Dennis Prager’s Autobiography

In his January 2002 lecture “Personal Autobiography”, Dennis Prager says: “I can’t say that my childhood was particularly happy. I didn’t like school. My parents were not happy that I didn’t like school. I got thrown out of class so regularly that there was a chair in the elementary school office [at Yeshiva Rambam] that was called the Dennis Prager chair. I got thrown out for very valid reasons. Most of the time I would just talk. I was practicing for my profession. I’d write notes and send them to other kids. I’d play tricks on the girls.

“When I was a kid, we all came into class with briefcases with all your supplies. So you’d keep your briefcase by your desk. It was a source of awesome pleasure for me to arrange with a couple of the guys to switch the girl’s briefcases who were sitting in the front because I thought of them as goody two-shoes and I had a hatred for goody two-shoes. I thought they were just trying to show the teacher they were terrific so I would just try to get them in trouble as much as possible.

“I would frequently beat up bullies. That was a hobby of mine. There’s a big residue of that in me today. I am for beating up bullies. I hate bullies. If they were picking on some kid… I was always the biggest in the class. It’s not like I was Mr. Courageous but I couldn’t stand what they did.

“My parents would get called very regularly and they would get very upset that I wasn’t a good kid at school. I was an angel at home but I was a devil at school.

“The nadir came in eighth grade when I signed the report card. And I was proud of my abilities in script writing. I remember thinking, yeah, this looks pretty genuine. I would’ve gotten away with that except that when I was sick one day, my mother looked through my drawers and found all these report cards she hadn’t seen.

“I also went to sleepaway camp for eight weeks a summer from the age of five. Frankly, that was too long. My grandfather would come on my birthday in the middle of summer and I would scream and cry to go back with him. They were a great source of love for me, my grandparents, in particular my mother’s parents.”

“High school was much more pleasant for me though things at home got tougher and I threatened to run away. But I was serious about running away. It wasn’t the typical kid threat.

“My older brother was always good in everything. My parents couldn’t believe how two kids could be so different.”

“My brother interceded. I knew he was my last chance. He said, mom and dad, you have to listen to Dennis or he’s going to run away.

“I even knew what I was going to do. I was going to go to Idlewild Airport. That’s before it was John F. Kennedy. And I was going to work in the luggage area for one of the airlines and get myself on it, or so were my dreams. I’m sure my wanderlust was shaped in part by my visits every Sunday to the airport just to photographer airplanes. I dreamed about airplanes. I collected time tables.”

“He told my parents, you’ve got to leave him alone. You can’t bug him anymore about grades or about school. They said, parents can’t do that. We’re abdicating our role. And he said, you have no choice. You’re going to lose your son if you don’t leave him alone.

“My father said he actually spoke to G-d. He said, G-d, what am are we going to do? We’re tried punishment. We’ve tried yelling. We’ve tried discipline. We’ve tried notes from school. Nothing has worked.

“The school psychologist and my brother prevailed upon my parents to leave me alone and let me raise myself. And they agreed. And from the age of 14 on, they never asked if I got a report card. They never asked if I had homework.

“I lived at home the first two years of college. One day I said, ma, I’m off this week. And with a totally straight face, she said, I thought you were off last week, which shows you how much class I didn’t go to. There was no way to know when I was off and when there was school.”

“This was very dramatic in my life because from age 14 on, I was a happy person. I needed to be left alone. I know that my loathing of controls by government over people, even in America where we are putting more and more laws on people, they actually unnerve me. I can only thrive in freedom. I’m very good at imposing laws on me but I don’t want them imposed by others.”

“My parents gave me money to eat supper out. They gave me $1:50 a day to eat dinner wherever I wanted.

“After school, I’d take a subway into Manhattan and go to museums and concerts and plays. I didn’t do any homework.

“Eating out has never ceased being a good psychological feeling for me of freedom. I still love to eat out. It is a credit to the home Fran has made that I am now happy to eat at home.”

“To this day going to Denny’s and getting a tuna melt is fun. It’s still exciting. Anything I want! I’m not restricted to the menu at home. There’s no chance I’ll have liver.

“Once a week, my mother would serve a food that should not be eaten by humans — liver. I like anything but I hate liver.

“I’d find out when liver would be served and I’d make sure not to be home that night.

“Who would tell me when we had liver? We had a housekeeper, a black woman. Ethel was my confidant in life. I told Ethel everything. Ethel loaned me money to buy hockey magazines. I don’t know if I ever paid her back. Ethel was my surrogate mother. I am convinced that this had an effect on the ease and comfort I have always felt with people of any race. The profound role an African-American woman played in my upbringing. When I had a bad report card, I went to her.”

“I am thoroughly abnormal. Never in my life have I liked parties. I didn’t understand. What do you do at a party? It was very loud. My mode of communication is to speak. Anytime there is loud music, I can’t speak. I’ve lost all of my interest and my powers. I was as interested in girls as any of the guys who went to parties but party wasn’t going to be my method of meeting anybody.

“What was my method? It was not a successful one in highschool. I had these dreams of meeting a girl who loved music like I do at Carnegie Hall. It didn’t happen.”

“I had a hobby called shortwave radio listening. I got for my bar mitzvah from my grandfather a great shortwave radio — the Zenith Transoceanic. For me to pick up Radio Moscow.. Starting my second year of high school, I became transfixed by the enemy (communism). I listened and I was intoxicated. Not persuaded. Not for a second. I’ve always loved propaganda. It fascinates me how people try to sell what is not true.

“I would listen to Radio Moscow in English. They said, if you will write to us, we will send you a complete set of books on how to learn Russian. So I sent away. I will never forget the thick packet filled with Soviet stamps arrives at my parent’s house in Brooklyn. It was so exciting. I looked at it. Somebody licked these stamps in Moscow!

“It was also exciting unfortunately to the government. My next batch of mail was from Radio Peiking. We had no relations with communist China. People get packs of things from China were suspect in the eyes of the Post Office and they tore my mail open.

“I wrote a letter to the then senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, saying to him what happened and that I should be allowed to get unmolested mail from communist China. And he wrote back. It’s one of the many things that I regret throwing away.

“I did start learning Russian.

“I’ll never forget when my parents went to a parent-teacher meeting, the nadir of my existence. I hated when my parents went to talk to my teachers because none of them said what a wonderful student we have there. It was always a bad report. It was not a happy night when they went.

“One night they went and met my close friend Joseh Telushkin’s parents. My father said to the Telushkins, ‘We should’ve sent Dennis to a Russian school. Then he’d be studying Hebrew.’

“It was a good line and very true because under my desk I read two things during classes — the New York Times and Russian. The Herald-Tribune had closed by then. It was my first paper of choice. The rabbis of the school were not happy that I was not studying their holy subjects. One teacher said to me, and it was all in Hebrew, I did learn Hebrew rather well, because all these teachers came from Israel and didn’t speak English, and he said to me, ‘No New York Times? Go back and bring it in and then you can come back in.’ That’s how bitter he was.

“I remember the Torah portion then was the ten things the Chief Priest wore in the holy Temple. And I could not think of a more boring thing to study.”

“I did get to speak at graduation even though I graduated 92nd in a class of 110 because I was president of the class.

“They were very grade conscious in my school and they divided us A, B, C, D. A = very bright. B = pretty bright. C = a little stupid. D = very stupid. I started in the D class and graduated in the C class. Telushkin went from moderately smart to moderately stupid. He’s now the most prolific author in Judaism in America.

“I spent most of my four years [of high school] laughing. It was a very happy hilarious time.”

“My parents every so often very gingerly raised that however much I enjoyed learning Russian and conducting symphonies, the world was not going to grade me on that. How was I going to get a job?”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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