I realize high school is painful for just about everyone, but my high school years were particularly challenging in ways I can’t even fully unravel. I was very shy, my home life was less than stable, and as a result I focused myself on sports: football, then swimming, and finally running marathons. I studied hard, but it wasn’t until I had determined that getting out of the house as fast as possible was my best shot at survival that my goal became graduating after my junior year and going to college a year early.
Between my sophomore and junior years, in order to get the credits I needed to graduate, I applied and was admitted to a summer program at Milton Academy for promising public school kids. My course of study that summer, in those grand, un-air-conditioned prep school buildings, was philosophy.
On the first day of class Larry, our teaching assistant, looked every bit the surfer dude that he was—bleached blond hair in a ponytail, wireless glasses, a deep brown tan, and a certain way of sitting that showed a laid-back approach to pretty much everything. But when he spoke, I heard intellectual passion beyond anything I had ever witnessed before, save perhaps a favorite Shakespeare teacher back at Amherst Public High School.
Studying Kant, Hobbes, Aristotle, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wasn’t some abstract form of masturbation to Larry. It immediately became clear to me that what he believed we were collectively doing was talking about how to live our lives. And he took it personally when any of us approached it with any less seriousness than he did.
What ensued was two months of intense inquiry into the meaning of life. We had class all morning, studied in the afternoon, and went on field trips into Boston in the evenings. Larry would offer extra help in his dorm room, which consisted of a bare mattress on the floor and clothes strewn in all directions. But his books were always orderly, as was the line of his questioning when I came to visit. Once in a while he took me to get coffee in his blue VW Beetle with California plates.
Near the end of the summer, Milton Academy had a presentation on colleges. Each teaching assistant talked about his or her school with the idea that students could get a feel for Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth. Larry waited until everyone else had spoken. He paused for dramatic effect and then looked out into the crowd of 15- and 16-year-old kids and said, “There is one school, and only one school, in this country that takes liberal learning seriously. And that school is Wesleyan University.” He went on to expound on the benefit of interdisciplinary study and the pursuit of knowledge—not as a proxy for student competition, or to get into professional school, but purely on its own merits.
The next fall I went to visit Larry at Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut where he was a senior. I remember pulling up to his run-down student house and him greeting me at the door with a huge smile as he stuck his hand through a screen door with no screen. I went to his philosophy classes at Russell House and sat in his living room debating theory with his roommates.
By the time I came back, myself as a student the next fall, Larry had graduated and moved back to LA. We kept in touch for a couple of years, but soon he had gone back to California and vanished. But not before changing the course of my life.