As I sit down to write this personal statement in applying to the MFA program in writing at Brown University, I preface it with the knowledge that I have had to create a unique community when traditional ones have been too often closed to me. Having grown up in a time when learning disabilities and physical delays were seldom discussed, I had to remain quiet about my deficits or risk being marginalized. Though I sometimes was, I was fortunate to benefit from small classrooms and devoted faculty at St. Andrews School in Barrington, Rhode Island, when I enrolled there in 1974. Without St. Andrews, I would never have attended college of graduate school. Prior to St. Andrews, I was failing every subject at age 12 as indifferent teachers and administrators showed no inclination or ability to deal with a student like me. Naturally, I internalized this and blamed myself for it. As to the community I have just referenced, it was a baseball community and a very special one. In the next part of this essay, I hope you will see why.
For a child who has a love of baseball but has physical delays, he learns to love the game from a distance. As he tries so hard to catch up to his peers, who take to baseball like a Great Plains wind to a drowsy wheat field, the boy fights himself, tripping over his feet while trying to coordinate legs, arm and trunk into a serviceable throwing motion. His gangly, underweight frame imparts no power or snap to the throw, elbow flying out ahead while his greatly imperfect eyes fail to calculate the angle and velocity of a ball for the purpose of striking it with confidence.
The boy, blind for the first two years of his life, doesn’t grasp why the game called to him. Perhaps it was the rhythm of it, languid for innings at a time until the practiced restraint of the contest resolves itself in a riot of precision, power, strain, error, dumb luck or inevitable release from its measured progress. A tie is an insult to both player and fan. Baseball continues until a master and the mastered remain without the absurdity of a clock, returning the manicured diamond to the indifference of entropy until the ground crew beats it back with hoses and rakes.
What did the blind infant contemplate in his incubator? He could not see his mother’s herculean efforts to let him remain in life or his father’s clenched sorrow. The prematurely delivered boy could not comprehend his hyaline membrane disease, the same malady that took the infant Patrick Bouvier Kennedy after two days of life in August of 1963.
The father knows that this boy will not be an athlete if he ever sees at all. Where are the inchoate hints of eventual manhood here? He was born after JFK took office in 1961 with the blindness, the lung operation while only hours old, the sloping, fragile shoulders, the impossibly thin limbs, the brain damage for lack of air, the sunken little chest and dearth of coordination, the six weeks it required to learn to ride a bike long after his vision came at age two, long after his peers had triumphed on two wheels in a matter of days. Teammates are found in the schoolyard and he was rejected there, left to dream by himself of kind friends and patient teachers as opposed to the tormentors they actually were. Teachers were either too ignorant or too indifferent to the boy’s learning disabilities to try to address them. School was a place to build walls, hunker down and try to survive.
There were Red Sox games on television though and baseball cards, the prayer of a souvenir cap from Dad with the Boston ‘B’ sewn on to a separate, square patch over the brim when he was taken to Fenway Park. There was seldom money for such an extravagance. The transistor radio, tuned perfectly and perched at the one position to pick up a game from Boston, sat on the night stand near the boy’s eyeglasses. Ned Martin and Jim Woods, the Red Sox announcers, had voices full of kindness, color and patience. He wished they could teach him to throw.
His father was patient but largely absent. The boy’s skills were absent in spite of all patience. Imaginary games were played in his room, swinging a blue, wooden bat from Benny’s and catching countless balls tossed from a prone position on the bed. Picturing games on the radio described the writer he would become. A blank page required no permission to encroach upon it and you didn’t wait to be picked. Instead of bringing skill to writing, you were allowed to learn as you went while the stumbling, false starts and failures were strictly private affairs. Learning baseball with real boys was humiliation, as school was, as home was and as girls were too. Writing was hard but blessedly solitary. It gave no reward but the hope of improvement. That came in the doing, like a batter hanging tough on a 12 to 6 curve. It was humble and humbling, truly a game for a weak eyed boy’s life.
His older sister loved the game too and she cried when Leron Lee of Cleveland injured Carlton Fisk’s knee in a devastating collision at the plate in 1974. Fisk’s torn left knee ligaments were said to be career ending but Pudge returned a year later and played for 24 more years. The boy’s sister allowed him to talk of the game and learn it’s verbal cadences for himself. This was a game he could play. Baseball was a common tongue between father and son, even a son who could never snap Dad’s glove as the father did his, even at age 16. The boy’s parents divorced in 1971 when he was 10 years old. His mother delivered the news alone at the kitchen table and he cried. The father was the man who took him shopping for Christmas and was otherwise gone, save for the father’s voice coming out of the radio or TV at 6:27 p.m. The Red Sox not liking the Yankees taught the boy about universal constants.
Adulthood brought a halting college degree and a succession of jobs that neither satisfied, paid or stayed. Grad school followed and not long after that was done, he found a newspaper article about an old time baseball league in Long Island, New York. They played barehanded with 19th Century style uniforms. With sheer will and unaccustomed luck, the Providence Grays first took the field in the spring of 1998 to honor the original World Champions of 1884. In his 30’s, the formerly blind former boy pulled on a baseball uniform and trotted out to his position with his friends. The old sadness was still there but now, there was joy to fill that lonely space too. Some never get what they need, some get most or all of what they need, and others still get what they needed most very late. The boy couldn’t find a tribe, so he made one instead. He grew to love baseball and children even more in the doing.
For a child who has a love of baseball and physical delays, he learns to love the game from a distance. Thanks to creating what was denied him as a boy, as well as the friends who allowed him to do it, he has been gifted with a late chance to learn to love himself after all. Baseball can forgive that way. It happens every spring.
The above captures my childhood obstacles and my best hopes in a compact space. For too many years, I lacked a community of my own and making one was the greatest revelation I have ever had. It taught me that I could do more than be swept along in the tide of my weaknesses and pathologies. I learned that I could harness them and evade the worst of them while developing unique ways to emphasize my best assets. Otherwise, I cannot explain the stark difference between my undergraduate record and my MA transcript. I ask you to overlook the former and to emphasize the latter as a much truer reflection of what I can do. As an undergrad, I was unwilling to get the treatment and counseling needed to gain insight into my learning disabilities. Like many young people, I was too ashamed then to do the personal work to get to the root of them. I am happy to say that this is no longer the case. Beyond this, I am applying to Brown because I want to delve more deeply into my creative potential and to be challenged at a great university that is willing to let me do so.
I no longer see writing as only an escape but as a means to transcendent, yet methodical, self knowledge. As highly competitive as Brown University is, I hope there may be room yet for someone on a long and non traditional journey. Creativity has been and will be central to it and with this aspiration squarely in mind, I ask you to consider letting me join your university community.