Helena Writes #28: On never leaving the world of one’s childhood

Helena Writes (watercolor)
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 28th post, she shares a piece of memoir about living on the cusp of adolescence. Enjoy!


Jahn Herman: A memoir 

When I was twelve the impossible happened. Jahn Herman, who was 16, fell in love with me. 

Jahn was beautiful, blond, something of sunlight about him. He had a girlfriend, Sue, taller than Jahn, and pimply. But she had that thing, charisma—one could feel her fame. It was early summer. I watched Jahn from the distance of the youngest social group at our co op, four buildings at the avant-garde of the Fifties Co op Movement in Queens, a borough of New York City, bordering Queens College where my father taught night school and my mother worked in the library. There were three groups of us, mine— the 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds—the 14-16-year-olds, and the older kids, my sister's group, the 17-20-year-olds. Some of them seemed like adults—Jack Skoler, who towered over the others, drove a car. It was parked somewhere on our four block square of streets, and I think it was black, but I can't clearly picture it. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, and his forehead was furrowed, already preoccupied. He seemed almost apart from the others, turning to go. The most adult of them all. 

Each group had their hangout territories. The big kids sat on the benches between the apartment building opposite ours and the chain link fence bordering the Queens College track. On those summer nights, I'd sometimes walk past them, invisible, particularly to my sister. 

Our group lacked age status. We met where we could. The lobbies, the stairwells. Or, if the older kids had abandoned the benches, where they sometimes they hung in the playground singing or listening. Lillian Binder had a guitar and knew folk songs. Or they were just missing, gone places that were too mysterious for us to understand—Richie someone, Penny Schoener's boyfriend, also had a car, a maroon Renault. Then we had the benches to ourselves. 

As I look back, I'm struck by our earnest conversation. We don't seem like children. It seems to me we were already inquiring into life.

Jahn's group leaned on the cars in front of my building. There were certainly 10 of them, Jahn and Sue, both, the magnet that held them together. 

All of us were in movement we couldn't control. I did not know my wings had sprouted. I only knew Jahn seemed radiant, and I couldn't take my eyes off him. It didn't matter. He never returned my gaze; I didn't expect him to. He was simply a thing of beauty, something to look upon. Sue was peripheral, and never took notice of me. They were both finishing their senior years in high school.

Then Jahn and Sue fell out. Everyone knew about their breakup. It was a small neighborhood, and a dramatic piece of information. 

Jahn's family had a beach house in Amagansett, out on Long Island, a place I've still never been. It was another mystery to me. I gained this knowledge, knowledge of Amagansett, because, and there is a giddy gap here, a veil was torn open. One day, Jahn Herman returned my gaze.

For three nights we talked, in front of our building—my family lived on the second floor, Jahn's on six—leaning against a car. I don't know what we said; I must have been jumping inside. I have the scantest memory of a moment of connection that seemed right. I could somehow hold it. There was some commonality between us. His mother and sister were already in Amagansett. His father had stayed behind, waiting for Jahn's last day of school. One night, Jahn kissed me. He told me he'd take the train back and invited me to lunch. Did I speak? Did I nod?

Butterfly wings

My next memory is of Chinese food, stringy with bean sprouts, me and Jahn sitting across a table. Chinese food had recently arrived in our neighborhood. My parents, my sister and I were the first to eat at Tung Sang, just as my father was the first to buy a television set when we still lived in Brooklyn. We were that way. But sitting across from Jahn eating was out of the question. I couldn't do it. The fork, bean sprouts dangling, only came midway between the plate and my mouth. Jahn had no trouble. I was in an altered state. Jahn and I were two planets, passing, at two speeds. 

But a door had swung open. The color of light had changed. I might have thought he was in another world, but it was me. I was young, true, but I don't think that sense of otherness has ever left me. I was moving, certainly; with Jahn, my wings, like a new butterfly, grew manifest. But I'd never, I believe now, leave the world of childhood. Another mystery, maybe a secret that belongs to the life of an artist. I could talk to the boys of my own age. We were peers. We already spoke of ideas. But I never really spoke to Jahn. It may have been he that did the talking those nights we leaned against the car, before he kissed me.

Jahn went back out to Amagansett. I was going to camp. He promised to write.

There were three letters from him, postmarked Amagansett, delivered to me in Bunk Twelve at mail time, after lunch. Two were signed "I love you, Jahn.” The third, in words I don't remember, told me he was breaking it off. Of course, he had run the whole show.

That summer is my first memory of depression, waiting for the days to pass so I could sleep. By day, I moved in a heavy world, apart from the rest of the camp. It was my last summer as a camper. I was, in my stamp, being called forward out of childhood. By the next summer, I had a boyfriend with whom I was comfortable. And the summer I was 14, I began to teach kids. Alongside drawing in my sketchbook, that was the world I knew myself in.

That fall, when Jahn came home, I watched them, Jahn and Sue, walking alone, holding hands, along the street that ran in front of my building. They were in conversation. I passed them; neither met my gaze.

I was a rebound. He likely needed to make Sue jealous. Nonetheless, there was some affinity. I had glimpsed it. I had no idea what it meant or what I could do with it, a concept out of the league of a 12-year-old. By age or soul, I lived in a particular world. What his world was, I can't say.

But the memory that intrigues me now is the sense I had of peer-ship with the boys my own age, not the girls. Our serious conversations. Our genuine empathy for one another. Next would come the loss of that self, temporary, the scattering, concomitant with sexuality.  

But then, I was still myself. Those boys were smart, and in a world I recognize now. Their families may have more closely resembled mine. My parents, beside all the other things I could say about them, were serious people—not the Amagansett crowd, though I acknowledge the two aren't mutually exclusive. 

Why the boys and not the girls, I don't know. But with what certainly was some depth, those conversations, maybe about school, or science, that would make sense—we took it seriously then, it was the Fifties, and my father taught it—or maybe just about things, I knew myself.

Can you pinpoint a moment in childhood or adolescence when you, too, knew yourself? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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