I am sorry to hear you dreaded school, for those with keen observational skills institutional life of any kind can be uniquely hazardous. Unlike you, as a child I wasn’t fully aware I hated much of anything, let alone school. I was afraid of rage, it reminded me too much of my powerlessness. Each August I was more than happy to be distracted by the prospect of getting to buy something new for myself. Like so many others, I was a complete and total sucker for life’s various props. As was the case with school, I loved the shiny new pencils, made all the more hopeful in their unified and unsharpened state. The clean and sterile smell of a new Pee Chee still transfixes me. As a young person, being advised to purchase my own bottle of glue, my own ruler, protractor or compass ushered into to my restless life a kind of gravity I suspected I lacked.
Then there was the containing process, the inexplicable joy to be found in organizing the powerful materials once they had been procured and brought home from the store. It was all a kind of wizardry you performed atop a bed that until this day in late August hadn’t found cause to be made all summer. For school supplies I would absolutely tuck in my sheets. The writing implements, the erasers, were an elite group, deserving of a special quarters all their own. When you were younger they were placed into a small cardboard box you kept in your school desk, but as you matured, you were instructed to kept them with you at all times, tucked in a zippered pouch inside a three-ring binder you brought home each night in expectation of accomplishing some educational task. That’s the thing about the props, they raised expectations. I didn’t know how dangerous this sort of elevation could be.
Looking back it seems I may have been a bit more inspired by the world of school supplies than the educational process for which they were intended. Somehow, in my mind, the two never matched up. I didn’t know how to make them match up. For me, this was the great academic let down. I wish someone had told me there was no way I would ever live up to the glory of the props, their unblemished perfection tucked in a bag on my back at the start of each new school year. I wish someone had told me things change once you open the bag. Maybe then I wouldn’t have taken it all so personally.
I mean, it was all such a crushing disappointment. One day you’re high on personal glue sticks and lined white paper and not too long after this you are made to see these drugs of industry are only there to remind you of how impotent you are to actually use them. Looked at from this angle, the props were sort of cruel. Each year they fooled me into thinking I had superpowers. Of course, I did not. Nobody did. Not really. But again, I didn’t know this.
Usually by October or at the very latest November, I had digested the knowledge that the props were at least if not more lifeless than myself. Seeing my material gods made slight, denuded, was a strange abandonment. I resisted the terrible truth their impotence laid out before me. Pencils broke, ink ran out, those kid scissors didn’t cut worth a damn and odd kids were made to feel even more odd when they ate paste. And don’t get me started about those empty promises known as erasers. What a mess. Still, for as long as was humanly possible, I denied the prop’s powerlessness to transform me into a good student. I mean, if they couldn’t hunt down and corral my as yet undiscovered academic diligence who the hell could?
But I had a secret weapon; the halls of youth, it turns out, are lined with mercy and forgiveness. And back then, not at all like now, it also seemed time was pretty much on my side. My kid self was built upon an absolute and unconscious belief in second-chances. It hadn’t occurred to me that a day would come when I would suddenly be aware of the existence of a clock that actually ticked too fast. The only clocks whose faces I had known at all well had been situated on walls inside school rooms; their rhythms were neither swift nor merry, no, and their hands moved stubbornly and sadistically slow. But time’s another story.
By mid-June, with the growing knowledge of my own shiftlessness barreling down upon me, summer would magically arrive to pluck me from the soul crushing mire of the academic calendar. Then, what was so dire and important one day – the accumulated contents of my disorderly school desk – was crammed into a crumpled brown grocery bag to be transported home. Nobody ever looked to see what was inside the bag and I didn’t know I cared either way. Over the warm and hectic days to come, the bag would merge with the messy tide of kid life that ebbed and flowed inside my room. Like most of the youthful debris that washed over its wooden floor, at some point the bag which held the contents of my academic failure would find its rest inside the shadows that lived beneath my bed.
Next while racing barefoot through green grass, my browning skin saturated in the heat and the wet, any and all evidence of my educational fallibility is lifted from memory. What is broken and soured inside me, the eternal frolicking taking place inside June and July repairs and I am once again made sweet. In this way, Summer was a near religious time for the children on my dead-end street. It seemed as though we existed in a kind of endless pursuit of baptism, the goal of each waking hour simply to find a reasonably body of water in which to plunge.
When you aren’t immersed in the quiet of the lake, or your neighbor’s above ground pool, your young body demonstrates a fierce intelligence, effortlessly retaining the lazy day’s lessons without fear or prompting. Your true genius lays in your ability to recall the cool, fluid embrace of the water, the unconditional positive regard you feel while floating. And it is in this eternal state of buoyancy where you find your lost majesty. At night, in your bed, windows open, cool sheets tangled around calloused feet, you sink even further into the aquatic world of dreams. And you can’t imagine the world changing. Nor that you will ever tumble from its arms.
Sometime in late August, that old familiar chill slowly creeping back into the night, you find yourself riding your banana seat bike up to the school yard, each day hoping to find the sheet of paper posted to the office door that will tell you whose classroom you’ve been assigned to. You fear you are losing your capacity for peace. The end of summer quiet flies out at you, a ghost of what you were when the frivolity all began. You are happy to be back on your Schwinn Fair Lady, happy to be moving quickly down the road. You amuse yourself for hours seeing how far you can ride without the use of your hands.
Your neighbors are draining their pool and when you think about the lake, the short trip there now seems impossible. You wonder how a small creature like yourself ever managed the journey, and have all but forgotten the nameless faces of the folks who kindly ushered you and your friends there. When it came to keeping kids cool and refreshed, it was as if the whole grown-up world was for once in alignment. Nobody seemed to question this childhood imperative, the need to ferry the children, if only for a brief time back to those cradles endlessly rocking. It was just the thing to do. That’s was the thing about being a kid. There were things you were supposed to do. You were a kid and you were supposed to return to water. You were supposed to be regularly inserted into realms where you were for a time made to forget how hard things were going to become. As a youngster, it was your god given right to daily experience a dose of holy and abiding effortlessness. This ease was to function as a kind of inoculation, something to round out the edges of the agony that would surely come with all future expenditures of effort. I don’t know that it worked that way. I’m thinking it didn’t work that way.
Nobody warns you when this watery world in which you find your redemption begins to evaporate. Nobody blows a horn. But they should. Instead your mother who is sweet and kind, but isn’t so good at being like the other mothers, grabs her purse and climbs into the family car and drives you to the drug store. Once there, you see all the other kids with their mothers and suddenly you’re happier than you’ve ever been to be in the Back To School aisle. And this is the moment when the whole blessed disillusionment process is once again set in motion.
You don’t even know it’s happening, but your faith in trying to learn about something bigger than yourself has mysteriously returned. Something eager inside of you is ready to lean into the foreign and difficult things that will not carry you - this world that does not know you and will not let you float. You watch the other children gathering up their props, dropping them carelessly into metal shopping carts. And you move forward as they do, ignoring your lost mother. It is not her fault. It is nobody’s fault. You will never blame her for anything. She is your mother, and she can still buy for you the bright and shiny objects that will for a brief time fool you into thinking it will all come easy.