There was a horrendous tradition at my Chicago high school called the Senior Class Notables. Everyone in the12th grade would fill out ballots for 25 different categories. The names of the winners would be posted on a giant bulletin board and then the people posed together in a picture for the yearbook. The contest would have been bad enough if it had been limited to things like Best Laugh and Most Talented, but it also included horribly mean categories like Class Freak, Class Cuckoo, Class Snob, and Most Conceited. Can you imagine how humiliating it was for the Class Freaks (code for least popular) to have to pose next to the Best Looking and Most Popular winners? What were the adults in that school thinking? Above is the photo of the 1976 Von Steuben High School Class Notables. I managed to stay off the radar screen for this contest, thank God. I’m surprised by how many of my former classmates I remember. Standing on top of the table on the right is Alan Specter, Best Personality. Alan once played Annie Sullivan to my Helen Keller in an all-boy production of “The Miracle Worker” that we performed for the whole class. To the left of Alan is Ann Schayer, Class Snob (I wonder if that title was borne out in adulthood), and to his right, Carol Anderson, Friendliest (not to me). On the far left of the photo is Lisa Anderson, Smartest, standing next to multiple award winner Shawn Anderson (no relation) who was voted Best Looking, Best Build, Best Eyes, and Most Conceited (no wonder after getting all those awards!). The African-American girl in the top row with her fists in the air is Karla Scott, Most Soulful. Ouch, can you believe we had a category specifically for our few black classmates? I’m surprised we didn’t have Best Jew while we were at it (well, we did have Class Yenta, Best Nose, and Class Mouth, God help us). Below Karla is her male Most Soulful counterpart, Mark Peeples, and below him Jack Silver, Class Flirt. Jack now lives in L.A. and is the big shot Program Director of KLSX, our Howard Stern talk radio station. What amazes me most about Jack (besides his facial hair which I was years away from having) is that in the career section of the yearbook Jack said he wanted to be a radio personality. It’s incredible to me that he already knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. On the bottom row all the way to the left is the girl our class voted Most Likely to Succeed, Julie Rotter.
I got out my old yearbook tonight because I just found out that Julie Rotter died this weekend. I’m still having a hard time comprehending this incredibly sad news, and I can’t stop looking at pictures of her. There are many to choose from in our yearbook because Julie was one of those students who was involved in the widest possible range of activities. She can be found in photos of the National Honor Society, the staff of the school newspaper, tennis team, drama club, mixed chorus, girls glee, cross country, teachers’ aides, the list is endless. I, on the other hand, participated in no extracurricular activities at all, and while I did get excellent grades, I had such a loathsome contempt for high school by then that I took every Wednesday off during my senior year just to prove that I could. On my yearbook page I am surrounded by people who saw themselves as future psychiatrists, lawyers, lab technicians, and millionaires. What did I say I wanted to be in the future? “Dismembered.” Good God, I had completely forgotten that painfully unfunny joke, which must have resulted from my disgust for all questionnaires placed in front of me that year. My friend Helena did me one better and stated her goal was to be “sexually reassigned.” Weren’t there any adults supervising the content of the yearbook?
I did appear in this one photo with Julie Rotter. It’s the French Honor Society, a group you were automatically a member of if you got As in French for two years. That’s me in the top row, second from the right. I’m sitting in between Donna Anton and Rosanna Marquez. Rosanna went to Harvard Law School, became a Regional Director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton, and later served in Mayor Daley’s cabinet. That’s Julie all the way on the left. I can barely remember anything of my high school years but for some reason I vividly remember sitting down on those steps to take this picture and Julie hoisting herself up on that banister.
I know it’s tempting to start putting people who have died on a pedestal but that’s not what I’m doing when I say that Julie Rotter was the embodiment of kindness in an environment that could be quite cruel. She had the kind of stubbornly cheerful nature that should have made my surly high school self groan but she was so unabashedly sincere that I always loved being around her. It was impossible for me to be in her presence without smiling, no matter how hard I tried to stay faithful to my role as Disgruntled High School Student. In a culture ruled by clearly designated cliques, racial and class tensions, and the manipulative backstabbing that adolescents are so good at, I don’t think Julie Rotter ever said an unkind word about anyone in that school.
When I opened the cover of my 1976 yearbook tonight and saw what Julie had written to me I winced with sadness and regret. I’ve long forgotten the inside joke about “getting thrown up on” but I do remember how much I enjoyed Julie’s wicked sense of humor, the perfect complement to her natural sweetness. What other teenager in the mid-1970s could use the word “grand” and get away with it? So why didn’t we get to know each other better that summer? Why didn’t I keep in touch?
I didn’t see Julie again until our 20th high school reunion in 1996. The reunion was awful but it was great connecting with her and discovering that she had also moved to southern California where she lived with her husband and children. The following year I went to her home about an hour south of Los Angeles for a gathering of all the Von Steuben alumni now living on the West Coast. My former classmate, now Julie Shumski, had barely aged in 20 years. My last memory of her from that evening was watching her in the kitchen surrounded by her four adoring children. Julie was standing over the sink, radiating the same 1000-kilowatt smile that always used to make me forget how much I was supposed to be hating my school life.
I had every intention of getting together with Julie again but I never did. I lost her address and wanted to look her up but I never got around to it and the years started slipping away like one of those montages in a Busby Berkeley film where the pages of the calendar fly off the screen. About a year ago I heard that Julie was ill and I renewed my efforts to track her down. No luck. Then why, after I found out she died this weekend, was I able to try a little harder and find her address and phone number in a couple of hours? I keep thinking of her husband and those four beautiful children and what it must have been like to know you’re going to be leaving your loved ones at such a young age. What do you say to them? How can you possibly prepare them or yourself for that? I still grieve the loss of my mother every day and I was 39 when she died.
Julie is the seventh person from my high school class to have died. That seems like a hell of lot since we’re only in our mid-40s. Starting now, I am going to think about all of the people in my life that I’ve wanted to touch base with and I’m going to make that a priority instead of something I always put off because I’m so busy. I’m going to carry with me Julie Rotter’s brilliant smile and the feelings of warmth and genuine caring I experienced every time we communicated. And I’m going to examine those neuroses I live in much of the time that cause me to constantly berate myself for all the things I think I am lacking. When I feel those negative thoughts taking over I’m going to remember that image of Julie happily ensconced in her kitchen surrounded by people who loved her so much. For once that stupid high school contest got it right: Julie Rotter—Most Likely to Succeed.
May 2005 Update:
The response to this post about Julie Rotter Shumski has been amazing and a testament to how loved she was by everyone who ever came in contact with her. I've been in touch with the people at Morasha Jewish Day School, the wonderful progressive school that Julie and her family believed in so strongly and where Julie served as president for several years. The school has set up a Julie Rotter Shumski Memorial Scholarship Fund. I urge you to contact this school at 949-459-6330 x19 or firstname.lastname@example.org and contribute to this fund as one way to honor Julie's memory.