My family runs to genius, & I was supposed to be the next.

This was unreal to me.

I had a fotografic memory and in grade school would just flip back mentally and look up stuff like spellings and dates on the pages I saw them last.

My father had taught me how to take those 1 ½ long multiple-choice achievement tests they handed out–

you ask if blank answers count against you

you race thru and answer all the questions you’re sure of

you go back and make guesses for the blanks

I was reading at 1,200 words/minute and ‘d be done with the test in 11 or 12 minutes. Then I’d sit & fidget for a few minutes more, plotting how to get the test up to the teacher’s desk & myself out the door while dodging hateful stares from classmates– I could feel these like arrows hitting my back as I zipped out of there!!

Umpteen years later when those wounds had lost their sting, I got brave enough for a high school reunion and sure enough, was greeted at the door by one of those kids– ‘Hey! When we used to take those tests, and you used to leave so early, I’d shoot hateful arrows at your back as you sneaked out the door– but then I wanted to learn how to fly a plane, and I had to take all these tests to get my license, and I learned how to do it really fast too!”

Because I was so flippe about my future I got sent off to Harvard during my senior high school year for a 3day battery of aptitude & various other tests– HOURS barreling thru multiplechoice, essay, Rorshacht inblot, image interpretation, they threw the whole spectrum at me.

AND… the grand result was: 99+% in all fields, EXCEPT secretarial, which was 78%. No surprise there– my mother was a crack legal secretary. Wasn’t about to step on her toes!

Eventually I blew that away too– got a job as secretary to the vicePresident of a high-finance newsletter publishing house in Beverly Hills. I handled disgruntled subscribers, it was really fun to get them all happy again. My next step up wouldabeen to ad copy writer, but I couldn’t even keep stocks straight from bonds– I took this as a blow to my ego for a few days, but it was just a matter of interest, I couldn’t care LESS for finance, really! But when I left to become a journeyman carpenter with my husband, they offered me to name my price if I would only stay– so much for Harvard!

Okay, so here I am about to be sent off to college.

I was vitally interested in parapsychology, but Dr JB Rhine at Duke University was only available to graduate students.

University of Colorado sent me a matriculation number 15 digits long, scary-huge!

Swarthmore College… now, they’d offered me the White Open Scholarship: I’d gone down for the interviews on what was also their Folk Festival Weekend, and as a visitor I had a 2 a.m. pass. You bet I stayed out ’til the last minute, folkdancing, chatting up this guy, etc. Because my last name was at the beginning of the alphabet, I was first interview next morning at 7 a.m.

I was quite drunk on lack of sleep & general excitement, clutching a fur muff & sitting on the edge of my chair in this large oval of campus bigwigs– president of the Student Council, editor of the school newspaper, heads of every department, etc., a dense cloud of cigarette smoke obfuscating the collegiate greens of the meeting room. Daniel Hoffman, English Dept. chair, took the pipe from between his teeth and said, “Well, Miss Becker, it says on your application that you like to read science fiction. Now, what IS science fiction? (I am startled) For instance, is Alice in Wonderland a form of science fiction?”

A completely staggering thought! I’d HATED that book!! To this child, it had made no sense at all… but as SCIENCE FICTION… I was blasted by the force of this new concept!

Overwhelmed, I put my muff on my head!


I got the scholarship!

My parents took this as a vote of confidence and sent me to Swarthmore.

Now I didn’t tell you: my parents were somewhat imbalanced (on Planet Earth, who isn’t?) and besides dodging that aspect of family life, if I appeared downstairs Mom would always have something ready to do for which I saw no valid purpose, so I spent all indoor time up in my room out of sight & therefore out of mind, MAKING STUFF. I had over a hundred dolls. They all had do-able hair, and names, and pajamas as well as ‘street clothes’. No, I did not play with them, just made them… And no, I did not sneak downstairs to ‘borrow’ Dad’s slide rule, I went after the really sharp, hands-off scissors in Mom’s sewing box.

We Littles’d be locked in the nursery for what seemed like HOURS while Mom baked bread, swept, balanced the checkbook or whatever. One bright morning I’d been given Real Scissors (‘Don’t frustrate the child!’) with which I industriously cut everything in reach– my brothernsister’s hair, the windowcurtains, my doll’s eyelashes, etc. I don’t remember the explosion that must’ve ensued upon discovery, all I remember is two hideous pairs of plastic scissors, one bright yellow and the other pink, hopelessly dull, denting my fingers as I struggled to cut. Didn’t get decent shears ’til I was 16 & had been sewing all my own clothes for 4 years….)

The thing is, I KNEW Swarthmore neither offered nor accepted courses in the Fine or Applied Arts toward a degree, but I blithely dismissed this– I’d just be an intellectual for four years.


The workload was staggering, & irrelevant. I discovered when grades came out at the end of the first semester that they had actually expected me to memorize ALL those free-association facts in World History! And Philosophy: here I thought we would find out why we were here and what it all really meant, but NO– I surreptitiously knitted 3 sweaters under the desk while Mr Brandt and Peter Unger endlessly debated whether or not that chair disappears when I shut the door and reappears when I open it, or does it have an independent existence of its own? Years later I realized they were just setting parameters and defining terms to discuss what REALLY interested me.

Swarthmore had a renowned seminar program for upperclass independent study , but had I had that first– maybe studying the button industry in Flanders during the Middle Ages, frinstance– then the big survey courses might’ve been more relevant for arranging the facts I’d gathered from a microcosm.

At the beginning of sophomore year life was bleak. My best friend had gone to the Sorbonne. I was no longer a glowing new freshman chickie, but had been replaced by a new crop of same. Competing with the men on the men’s terms was wearing me down. Senior women seemed twisted to me, and nasty things happened in their dorm before exams. The women from the Bronx, for whom Swarthmore represented their only chance at getting out of the ghetto, hated me, a WASP sort of born to a society they strove to enter. The campus– all grey granite, ivy & fog– utterly depressed me as I slogged under overhanging elms to class. Oh yuh– there WAS a basement room in Trotter where poor twisted artistic souls could go every other Monday for a few hours and try to work out their frustration on clay, drawing tablets or silver- & enamelwork. This was the high point of my life! I still keep by the stove a tiny dish I made there.

tiny enamel dish with Old Pheasant Eye narcissus-- they grew under the old apple tree beside 88 East St where I grew up.

tiny enamel dish with Old Pheasant Eye narcissus– they grew under the old apple tree beside 88 East St where I grew up.


But it was nowhere near enough. I was sinking fast.

For a child (yes, the last stage of childhood is age 18-21 years) in an upwardly mobile middleclass family, options are restricted. My mother was from the wrong side of the tracks in Charleston SC, and had spent her childhood struggling with poverty in order to avoid being mistaken for poor white trash. For her, I was no different from the sports car in the driveway or her presidency of the Garden Club– a possible source of Status. ‘My daughter, at Swarthmore…’ Actually I had no Life Skills (‘Oh, don’t mind the dishes, dear– just do your homework and get good marks’). So I took the only apparent option to internment in college: got pregnant, went home & announced I was getting married. I JUST MISSED the era when I’d’ve been sent off to Miss Somebody’s Home for Wayward Girls, to appear 6 months later without child but with some cover story of having gone to care for an ailing auntie.

Having thereby escaped Limiting Intellectuality, I signed up for drawing class at The Museum of Art in Philadelphia!

The first semester was taught by a young woman named Claire VanVliet, long yellow hair, hornrimmed glasses and patterned woolen tights (‘Oh, my sister sends me all these artsy clothes because she thinks I’m an artist’). She was a printmaker and her hands, always ink stained (‘ I have to wear gloves to my openings’). I LOVED HER IMMEDIATELY!


then she said “This semester we shall be working with light & shade.”

My heart fell! I DO LINES. The calligraphress. But hey… because I idolized her, I struggled thru the semester. I skipped the 2 classes allowed before you were kicked out. And then I dragged my meager portfolio in for assessment….

She studied my work. She said,”I understand your situation. Sometimes, when there is a certain degree of natural talent, the only way to progress is to go off in an entirely different direxion. Then, when you return to your work, it will have a new depth and breadth.”

Okay. If Claire said so…

The following semester—O line, my delight!– was taught by a man named Peter. But… I could hardly hold the pencil! He kept coming by my table, asking, “ You’re SURE you’ve had Drawing 1?” However, my NEXT week’s drawing made it into the Student Art Show….

And now: I am doing this to myself for the 2nd time: a drawing class, mostly crosshatching. A whole new language. And I am bucking at the traces, just like before. And just like before, I’m biting my tongue & muttering to myself.  After a few weeks of ducking & dodging, I set up 20 minutes per day of CROSSHATCHING, willy-nilly… hopefully I can be as patient with myself as my instructor is! (Wait wait Bruce, I KNOW I can get the hang of this~~)

So.  I want you to know:  skyhigh IQ numbers can’t hold a candle to  a huge & flaming Heart chakra.  Love is the way to go.  Nowadays my brains’re all in my heart.











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One Comment

  1. You may not know it yet, Ayala, but you’re half way there and you haven’t even left the station. What convinced me? Heart.

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