Let's call this one Kelly Liebe. In my generation, every grade in every Jewish school in America had a Kelly Liebe. I dare say, every grade in every private school in America had a Kelly Liebe, and a good deal of the public ones as well. You may know her better as Tracy Flick, or Leslie Knope, or even Hillary Clinton.
Behind every limited woman of limitless energy probably lies a girl too average to be extraordinary, and too above average not to notice. A girl of no special talents determined to make every brain cell work double overtime. A girl who does everything she's told and makes sure to cross every t and dot every i. A girl who looks around and sees the ultimate injustice: it comes easier to everybody else, but I'm the only one who's being responsible!
This is the good girl who inevitably equates her infinite competence in life with being a good girl. As she goes through life, she sees that she has more organizational ability than all the faster rising men and smarter women in the world put together, and it never quite occurs to her that achieving your responsibilities is not quite the same thing as virtue. She is a girl who uses her tornado-like executive function to know more than the rest of us, to see more than the rest of us, to desire more than the rest of us, to obtain more than the rest of us, and never get dizzy in the heights to which her fearsome ethic lets her climb over us all. This is a girl who collects friends smarter than her like dolls in a house and resents every one of us for everything that seems to come to us so easily. A girl determined to work harder, rise faster, and soar higher than anyone she knows to prove that she too is extraordinary. In our generation, she is almost doomed to success in life past everybody she knows. It's almost inevitable that she'll rise so far that she'll become more extraordinary than the rest of us put together. But the higher she rises, the more common she'll feel.
Three generations ago, these girls became the pushy Jewish mothers that made such great stock characters for Philip Roth and Woody Allen, emotionally lacerating their sons to do all the things they never could. In our generation, these women are the pushy unmarried Jewish girls around the office who toil by the sweat of their brows for every promotion, every pay raise, every ounce of the self-respect they reward themselves with so sparingly. No achievement is enough in the psyches of such women, no honor proves to her that she's a smart person, no praise proves to her that she's a good person. Everything that the nice Jewish boy was fifty years ago, the nice Jewish girl is now. One day, she wakes up to realize that she's no longer Leslie Knope or even Tracy Flick, she's Alexandra Portnoy.
She is a member of the first generation of women in a thousand generations of women for whom the majority have a fighting chance to achieve on par with men, so just imagine if you can how much greater the pressure must be for Jewish women of my age - only the second generation of Jews in a thousand generations of Jews who can break the glass ceiling, and only the first generation of Jewish women. Until sixty years ago, a Jew in the world was a swimmer with one arm, so a Jewish woman was a swimmer with stumps.
But among the hundreds or thousands of Kelly Liebe's in today's America, only one Kelly Liebe was my Kelly Liebe, and she was the most beautifully souled person I ever knew.
"Do you like Kelly Liebe, or do you Lieeeeeebe Kelly Like?" 'Liebe,' in case you don't know, is Yiddish/German for 'love,' and my all-too-mischievious father would ask me that once a week when we were small children, because no age was too young for Dad to put us through his machine of discomfort.
Did I lieeeeeeebe Kelly Liebe? Of course I did. I was twelve fucking years old!... or six... or fourteen... or seventeen... or whatever age I was.... It was the combination all early adolescents feel of lust and hintele-liebe (puppy love), and after all these years, I'm sure that my 12-year-old self is delighted that I'm finally shouting it from the rooftops (to three people). What else was I ever going to feel at that age? I was an incredibly awkward kid who practically lived after school at the house of the pretty girl in my class who lived down the street from me (almost literally the 'girl next door') who happened to refer to me as her best friend, though she had at least two others... All I knew was that, as the now unacceptable saying goes, I was 'friend zoned.'
And honestly, to be friend-zoned by Kelly Liebe was far from the worst punishment in the world. Much as I sometimes 'liebed' Kelly Liebe, there was a whole coterie of girls I liebed even more. At any given time, there were probably four girls I thought about more than Kelly, and at any given point, I probably told her who they were so as to lead her off my trail. To a kid like me, she provided something far more important than a first love. She was my lifeline into normalcy, a reminder that no matter how different I was or at least seemed, there were nice people out there who still wanted to be friends with me.
Nice people. How a description like that would have gnawed at Kelly. She was smart enough to understand anything, but not smart enough to be interested in anything. I don't doubt that that lack of passion gnaws at her still. When I knew her well, she desperately wanted to be 'something' - a label, any at all, that she could affix to herself: artistic, theatrical, musical, political, scientific, whatever it was that could define her as having a passion and a talent. She never realized (or was never satisfied by) the fact that her talent was rarer than the lot of us combined.
I suppose I have to put this proviso in, and feel ashamed that it's even necessary. Kelly was never brilliant (and oh how that rankled at her), but she was nevertheless as smart as it gets. Some people might have mistook her girlish voice and not particularly articulate manner for something less than that, but in so many ways, she was smarter than any of us, and as she got older, anybody who mistook her for anything but smart would pay dearly for the fact. But her great regret was that she had no poetry in her soul, because she was something more beautiful than poetry: in her soul she was the nice person we should all aspire to be. She knew that, and it killed her.
Until we were about eleven or twelve, I was a friend, probably a good one, but we were not yet 'intimate' in the chaste manner that only pubescents of the opposite sex can be. Her 'best friend' during those years was Micah Zapruder (Zippy to his adult friends), the real extraordinary student of our year, and who was also my best friend. When we were ten, Kelly and I used to get into big fights over whose best friend Zip was. Even at this age, Kelly was extremely competitive, and I had a streak of resentment a mile wide. Even at that age, Kelly, or more likely Kelly's mother, knew a meal ticket when she saw one. She had other good friends of similarly prize intellectual stock - perhaps the closest of all being Jessye Bloomfield who was rather brilliant in math and science and became a gynecologist in Philly. But I suspect that Kelly was never truly relaxed in our company and became good friends with us more out of a sense of responsibility (more on that later). She was probably happier around kids like * Abby Cohen and Mara Eliezer. But even so, both of these girls were ordinary girls, not as smart as Kelly, perhaps not nearly as smart, but I'll bet that Kelly felt more herself around them than she ever did around me or Micah.
I would bet anything that most of Kelly's early social life was completely engineered by her mother, who made sure that Kelly would be friends with the smartest kids in the class - Micah lived a good eight miles away from either of us, but his parents were struggling graduate students, so Kelly's mother Helen volunteered to keep watch over Micah until they could drive over to Pikesville to pick him up. Micah Zapruder is now a high-power attorney in Chicago. I'd put the chances at about fifty/fifty that had Zippy not moved away when we were all eleven, Kelly, perhaps though her mother Helen, would have latched onto him forever, and Zippy would be married to Kelly with three children by now.
Helen will always be the key to understanding Kelly. She was another beautifully souled woman who tragically fell for just a few wrong priorities in life. One of the reasons Kelly and I got along, even at an early age, is because beneath her ditzy surface and my melancholically pompous one, we actually had a great deal in common. Both of us were just one generation removed from the Baltimore working class, and were clearly ashamed like hell about it. Many, perhaps most, of our friends' came from families who'd long resided in the Middle Class (or Upper Class in two cases). The vast majority of them were professional families who'd recently relocated to Baltimore - many of them doctors who came here to go to Hopkins Medical School. Most of the kids we knew didn't have longstanding roots in Baltimore, and very few knew what it was like to grow up with your relatives instilling in you a hunger for something better, because their parents had already achieved the maximum life gives us. While my family was upper-middle-class, we were so new to it that even now, a quarter-century later, my father still worries every day about falling out of it, so I certainly knew what that burden felt like. Micah, who also had survivor grandparents and Israeli army veterans for parents who raised two children on a graduate stipend, so he knew what that was like much better even than me. But I doubt either of us, or anyone we were friends with, knew what that was like to the extent that Kelly did.
Tuckers always joke that had we come over in the 19th century, we'd own IBM by now. But Kelly's family was genuinely there since the 19th century, and was definitely not owning IBM yet. Her grandfather lived to be 100, and couldn't have died too far from where he was born. Simchas at the Liebe household were always a dizzying array of loud, warm-hearted Baltimore 'huns' with oewverwhelming Baltimore accents and every conceivable variation on the beehive hairdo. Such a statement is probably classist, but would we had those kinds of huns in my family. I had plenty of older relatives born in Baltimore on Zaydie Witow's side, and some of them were far too PWT to be 'huns.' More on them another time...
But I was the mere 'consolation prize' for 'best male friend' after Zippy moved away, and such an inferior copy to the real thing as I wouldn't even merit a second look as more than a friend on my best day. But when our trio went down to two, my worst days began to stare me right in the face. And at that age when I could easily have been put into the looney bin for good, Kelly became my guardian angel in a way that would have exhausted even the best meaning adults - and since depression is one of the most contagious of all illnesses, God alone knows what toll being good friends to such a depressed kid did to her.
There are two saints in my life without which I'm 75% sure I would have died at that age: my mother, for whom I have no particularly complicated feelings, and Kelly Liebe, for whom I have too many.
Kelly literally saved me, and it is the height of cruelty for me to ever feel anything but gratitude toward her ever again. It was a labor she bore patiently past the capacity of any other 13 year old and most 40 year olds. She did it not out of responsibility or burden, but genuinely out of love. Imagine the capacity of anyone but the most competent 13 year old in America to bear a contemporary who could not stop talking about how horribly he felt, who talked about suicide so often, who was so violent to so many people, and who felt so close to giving up on life. I may even have pulled something violent on Kelly at some point, I can't even remember, yet at no point was she truly deterred. Only the best human being of us all: the most responsible, the most competent, the most courageous, could have any idea what to do at that age when dealing a peer like me.
Kelly, like her parents, had unshakeable morals at the bedrock of her soul. There was nothing they would not do for anyone whom they cared about. Everything Kelly, and by extension Helen, did for me was love at its purest variety. But as so many people come to see, there's no reward for moral conduct.
Whom in this world has ever been rewarded for being kind and generous and loving? Most people who have an unbreakable ethical code probably turn into petty tyrants about fulfilling them like Zaydie Tucker. I can't imagine that a women like Helen Liebe, smart as a whip and responsible as a mule but not in a position to be appreciated enough for either, didn't say to herself many times: 'I deserve better than this.'
And of course she did. So it was let to Kelly to achieve everything Helen did not.
* Abby seems to have turned into a pretty nice woman, but she was a bit of a cunt as a kid. At one point, I forget exactly when, she decided to make anonymous prank calls at sleepovers to nerds in the class and pretend she wanted them until she started listing all the things that made them irredeemable nerds. I heard about the pranks later, and I knew I'd been called in a similar fashion because my mother picked up and all I knew was that she said the person on the other line "This is obviously a prank call." My mother hung up and told me that it was nothing, but I knew better, because she started to cry.
Surviving a career in higher education
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