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A Promise Kept

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in CWRU Magazine, Fall 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1

Until the seventh grade, I was a brilliant student. My mother refused the school's efforts to skip me a couple of grades, reasoning that I would lose more socially than I could gain academically.

Then puberty hit. I grew increasingly indifferent to school, eventually becoming a virtual nonparticipant. Disinterested, disaffected, just so damn bored. I viewed school as a sentence to be served, and didn't plan on doing more time in college.

But when the Marine Corps announced, at the eleventh hour, that they weren't taking men without binocular vision—a requirement I failed, because of an old injury—I quickly discovered that factory work made school look exciting by comparison.

So, armed only with SAT scores that indicated my grades were perhaps not an accurate indication of my intelligence, I last–minute applied to a few schools at random, and dutifully went to the interviews.

I'm not sure what it was about the interviewer from Western Reserve University. Maybe he reminded me of the Marine recruiter who had so fired my imagination with pictures of my own potential.

But I entered college without a plan. My dorm mates all knew why they were there. They intended to be doctors, scientists, teachers, actors, lawyers ... Me, I didn't have a clue. I spent more time in poolrooms than classrooms. My field trips were down to 55th and Central, or over to the Flats. I had great difficulty finding the library, but I could find a card game twenty–four/seven.

Teachers had, for years, been telling me I had a "gift" for writing. I paid no attention. That was unacceptable to professors like Toby Lelyveld, who berated me for laziness while promising me opportunities I never imagined if I would just work. And Mac Sawyer Hammond's infamous creative writing class was even more relentless in mixing encouragement and criticism.

Western Reserve would simply not tolerate a nonparticipant. When I failed a core course and nuked my alleged major, Dean Cramer "found" another for me. Every time I had a "disciplinary" incident, Dean Griffin used the opportunity to tell me what the University expected of me. Not good grades—by then, I'd convinced everyone of the futility of that particular goal. Rather, as he always put it, an "impact."

And when I dropped out to get married (and work a marginal job), it was Dean Griffin who hauled me on the carpet again ... to tell me the University had miraculously just found enough grant money for me to finish up.

The US Public Health Service visited campus during my last semester. They were looking for investigators to track chains of sexually transmitted diseases across the country. It sounded like a great adventure. I signed up.

It wasn't a desk job. I worked penthouses to whorehouses, exclusive prep schools to migrant labor camps, and everything in between. It was out there that I first met the Beast—humans who prey upon children.

That encounter filled me with rage, and I've been in mortal combat ever since. First, I spent time as a social services caseworker, then undertook a mission to Biafra (now Nigeria) during its genocidal civil war. Upon my return, I ran a maximum–security prison for violent youth. After all that, I was disgusted, saddened ... and even angrier.

So I went to law school. My intent was to represent only children. But it wasn't until the (utterly unexpected) success of my first novel that I was able to devote full time to a "practice" that had most closely resembled a vow of poverty. And, through the novels, I've found that "impact" I'd always been promised.

I had viewed college as I had high school—something to be endured, with little involvement, and even less personal investment. But, despite my best efforts, the University refused to let me squander my education. No matter where I turned, I was bombarded by social, cultural, and academic opportunities. I assimilated knowledge—and values—through an osmotic process I never truly understood, but deeply felt. Another school might have—justifiably—kicked me to the curb. But Western Reserve lived its own rhetoric, keeping its promise that I could make an impact on the world, by making an impact on me.

I didn't appreciate it, then. I didn't understand it. I didn't respect it. Now, I give thanks for it. And I try to always act as I was taught.

I keep my promises.

I am committed to making an impact.

And I don't give up.

Andrew Vachss (ADL '65) is an attorney in Manhattan whose practice is devoted exclusively to the protection of children and youth. He is also a writer who works in many genres, including full&ndashlength fiction, with his novels being translated throughout the world. His latest book, Only Child, from his "Burke" series, was published by Knopf in October. Visit his website, the Zero, at

© CWRU Magazine
Reprinted with permission (thanks to CWRU Magazine editor Ken Kesegich).


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