In high school, I encountered this famous poem again in Mrs. Waters’ class.  Now I could better understood the meaning, even if I still didn’t care — about how even the mighty eventually fade into dust, with Ozymandias being another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt.

Yesterday, during lunch, I took a walk, still laughing about my early morning conversation with an old friend.   When I say “old friend,” I think I liked her a lot more than she liked me, and I used to doodle her name on the back of my notebook and she probably never thought about me, but that’s all in the past now.  I think.

Anyway, as I’m walking along Kissena Boulevard, I passed a parked car.  An couple in their late sixties were putting shopping bags into their trunk from the supermarket.   Hey — the woman was my former kindergarten teacher, now retired!  We chatted, and I told her that I had just spoken to another classmate who was in her class.  We talked about Facebook and email.  My former kindergarten teacher is learning more about the internet herself.

Here’s a photo I took (I know you see more of her chest than her face.  You can read WHATEVER you want into that)


After my falafel lunch, I encountered some kids returning from private school.   I forgot!  It is mid-August.  It is time for school again for some kids!  I know different schools start earlier and later, depending on the state and whether it is public or private.    But here they were — friendly looking kids with their new notebooks and pencils.

Since I had just eaten lunch, I suddenly had memories of school lunches — of metal lunch boxes promoting  the hottest TV shows (the first example of branding — are there American Idol lunch boxes?  Top Chef?) and the atrocious hot lunches we were served in the school cafeteria, filled with mystery meat and served by what seemed like angry prison guards.  School lunch was a blast, because we were always making fun about the awful nutritional level of the meals, but enjoyed it anyway.

Like many of you, my mother packed a PB&J sandwich almost every day in my lunchbox.  It was the STANDARD.


When I returned to my computer after lunch, I went on Twitter, with school lunches dancing in my head.  I asked all the mothers online if they still are mostly giving their kids peanut and jelly sandwiches for lunch.  I was surprised by the response — a unanimous cry of “no” — showing how out of it I am regarding children.  While I certainly knew about peanut allergies in kids, I didn’t realize how rampant it is today in the states.  I thought it was McDonald’s just trying not to get sued by separating the peanuts from the ice cream sundae, as told to by their smart lawyers.  But apparently, peanut butter is banned from most schools, like an obscene book.  At first I joked about the extremism of “peanut haters,” but then a few parents told me of the horror stories of their kids just touching a peanut butter jar and getting dangerously sick.

I had no idea this was such a serious matter.  I wonder why peanut allergies have become so rampant nowadays?

But this post is not really about peanut allergies.  It is about connections.  I started the day talking with a classmate about the poem Ozymandias.  We joked about it, much like we did when we learned geometry.  Why do we need to learn this?  What relevance will it ever have in our lives?

Yesterday, it finally had some relevance.   Yesterday, I learned that the KING of school lunches, the PB&J, had fallen from his throne.  Like Ozymandias, Pharoahs, Presidents, Actors, Singers — all of us — never stay King forever…

Yesterday, was a day to connect random events to my school days.  I talked to an old classmate.  I met my old teacher.   And I remembered that school — or something more mysterious — had taught me to connect poetry to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

(This post is dedicated to Dana in honor of her birthday because she loves poetry. She writes at Read Write Poem and My Gorgeous Somewhere)

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