If you haven’t been following along, you might want to start with the first post in this series: Jerry’s Story: First interactions. This is the 7th installment in the series.
Delving into Jerry’s experiences as a student takes us back to some of his earliest memories, even before starting school. In this installment of Jerry’s Story, we’ll explore Jerry Weinberg’s childhood and schooling through high school, with a few peeks beyond. We’ll cover other childhood experiences like Scouting and sports. Jerry and I have done our best to accurately document his memories, some of which are more than 80 years old. We might not have gotten all of it right, but I’ve done the best fact-checking I can.
Jerry remembers as early as age 3 how he spent time with the neighborhood gang in his Chicago neighborhood, hanging out in the alley and on the tops of the garages that opened up to the alley. It didn’t occur to him at the time to ask who owned the garages, and the homeowners never seemed to catch them there.
He was too young to be aware of any major illegal activities the older members of the gang may have been up to, but he did get involved with the fighting with other nearby gangs. He remembers that someone threw a brick that hit him in the head. When he was about 6 years old, Jerry had an altercation with a bully after school. He was within sight of his own house, where his father was watching from the porch. Jerry appealed for his dad to save him, but his dad said he had to take take of it himself. So he wrestled with the bully and threw him off of another nearby porch, breaking the bully’s arm in the process. Jerry’s dad seemed to be proud of him. This had a big effect on his sense of self-reliance.
Another formative moment was when Jerry visited an elementary school for the first time. This was at Gregory Elementary School, which Jerry would also later attend. Jerry says –
I must have been three or four. My mother took me with her for a conference with my older sister Charlotte’s teacher. I was given a brush and an easel with about six pots of paints. I painted a garage, but the only way I could think of to indicate the wooden siding was a rainbow series of stripes, using every color I had.
When the conference was over, the teacher came over for the first interaction I’d ever had with a teacher, one I’ll never forget.
She said, “That’s nice. What is it?”
“Oh, no,” she corrected. “Garages don’t have rainbow stripes.”
My first experience with schooling, one I remembered when we finally had a garage that needed painting, outside of Lincoln. I’ll let you guess what I did.
Later, in Colorado, I ran across someone else’s garage painted in rainbow stripes. Take that, teacher!
Jerry had a lesson in how things can be done differently than you expect when he visited the Brookfield Zoo. He remembers watching a gorilla eat an orange by putting it whole in its mouth, then spitting out the peel. This wasn’t a technique he was physically able to try. But much later in life, he learned how chimpanzees peel bananas from the bottom, though he had always opened them from the stem end before. He decided to learn a lesson from the chimps, so he now opens his bananas from the bottom.
When he was 6 years old, Jerry saw his first movie. It was a horror movie, The Cat and the Canary. He saw it in a theater, because that was the only way to see a movie in the 1930s. He was sitting in the last row with a wall right behind him. He still remembers the scene where a bony hand reached out of a secret panel in the wall and stole a necklace from a woman in bed. This scene spooked him so much that he still doesn’t like to sit in the last row of seats in a room against the wall. Maybe that wasn’t the most useful lesson he could have learned.
When he was 7 years old, Jerry’s family moved to northern Chicago. Jerry transferred to Daniel Boone Elementary School. He was exceedingly bored at school. By the time he was in fourth grade, school officials had skipped him two grade levels ahead. His IQ was measured at 181. He was separated from the rest of the kids most of the school day and was taught by a private tutor. The tutoring generally went well, except for the day that his tutor told him he had learned all of the math that there was (he was sure this just meant he had learned everything that the tutor was able to teach).
Jerry’s favorite activity in elementary school was recess, even though he was often bullied by the other students. He did well at playing “line-ball,” where someone would bounce a ball against a wall and they would all try to catch it. He wasn’t very good at throwing the ball, but he excelled at catching it. His success at line-ball did not lead to more bullying, though his academic success did.
The troubles he had as one of the “smart kids” are reflected in a passage he wrote many decades later in his fiction book Quantum String Quartet–
Anyone who’s ever been smart knows you have to hide your power. Otherwise, people try to control you, to take advantage of it.
In elementary school, Jerry didn’t know how to hide his intelligence in order to escape from the bullying. He did eventually figure it out, and has learned from the experiences of other smart people. He now likes to teach people how to be happy “in spite of their intelligence.”
Jerry almost won a spelling bee while in fourth grade. He made it to the final round–he was up against an eighth grader. He was given the word “vertices,” which was not a word he was familiar with. Nonetheless, he produced the spelling v-e-r-t-i-c-e-s, but the judges told him he was wrong. They said the correct spelling is “vertexes.” After missing out on victory, he went home and looked up the word, finding that both spellings were valid. He protested the outcome of the spelling bee, but this didn’t change the result. The sense of unfairness that Jerry felt from this stayed with him for the rest of his life.
There was a formative experience in music class at Boone. The teacher didn’t like the sound of his voice, so when the class was singing, she told him to lip-sync silently. This may have suppressed any desire he might have had to sing. Still, since then he has made music with a kazoo, a jug, a washboard, and a gut bucket, as well as playing a bugle at Scout Camp. He long had a desire to learn to play bagpipes, and he acquired a practice chanter that beginning bagpipe players use to learn, but never got very far in learning. He says he’s envious of those who have developed their music talents. However, he has always loved listening to music.
Jerry’s sister had a 78 rpm record player and only one album–Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He listened to the symphony repeatedly. In college, he would study in the library while listening to Mozart. He later bought a hi-fi and could afford only one album, Mozart’s Hunt Quartet. He now has recordings of all of Mozart’s compositions, and many other classical works.
When he completed the 8th grade at Boone Elementary School (there was no middle school between primary and secondary school), the teachers there wanted to send him to the University of Chicago, which had a policy of accepting bright students straight out of the 8th grade. However, the university was three hours away by streetcar to the south side of Chicago. Jerry’s parents didn’t want to send him to a dorm (likely because of his age or the cost, or both). So he went on to high school. Jerry wasn’t enthusiastic about college at this point, so he was happy with this decision.
Because he had skipped two grades, he was only 12 years old when he started high school as a freshman. He lied to his classmates about his age so he could blend in better. There had been talk earlier in elementary school about skipping him ahead one more grade level, but he refused to do this because this would have put him in the same grade as his older sister, who had skipped a grade herself. If he started attending classes with his older sister, it would be much harder to hide the fact that he had skipped ahead.
He had a scare when everyone in gym class took a physical ability test. The results were normalized by age, and the gym teachers used his true age for the calculations. His young age gave his scores a boost, and Jerry was pronounced the best athlete in the high school. The gym teachers couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t proud of this feat. He was nervous that the other students would do the math and figure out that he won because he was so much younger than them. But as far as he knew, none of the other students ever learned his true age. That included his 14 year old girlfriend, who would have been mortified to know she was dating a 12 year old boy.
For several years, Scouting was an important part of Jerry’s life. He was a Cub Scout, and then he moved up to a Boy Scout troop. As a Boy Scout, he still volunteered to help with Cub Scout meetings. He quickly rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. One positive memory that he has from scouting was the the clear structure for earning awards. In many parts of his life before and after his experiences as a Boy Scout, Jerry felt he was denied the awards he had earned. In contrast, he felt that the non-competitive criteria for earning merit badges and ranks in the Boy Scouts were fairly administered. But again, he worried about his classmates discovering his age difference.
Though a Boy Scout can remain a youth member until age 18, teenagers often drop out of Scouting around the time they enter high school because they find other activities more compelling. Jerry didn’t want to look childish to his older peers, so he stopped going to his Boy Scout troop’s activities shortly after starting high school. He doesn’t recall anyone in his troop asking him why he hadn’t come back, and he had no friends in the troop that he missed seeing. He had been getting increasingly annoyed at having to travel to the troop meetings that were a significant distance from his house.
Eagle Scouts are now encouraged to mention their Eagle rank on their resume to give them an advantage in the job market. But that wasn’t the case for Jerry when he was a Boy Scout. He never mentioned it on a resume and it didn’t occur to him to bring it up to anyone at all. He says it was like his stamp collecting–something that didn’t seem worth talking about.
Several of the skills Jerry learned as a Boy Scout have stuck with him, including knot tying, recognizing trees, sewing, woodwork, electrical wiring, and first aid. He has bandaged a lot of wounds since his scouting days. The most dramatic use of first aid skills was when he was attending the University of Nebraska. He was using a circular saw while building a homecoming display for his residence house. Someone bumped into him, causing the saw to cut his thigh so deeply that he could see the bone. Several pre-med students who were nearby came over. Three of them fainted after seeing the wound, and the rest didn’t do anything to help. Jerry tore off his shirt and made a tourniquet for himself. He used a hammer he found nearby to tighten the tourniquet. He was angry with the other students for not helping, and he even had trouble convincing someone to take him to the student health center. Jerry was awake while a doctor sewed up his leg. The doctor wanted to reassure him that the wound wasn’t too bad, so he told the story of how he had recently treated a farmer who had tried and failed to kill himself by shooting himself with a shotgun, giving graphic details of the wounds. This did not help Jerry get through the experience, of course. He still has a 4-inch scar from the injury.
Jerry was bored with many of his high school classes. One experience didn’t help; as he describes it–”I’m in English class and we had to read a novel. HAD to read a novel, like who wouldn’t want to read a novel?” The assigned novel was The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. He read the portion of the book that had been assigned, and decided that he liked the book, so he finished reading it in one evening. The next day, the teacher led a discussion on the assigned reading. Jerry’s contribution to the discussion revealed that he knew what happened later in the book. The teacher rebuked him for reading ahead, which has stuck with him as being a ridiculous thing to complain to him about.
Jerry has much fonder memories of his auto shop class. He learned engine repair in this class, which is something that was lacking in his time working in his dad’s body shop. He remembers rebuilding a tank engine with pneumatic automatic transmission. He also took a course in electricity, where he built a small electric motor. There was no coverage of electronics, just basic electricity. He didn’t really have opportunities to tinker with electronics. He did enjoy using a ham radio to listen to radio programs from across the world. He used to hide it in his bed when he was supposed to be asleep. And he tinkered with a pinball machine that his father had, adjusting solenoids and relays.
Another useful class was print shop, where he learned how to set movable type. The students didn’t get to operate the printing press, but they learned a lot about formatting documents. Jerry learned the origin of the meaning of “upper case” and “lower case” (there were two separate cases for the type, with the upper case type conventionally propped up higher and behind the lower case). He felt that his hands-on experience with formatting documents physically in the print shop helped him later with using a computer to build documents, and he saw that others who didn’t have this kind of print shop experience struggled more with formatting documents. The print shop printed all of the school’s paperwork, including hall passes. Jerry is coy about whether all of these hall passes were used by authorized personnel.
Jerry remembers an important lesson on approximation from his trigonometry teacher. Jerry had been opposed to using any kind of approximations, thinking that it’s far better to do only fully precise calculations. What he didn’t know at the time was that he had already been using approximations any time he used a slide rule or a table to do a calculation. Drawing on his war-time experiences in the Army, the teacher explained how to do a milliradian (or “mil”) approximation. Jerry said he objected to using an approximation. Though most of Jerry’s teachers would have squelched his objections, the trig teacher listened. I’ll let Jerry tell the rest of it:
Unlike most of my teachers, he took my objections seriously, so he told us a story. He described Big Bertha, the largest cannon ever built. It could send a tonnish projectile over thirty miles through the air. ‘It could have been fired across the English Channel and into a trench in France.’
He then did two calculations: the most exact trig calculation, using tables (which were, of course, still approximations), and the mil approximation. Then he computed the difference. I don’t remember the exact number, but I do remember his exact sentence: ‘If you hit your enemy soldier in the left eye or the right eye, it doesn’t matter.’
In his last semester at Omaha Central High School, there was one last math class he hadn’t taken yet–solid geometry. Jerry remembers that the teacher was blonde, beautiful, and old, that is, probably 22 years old, which to 15-year-old Jerry, was really old. He found the class interesting for a few days. Then he finished the textbook and got bored listening to the lectures. Maybe because of boredom, and maybe because he wanted to win the teacher’s attention, he started acting up in class. She only tolerated this for a day or two before she talked to him about it after class. When she asked what was wrong, he said that he was bored, thinking that this was a smart alec remark that would get a rise out of her. But she took it seriously, saying “There’s not a whole lot to this subject. Not really enough for me to fill up a whole semester. So what interests you?” Still trying to be a smart alec, he replied “Gambling.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s good. I don’t know much about gambling, but I’ve heard there’s a lot of math to it. It’s called probability or statistics.” This was news to him, and he also really liked that she wasn’t speaking down to him. Then she said, “I have an idea that might not be boring.”
“Instead of hanging around in this boring class, you could go to the library and learn about probability and statistics applied to gambling, then you could come to class and I’ll give you an hour to teach the others about it. What do you think?”
Jerry jumped at the chance and studied like a fiend all semester, focusing on the game of craps. During the final week, he gave his lecture, working out all the odds in craps. He doesn’t think his classmates enjoyed it much, but he had a great time doing it. The way the teacher dealt with him in this class left a permanent impression on him.
Jerry has a broad interest in competitive and recreational sports–he calls himself a sports dilettante. Though he wasn’t usually committed enough to excel in a sport, he would study the sport extensively so that he understood it intellectually even better than the more serious participants.
There wasn’t so much study involved with his brief try at boxing in his Boy Scout troop. All of the boys had watched boxing on television, but otherwise didn’t have any training when they put on boxing gloves and went at it. In Jerry’s first bout, he won with a knockout, and he got excited about doing more boxing. He fantasized about being a star boxer like Joe Louis. Then a week later, he faced off against the same opponent again, but this time it was Jerry who was knocked out. All of his excitement about boxing dried up at that point. Getting a knockout was fun, but he didn’t want to be knocked out ever again.
Jerry enjoyed playing 16-inch softball. Softball had originated there in Chicago, with a ball with a 12-inch circumference, and the 16-inch variant was a direct descendent of the original game. Jerry’s contemporaries just knew the game as “baseball” or “softball.” This variant used 10 players on the field, and none of them wore gloves. This was slow-pitch softball–he remembers that there were a lot of hits and few strikeouts.
Jerry worked as a caddie at Tam O’Shanter Country Club near Chicago for part of a summer. He would sometimes work for 72 holes in one day while carrying two golf bags. Working as a caddie allowed him to play golf when the club wasn’t open, because he otherwise couldn’t afford to play. He says he was a pretty good golfer.
Tam O’Shanter sometimes hosted national golf tournaments. At one of them, he got to meet Joe Louis. Though Louis was best known as a boxer, he also had an interest in golf. Jerry listened to the white members of the country club make bigoted remarks about Joe, who was African-American. Jerry’s school was well integrated, so he hadn’t heard much of that kind of talk before. It made him feel so awful that he quit being a caddie right after the tournament.
Jerry also tried working as a tennis ball boy. He never played tennis, though, because the players where he worked treated him with contempt. He had no interest in playing tennis with people who would treat a ball boy like that.
He tried basketball on a club team in Chicago–at 6 feet 3 inches, he was a tall center for the time. He earned the nickname “Swede” because of his height, blond hair, and blue eyes, but not because of any actual Swedish heritage. His coach didn’t seem to know much about basketball, though, because his philosophy was “never pass, dribble as far as you can, then shoot.” Jerry’s team never won a game.
At 240 pounds, Jerry was a good candidate for his high school football team. Players on his team played on both the defense and the offense. Jerry tended to play center on the offense and end on the defense. None of the players wore helmets, and he says it’s a wonder he can recall anything after playing football without a helmet. The coach was abusive to the players on his team. At one game, the coach managed to get the opposing team’s star player isolated from the rest of his team. The coach ordered his own team to surround him and the opposing player so no one else could see what was happening, then the coach kicked him in the stomach. Jerry quit the team after that. This experience left him with a lasting distrust of all authority figures.
Jerry had much more fun playing for a local club team that was sponsored by the Chicago Bears and coached by two of their players. He stayed on that team until his family moved to Omaha near the end of his junior year. He was later offered a scholarship to play football at an NCAA Division II school, Drake University in Iowa. At the time he got the offer, however, he had no plans to go to college, so he turned it down.
In high school in Omaha, Jerry tried track and field sports like the mile run and shot put. He had some success with this, earning a few third place ribbons.
As the end of his high school tenure at Omaha Central High School drew near, there were a few more disappointing events where Jerry felt he was treated unfairly. The student commencement speaker was going to be chosen using an audition. Jerry wrote a speech and went to the audition, where he found six other students, each accompanied by a teacher acting as sponsor. He hadn’t heard that he needed to have a sponsor. The judges weren’t sure what to do with him. They gave him a chance to audition his speech, but it didn’t appear that anyone was listening. The teacher sponsors talked to their students while Jerry gave his speech. Of course, his speech was not chosen. It may not have been a stellar speech, but he would have liked to have a fair chance with it.
At graduation, the school gave awards to the students who had taken all eight math glasses that they offered and earned an A in all of them. Jerry had taken several math classes in Chicago, and after moving to Omaha, he took every advanced math class they had, getting a higher grade than all the other students each time. And yet, he got no award. When he asked about this, the answer was “How do we know your Chicago high school had the same high standards as Central?” Because he had taken some of his math classes at a different school, he was not eligible for the award. Because all of his grades from Chicago were discounted, he had no chance of being valedictorian. He didn’t receive any awards from the school at all. It’s easy to imagine the level of disappointment this would have caused.
The people who ran Omaha Central must have felt they had a reputation to protect. Jerry remembers them proudly asserting that they were the second best high school in the nation. He never heard who had done this ranking, or whether there was any desire to take the number one spot. Since then, Jerry has counted 20 different people who assert completely seriously that their own high school is the second best in the nation.
In the next installment, we’ll continue to follow Jerry’s education into college and beyond. Here’s a teaser. Jerry went to a birthday party in Omaha when he was about 15 where he ate 36 hot dogs. This was the beginning of a new activity for him that continued into college. Watch for more about this unlikely competitive eating champion.