My Day at Webb

As part of my visit to Los Angeles, yesterday I went to my high school Alma Mater, the Webb Schools of California, to talk to the students and to give a reading. Webb, for those of you not aware, is a boarding school in nestled in the foothills of Claremont, California; among my classmates there is Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.

It was really nice to be back. Unlike a fair number of the Geek Nation, I actually had a positive high school experience, so stepping back onto the campus is always a nice thing to do. Enough time has passed that I no longer feel I should be heading to a class (unless I’m teaching), but it’s still nice to wander about with the memories of being there.

My visit had two parts. For the first part I met with two classes of students for an hour. They were studying the idea of the artist in society, and so we had a good discussion of that particular concept, looking at how (and why, and if) artists provoke, tech and provide a frame for their time. Webb always has had excellent teachers teaching generally smart kids, and both were in evidence with the crowd I was talking to — the kids were sharp and the conversation was as good as some I’ve had with adults.

The second part was me doing a reading and Q&A, which was attended by students, teachers and alumni, including some very good friends of mine from my own class. It was definitely a little weird to be doing my Author Thing at my high school, but it was also very satisfying. I started writing in earnest in high school; I wrote my very first short stories there and was encouraged onto the writing path there. This was the place where I first knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and to come back being that person — being a writer and author — did feel like coming full circle. I was happy I came.

When I was done at Webb I had the extra fun of hanging out with my very dear friends Natasha Kordus and Rob Lawrence in Claremont. We caught up and I bought Natasha a ukulele and taught her a couple of songs  on it. The Ukulele Nation has one more citizen! I feel so proud. But mostly it was just a wonderful time with people I care for, in a place that I was happy to be in again.

In all, an almost perfect day. I’m glad I got to have it.

25 thoughts on “My Day at Webb

  1. huh… I went to Claremont Mckenna for college and I never knew that school was there. I too went to a boarding school for high school (on the east coast) so I feel like I should have had some sort of spidey-sense or something :-p

  2. I just yesterday posted on Facebook an essay on one of my High school experiences. A tiny excerpt:

    My High School Teacher Who’d Taught Feynman
    by
    Jonathan Vos Post
    Draft 1.0, 3 pages, ~750 words, of 11:11-11:26, Thursday 19 April 2012

    At Stuyvesant High School, in the late 1960s, Mr. Leseur taught us Electrical Engineering, and what went on, as he put it, “out back behind the out-house.”

    He was a practical man, who gave us exams in which we had to put real wires through real conduits. Plus he made us think. If one has these wires running through conduits between the ground floor and the second floor, how can you minimize the number of times you need to run up and down the stairs, to test pairs of wires with a continuity-tester, in reverse-engineering what a previous electrical contractor had done?

    He seemed impossibly old, to we teenagers, like our principal “The Flea” – Dr. Fliedner, who was a cold, impersonal figure who interacted with the student body in nothing but formal and perfunctory ways. His face was set in the perpetual grimace of someone who had come in contact with an unpleasant smell. Rather than encourage (much less congratulate) these high achieving sons of working and middle-class families, he chose the role of disciplinarian and administrative bureaucrat.

    I recall the roars of laughter from my classmates at the Assembly where the speaker was Jean Shepherd. Jean Parker Shepherd [26 July1921 – 6 October 1999], the American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor who was often referred to by the nickname Shep. With a career that spanned decades, Shepherd is best known to modern audiences for the film A Christmas Story (1983), which he narrated and co-scripted, based on his own semi-autobiographical stories. But I’m remebering his glancing at “The Flea”, taking the microphone, and asking “Ever wonder why the Principal always wears gray suits? Ever wonder if he wears gray underpants?”

    … Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of I, Libertine which led to booksellers attempting to purchase the book from their distributors. Fans of the show eventually took it further, planting references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to it being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list. Shepherd, Theodore Sturgeon and Betty Ballantine later wrote the actual book, with a cover painted by illustrator Frank Kelly Freas, published by Ballantine Books. I later became friends with Theodore Sturgeon and Frank Kelly Freas, and Fred Pohl, but that’s another story.

    Nobody but me believed that Mr. Leseur was telling the truth that he’d had a student once, Richard P. Feynman [1918-1988], who’d gone on to win a Nobel Prize.

    So when I first spoke with Feynman in September 1968, I asked….

  3. Sounds like a lot of fun. I e-mailed a teacher at my old high school in Sarasota, Florida, because I found out the chapter of the NFL (National Forensic League–and NO, they don’t do amateur autopsies, just debates and oratories for fun and fame) that I was in as a kid in the Seventies was still active. She invited me to drop in if I was ever in the neighborhood to tell the newbies how it was back in the Ford years (No Internet! No Wikipedia to give you slightly skewed facts! I had to lug my file cabinet full of quotes three miles to school in the snow…wait, I lived in Florida, didn’t I?). It’s been a few years and I obviously chickened out.

    As to the Ukelele, a grand uncle of mine was quite famous back in the Twenties–mainly with the uke. He was the first guy to be married on radio, wrote an instruction book on uke playing and even had a line of them named after him. I got to meet him once in Fairhope, AL back in the Sixties–I figured that his biggest selling recording, “Ain’t Gonna Rain No ‘Mo” made him a fortune, but he told me he’d sold the rights early on because he was just getting started, so he had to keep working. For such a little instrument, the uke can cause a lot of heartache.

  4. Yay for exposing high school students to the arts. We got a lot of that at my high school (well, the one I went to all but my senior year), and that exposure has had a positive and lasting influence on me. It makes me sad that so many schools miniminze or completely cut arts classes and activities. They always say in defense of cuts that they “can’t afford” the arts, that they are optional. I don’t agree, and I believe that the money supposedly saved that way will results in negative costs to society in the long run.

  5. Thank you for visiting Webb (and the Alf Museum)! The reading was a blast, and it was fun to hear some insight into what makes a writer a writer. There are many parallels with a career in paleontology – first efforts are never as good as you think, it’s tough to break into the field but persistence helps, it’s OK to suck at some things if it means we’re trying new paths, and sometimes we end up doing things that aren’t “pure” craft (which are just as fun!) to stay in the game. All particularly relevant that day, as we had gotten a rejection notice that morning for a paper submitted to a high-profile journal, followed shortly thereafter by page proofs for a paper co-authored with a Webb student that’s accepted for publication in another scientific journal. Gotta take the good and the bad in stride!

  6. I also went to college in Claremont (Harvey Mudd) and I had no idea there was a cool boarding school nearby. Although, thinking back on the number of things my classmates set on fire, perhaps that’s for the best. We weren’t always the best role models.

    I’m glad you had a great visit! (Is the water up there cloudy too, or is that a college campus thing?)

  7. Thanks for visiting Webb!!! I loved your stories and thank you so much for your advice on writing!!!

  8. Hello from the Alumni Office at Webb. John, thanks so much for an amazing day. The classroom discussion with our English students was like a college class, but it was for 12th graders! I know you made a big impact on the students and we were especially moved by your reading of BEING POOR. Webb is a special place, and we are fortunate to have an alumnus like you who is so willing to share your experiences and knowledge. I know many were inspired by your words. The lunch session with the journalism students, teachers and alumni was equally enjoyable. The reading of REDSHIRTS was fun, as was the intro and Shatner-esque reading of “The Shadow War of The Night Dragons.”

    Thank you again for spending a day at your alma mater. You are welcome back any time!

  9. John:

    I heard you were talking at Webb and tried to get out and here you. Unfortunately, i couldn’t get out of my teaching responsibilities. Sounds like it went great and that you are doing quite well. Kudos!

  10. So now that’s two cities we’ve both lived in. I went to UChicago for my masters, and I’m here in Claremont doing my PhD at Claremont Lincoln University. Fun coincidence.

  11. Wish I could be at your signing this weekend, but later today I’m giving a reading from an anthology published today,by my local Library District, with my fellow authors, starting 2:00 p.m., Altadena Senior Center, California. Free cookies. I am eager to meet the talented lady professor who beat me to win the designation Altadena Poet Laureate 2012-2014. Her work looks good, and she’s been a professor and award-winning poet. Don’t know where she went to high school. About high school, I am still showing editors my novel manuscript Fast Times at Stuyvesant High. Ragtag bunch of high school geeks in the Cyclotron Club save the world from the alternate timeline where von Braun completed the A9/A10 Projekt Amerika, a multi-stage manned rocket, for Pennemunde to New York City fission bomb delivery… Funny how much research it takes to get your own high school and classmates correct, on the page…

  12. I received a personally autographed letter from Senator Robert F. Kennedy while I was still in high school, telling me what my social responisbilities were as “one of America’s 300 leading young scientists.”
    Have I lived up to that? I think so. Leaving well-paid professorships to teach impoverished Hispanic and African-American high school and middle school students in Pasadena, Lincoln Heights, and Sylmar would seem to qualify. These poor kids did NOT have the same kind of positive experience with education that John Scalzi and I had, at the same age.

  13. I was just reading Your hate mail will be graded and wondering what your high school was. Now I know!

    And man, nobody can be unhappy in Claremont (Chirp!). I also never knew that school was there. (And went to boarding school for high school… in the Midwest.)

  14. Here I go on a typo tangent. I hate to be the guy to point one out in the comments, and I’m not actually sure this is one, just curious what tech in “artists provoke, tech and provide a frame for their time” means. I’m guessing it must be teach, but “provokes tech” is kind of evocative given the changing roles of modern artists. (Particularly if you want to consider guys like Steve Jobs artists, but it occurs to me that Shigeru Miyamoto, for example, is an artist who has provoked new technology in a literal way that might not have been possible in an earlier time.)

  15. What a neat experience to be able to speak at your high school. I have not step foot in my high school since the last day of my senior year. Why? I don’t know. I moved to another state right after graduation and lost contact with most of my classmates. Perhaps the nostalgia of the building would be too overwhelming, so I’ve never ventured back to the old place. But, like you, high school is also where I discovered my love for writing and literature. My senior AP English class challenged my writing skills and from there I learned to love the essay. Writing for the newspaper uncovered my passion for journalism and being a part of the world of reporters.

    Your alma mater sounds very prestigious, and it’s good to say you have pleasant memories from high school. I did as well and hold no regrets from my four years at Central High School in St.Joseph, Missouri. Just the other day I flipped back through my scrapbook I made for my senior creative writing class and I read a letter I wrote to myself and to my graduating class. My writing has come a long ways and has improved greatly since then, but I was nevertheless impressed with the writing skills I had then. My words were moving. Hopefully someday I will step over the boundary I have put between me and my high school memories and revisit my old teachers. And maybe even speak at some of the English classes!

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