By Jon Wolfman
The Benefits—and Pain—of Being Confronted by a Former Student
OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar Asperger’s Movie, co-written and co-directed by Bud Clayman, premiered in 2010. Read Jon’s TW interview with the filmmaker in this issue: “An Extreme Makeover.”
I was lucky Buddy Clayman walked back into my life two years ago. Few of us get jolted awake by working on a film with a long-lost mentally ill student.
Such luck makes a painful hash of memory, however.
Between 1973 and 1979, Bud Clayman was my student at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania. While Akiba was no alternative school, students and many of their parents called me “Jon.” It felt more than comfortable; it felt right. Other faculty members also had affectionate nicknames, but I was young and insanely naïve enough to believe that my work put me at the humming center of the 1970s zeitgeist.
In my twenties and early thirties, I thought I was as successful a teacher as you’d find back then. I was energetic, even dynamic, and, by turns, appropriately serious, comic, intimate. Oh, what I could do with literature and history, with philosophy, comparative cultures, religion, composition. For my students, I was the go-to advisor and confidante.
I thought my lack of formal psychological training didn’t matter. This was the era of the gut, when many schools, particularly schools run by and for the upper middle and upper classes, expected teacher-advisors to “just know how.”
Am I making excuses—still? Perhaps. The fact is, I thoroughly missed the signs of Buddy’s descent into full-blown mental illness. And by then, he was no longer simply my student; he’d been living with me in my own home.
And I missed it.
• • •
Buddy rented a room in my house in 1981. It had been several years since my first wife moved out, and I was again single; we’d had no children. I’d had no other renters before, but I made the offer to Buddy because he told me living with his family had become untenable. He stayed for about a year.
At first, our time as housemates mirrored the way we’d interacted as teacher and student. Buddy, always a very private guy, would emerge from long periods of solitude in his room to discuss his passions: film, television, and sports.
We often reminisced about Akiba. As a senior, Buddy had written and directed a Jerry Lewis-style faux “telethon” to save Jewish American Princesses from their entitled selves. I’d even provided the inane commercial breaks for what he called “The Buddy Clayman JAP-a-Thon.”
Looking back, it may seem in bad taste. But Buddy’s writing and Jerry Lewis imitation were brilliant. His two-hour show, presented in an upper middle-class Hebrew high school, had been meticulously scripted with “guests,” “pitchmen and pitchwomen,” the “afflicted,” “the cured,” and “corporate donors.” Even the rabbis in attendance, who would never have permitted such a thing if they’d known about it in advance, were rolling.
It was a high point for Buddy at Akiba, and he reenacted scenes when we lived together. But as time went on, he did this less often. I assumed he had just grown tired of it.
Buddy never quite understood why I didn’t “get” hockey. I’d pretend I didn’t know what the sport was:
“No, really? We have a hockey club?”
“They won the Stanley Cup in ’80!” Buddy would exclaim.
Increasingly, after exchanges like this, he’d leave the living room, withdrawing. Still, I thought his consternation was playful. I never sensed his frustration.
Within six months, there were long stretches when he’d punctuate his days and nights by coming quickly downstairs to make a simple sandwich and then return to his room. I do recall trying to engage Buddy in brief conversation; often he would barely acknowledge me. I don’t remember questioning him in any depth about all the time he spent alone.
Of course, I should have. Yet he was in his early twenties by then—an adult, or so I told myself.
He left abruptly. Buddy was badly hurt by something I’d said, although I didn’t know that at the time. Within days, he’d shut down.
I didn’t see him again for thirty years.
• • •
It’s ironic that when I called Buddy in the spring of 2009, it turns out he’d been planning to look me up, too. I had begun doing that, attempting to get in touch with old friends: high school classmates and fellow British teacher-writers we’d lived with when my second wife, Tamar, and I taught in China in the mid-1980s. I was inching toward sixty, a time of reckoning. I was anticipating my fortieth high school reunion in the fall of 2009.
Buddy recognized my voice immediately. He greeted me enthusiastically, saying that he was shooting a film about his combined obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and Asperger’s Syndrome. He invited me to Philadelphia to work on a scene in the documentary, and I was happy to oblige.
On the muggy July afternoon that I met Buddy in front of my old house in northwest Philadelphia, I little expected to be slapped in the face at the jump: Buddy looked straight toward the camera, then at me, and announced I’d betrayed him thirty years before.
As Buddy describes it, after days in his room at my house, he emerged late one evening from the second floor. On the stairs, he appeared in a striped bathrobe. I told him he looked like a holocaust victim.
This is how I remember it: His robe had been wrinkled and dingy. I told him it looked like “Standard Death Camp Issue,” missing the moment with a bad joke. He’d gone very pale, but he often did. At the time, he said nothing; he ingested my remark silently.
Now I sat there on the stone wall in front of a house I hadn’t lived in for years, his former teacher and mentor, flooded with nausea, reminding myself every second that I was being filmed, grabbing my stomach, twisting my shaking, guilty hands.
I admitted that I had no idea I’d hurt him as I did. Even when confronted by a much older Buddy, it took me some moments to remember the incident. The remark had just seemed like more of the banter I thought was intrinsic to our getting on together.
But why hadn’t I understood? Why hadn’t I said more when I could have, asking after him in ways that might have mattered?
Sitting there on the stone wall it hit me hard: Without the safety and cushion the school setting provided us both, the zeitgeist I held so dear had been hollow at the core. I’d missed him. I’d missed who Buddy was becoming. I’d missed who he was.
Pinned on the wall, I didn’t read Buddy’s ambush as revenge. I knew I had blindsided myself. I even recall thinking, “He’s a film director. He has to make this raw.”
And within an hour of the shoot, we were laughing over dinner. He also gave me, on camera, a book of the complete short stories of Joseph Conrad. Buddy told me how much he’d loved the way I taught “H of D.”
The fat hardback was wrapped in aluminum foil. I took the book and said with a smile, “No one has given me such a huge brick of marijuana before. Now, you mustn’t cut that!”
Buddy laughed, as did the crew. That scene didn’t make it into the film.
• • •
While Buddy and I have built on our friendship over the past eighteen months, going to the premiere of OC87 at the University of Pennsylvania’s International House in September 2010 didn’t bring me unalloyed joy.
I found myself in the darkened theater (and then well after the lights came up), sitting alone among 300 people, sweating, as if I were waiting for a blade to slice into the back of my neck. Ashamed, I realized I’d been anticipating this for months.
The confrontation scene is brilliantly edited. The film cuts swiftly from the confrontation to Buddy’s therapist, who explains to him that Buddy, through the prism of his Asperger’s, misinterpreted the remark I had so casually lobbed at him. But what struck me was how callous I’d been as a young teacher. I was the zeitgeist of nothing.
In my experience, there are two distinct kinds of oddball teens—those embraced by peers despite their oddities and those who are ignored or even shunned. Because of his incredible humor, talent, and decency, Buddy’s peers at Akiba regarded him as odd but “theirs.” They embraced him whether or not he fully felt this as a teenager. I know a number of his former classmates have seen OC87 and responded positively.
That’s not an excuse for me missing his illness decades ago. But I didn’t worry about Buddy the way I would have about a student ill treated by others.
Part of the ‘70s zeitgeist also involved a transformation in what it meant to be a teacher and mentor. At the time, we believed in breaking down the old-fashioned power dynamic between teacher and student. At the time, it did feel revolutionary.
Yet I’m not sure if it ever was. As a writer, I now feel an increased, almost panicky obligation to my subjects, topics, and audiences. These days, before I write, while I write, and as I edit, I live as best I can their moments—not mine.
For more information about the film and current screenings, go to the OC87 website. There you’ll also find “Recovery Diaries,” a collaborative project that brings together “Stories of Mental Health, Empowerment, and Change.”
Jonathan Wolfman taught for thirty-six years in independent schools and universities in the United States and the People’s Republic of China. He writes about culture, the arts, and politics.
You can read his “BlogShots” on Open Salon.