Excerpt: 'Generally Speaking'

"Well, we're for Stevenson," my mother said, nodding toward the man on the TV. "But don't tell your father."

This was exciting stuff for a kid of five. Mama was talking to me like a grown-up. Daddy was a politically conservative Army officer who would naturally vote for General Eisenhower. But Mama had independent political views, which were more liberal than my father's.

Both my parents, however, taught their children that their personal lives had to be disciplined, whatever individual social views they held. They also taught us to examine our own motives and not accept the opinions of others whole cloth. I can't think of a better preparation in childhood for the character of a future leader.

Like most Army children, I learned to make friends fast, not be surprised when we had to move after a year or two, and to endure the isolation of being the new kid when I was put into the middle of a strange class at a new school. And I also experienced some wonderful educational opportunities that civilians rarely had. As a second-grader at the Yoyogi School for military dependents in Tokyo in the mid-1950s, for example, I practiced the dances that all young Japanese girls were taught and even took a class in making traditional silk dolls. At the post school in Boeblingen, Germany, a few years later, I began to practice the polysyllabic mysteries of German.

When we went to Israel in 1962, Daddy was assigned to the embassy. I started tenth grade at Tabeetha School, run by the Church of Scotland. The curriculum was demanding, particularly the English and Latin courses, but I enjoyed the challenge because I had decided three years earlier that I wanted to be a doctor. I had reached that decision in an unusual way. When I was in seventh grade, there simply were not many professions open to women other than teaching and nursing. So I had decided I would be a nurse.

But one evening in Williamsburg, I had told Daddy of my ambition.

"Why not be a doctor?" he responded. I saw he was serious.

I chose my eighth-and ninth-grade courses, including algebra and Latin, based on that ambition. In Israel, I learned mammalian anatomy quite well by dissecting a dead rabbit. But, in the process, I also discovered that I had no further interest in becoming either a doctor or a nurse.

In 1964, we got news that my father, who had been promoted to full colonel, had been assigned to command the Brooklyn Army Terminal. We would live at nearby Fort Hamilton. I had become attached to my friends in Israel. I did not want to go to a third high school.

"I'll stay in Israel and finish my senior year," I told my father. I was eager to be independent, to be an adult. We were at dinner. That evening Father was tired but patient.

"You can't support yourself. You're sixteen."

"I'll get a job and pay board. There won't be any problem."

"You need a work permit, and you're not Jewish. It's not going to work, Claudia."

Naturally, I went home with the family. And I was unhappy that year. Fort Hamilton High was a civilian school near the post. The seismic shock waves of the 1960s counterculture hadn't hit yet, and the social scene was still frozen in a 1950s teenage time warp. Belonging to the right clique, whether it was centered on student government, sports, or neighborhoods, seemed a matter of dire importance.

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