Believe in yourself

Every Friday, the Wall Street Journal features a one-of-a-kind property for sale, which could be anywhere in the world. These morning, I saw the photo and the headline “A Frank Lloyd Wright House,” and I immediately recognized Mr. Berger’s house. Robert Berger was my geometry teacher at Novato High School (north of San Francisco) in 1972. Like all good teachers, he had a profound influence on my life, and that house (though I visited only once) in a way changed the trajectory of my life.

In 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright was already a famous architect and Robert Berger was, well, a public school math teacher, when Berger asked Wright to design a home for him to build, and Wright agreed. As Mr. Berger told us, other people tried to talk him out of it, but he figured the worst Wright could do was say no, so why not ask? That principle impressed me deeply: never let other people decide the limits of your accomplishments. Explore your own capabilities, and you may surprise others, even if you don’t surprise yourself.

This was an especially important message to someone thinking about applying to college, as I was at that time. I’m a first generation college graduate, and the only one of my siblings to achieve significant academic success. I probably would have settled for the nearest public college and been grateful for the opportunity to attend at all. (My family’s financial ability to send me to college was not a certainty, and I had been saving baby-sitting and birthday money toward that goal ever since I could remember. When I arrived at college, I didn’t even understand the paperwork; my advisor had to explain what “undergraduate” meant.) California has an outstanding public university system, and, at the time, California high school students were guaranteed admission to one of the University of California campuses after meeting certain academic requirements (so many years of math, science, English, and foreign languages, and a certain GPA, I forget what). The catch was that you might not get into your first choice campus; that part of admissions was competitive. It seemed like everyone wanted to go to Berkeley.

But back in junior high, when I attended the L.A. City School System with academic tracks segregated by ability, Mrs. Muir made no secret of preparing her honors English students for Stanford. That planted a seed later watered by Mrs. Palmer, the high school honor society counselor who took us on a field trip to Stanford, where her son Wayne was enrolled. I fell in love with the place, an attachment that continues to this day, and I was determined to attend. My classmates tried to talk me out of applying. Robin Brown and Jim Jackson (a year ahead of us) didn’t get in. I clearly wasn’t as smart as they were. Was I? Nobody we knew from our mediocre little high school (in our vast experience of two years there so far) had ever gotten in. Everyone knew that Berkeley was the best we could hope for. Wasn’t it?

I don’t remember talking to Mr. Berger about it. He suffered from cancer, and I don’t think I bothered him with my teenage angst about college. But I can guess the answer he would have given me: the only college guaranteed not to admit you is the one where you don’t apply. Exhibit one: the house and its history. Mr. Berger (even 40 years later, it’s hard to call him “Bob”) had not only commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design it, he had built it with his own two hands.

It was a very unusual house inside. There were only two interior doors, to the bathroom and his daughter’s bedroom. All the other rooms were built around corners, in a sort of spiral. The house was also unusual in scale. Mr. and Mrs. Berger were short, and the house was scaled down to suit them, with lower kitchen counters and the like. Mr. Berger talked about how, when he was working on the house, he would leave piles of wood shavings for his wife to clean up. That was proof positive he was a male chauvinist pig in the early days of the women’s movement, but we couldn’t help loving him anyway. Now I understand more about the scope of the undertaking and dividing tasks, so maybe I’m a little smarter than in high school when, like most teenagers, I knew everything.

My senior year of high school, Mr. Berger stopped teaching and stayed home dying of cancer. (The treatments then were less sophisticated, and I suspect someone afflicted now would survive, or at least suffer less pain.) A small group of us went to visit him there. I asked his wife what to bring him, and she suggested fruit. We wrapped each piece in tissue paper with a note of affirmation tucked inside. We felt so helpless. I was in trigonometry class a few weeks later when word came that he had died. Even today, I can’t write that sentence without tears.

Nobody could talk me out of applying to Stanford. I not only got accepted, with a financial aid package that made it possible, but my college boyfriend and I were both part of an elite group elected to Phi Beta Kappa junior year, instead of as seniors. Stanford opened literally thousands of doors for me. I stopped listening to people trying to tell me what I was incapable of doing. I attended the graduate programs I wanted to attend, pursued the career I chose, traveled to the countries that interested me, retired at an age I had been told was “too young,” and even took up piano and ballet in my fifties. On a more mundane level, I taught myself handbell techniques needed to ring through musical problems that numerous coaches told me to choreograph around. People who remembered me from bell choir as someone who couldn’t reliably count to four (without stumbling over the “and” of three) told me they were stunned when they saw me solo ring.

And now, gentle reader, I feel compelled to ask: What are you, personally, doing to support other people in their growth as handbell musicians, to help those coming up the learning curve after you to believe in themselves? Whatever level you’ve achieved, you have something to offer those around you, if only encouragement. Only good things can come of developing a larger pool of more highly skilled handbell musicians (unless you’re trying to sleep next to the rehearsal room). We need to ask ourselves: Are we enlarging the pie, or discouraging those who want to share it? Are we Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Palmer, and Mr. Berger, or are we my old high school classmates?

Detouring briefly back to college: I was home for Thanksgiving my freshman year when the phone rang. The younger sister of one of my high school classmates wanted to talk to me about applying to Stanford. I was thrilled to be her role model. I met her on campus some time later, after she enrolled. At graduation, I ran into a classmate from Mrs. Muir’s junior high English class, who had been there all four years with me, though our paths had never crossed before. Thank you, Mrs. Muir, for believing in us. Thank you, Mrs. Palmer, for showing the way.

Mr. Berger’s house cost $138,551 to build, not counting all his hours of labor over nearly two decades. It’s listed for $2.5 million, following his wife’s death last year. Quite a legacy for the four children of a “nobody” high school math teacher. Now factor in the thousands of students he inspired during his career. Rest in peace, Bob Berger, and thank you. You changed my life.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,