Friday, September 7, 2012

A September memory

You've probably been wondering if it would ever come.
Autumn, that is.
After a summer that set unwelcome records in both the really hot and extra dry categories, it's nice to think that some cooler weather might just be around the corner.  Of course, thanks to global warming or whatever thermal theory you subscribe to, it is no longer guaranteed that it's going to be time to wear that new fall sweater right away. But a change is most certainly coming.
I've always loved September because of some of those changes. Like the subtle shift from green to gold, the dusty softening of the late afternoon sunlight, and the beginnings of a season that invites aimless, lazy-day drives through a landscape filled with  whispering cornfields, red oak groves and the muddy, cat-tailed shores of hidden farm ponds, now transformed by light, color and length of day.
But a few dead leaves and a sudden chill in the air were nothing compared to the change I faced the summery September I was eight.
It was a perfect age, in that while I was still a little too young for some of the irksome chores, like paper routes and lawn mowing that would soon come my way, I was just old enough to taste the almost total freedom afforded small town kids in those halcyon days of yore, including the ability to come and go pretty much as I pleased, as long as I checked in from time to time to let my mom know I hadn't hopped a freight or been stolen by gypsies.
You would think I'd be happy to go on that way forever.
But no.
Instead, I wanted to go to school.
This was, of course, before school districts and administrators around downstate Illinois lost their bloody minds and began having classes during the always-sweltering days of August, a practice so downright stupid as to escape any understanding whatsoever. Back in the day, school always started after Labor Day, the symbolic end of summer and a much more appropriate time to jam a bunch of restless third-graders into a small, stuffy room. That year, for some mysterious reason, I had foolishly begun to tire a bit of the endless, idyllic days of summer, inexplicably growing a trifle weary of lakes and swimming pools, hikes down the tracks, baseball in the park and the freedom to ride my rickety Schwinn throughout the streets of Galva.
I wanted brand-new pencils, unbroken crayons, fresh lined paper and a new lunch box. I wanted scissors that cut, paste that wasn't dried out and water colors that had not all run together.
But mostly, I wanted another chance.
Though I was just going into third grade, I had already started establishing the dismal pattern of lazy underachievement that would dog me right up until my junior year in college, when I discovered Creative Writing Class and quickly dropped all my science and math courses and anything else that resembled what I considered work. I was abysmal at the ABCs in first grade, and flummoxed by Phonics in grade two. But I was determined to turn things around that third grade year. Not because I intended to work any harder.
Gosh no.
I just figured I had a fighting chance because my new teacher seemed nice. She was a warm, soft-spoken, nurturing type, sure to fall, I thought, for the semi-whiny, kinda-cute, sad-eyed schtick I had artfully developed in my role as the baby of my family.
Things went pretty well the first couple of days. It was a kinder, gentler world back then, and, unlike today, no one felt the need to rush third graders into calculus or string theory physics during the first week of school. Instead, we messed around trying to master cursive and attempted to learn how to double-knot our shoes; both areas, I might add, where I continue to struggle to this day. It was on the third day of school when I met my Waterloo. A few spelling words had been assigned the night before, with instructions, if I recall correctly, that we write each one ten times.
I knew all about spelling words.
I ignored them.
My teacher accepted the fact that I had failed to do my homework with a cool, calm response.
"That's all right," she said. "You can do them during recess."
I was outraged. I was flabbergasted.
I would sue her. I would have her arrested. I would leave and never go back to school ever again.
So I did.
Well, actually I left and went home for lunch, just as I always did, driven by an urge for my mom's grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup that was so strong that my hands sometimes shook slightly as I fumbled with the crackers and my spoon.
I told my mother all about it, knowing full well that she would march right back to school with me and set things straight.
But she shocked me instead.
"You have to do your homework," she said. "You have to go back and do it today."
"But no," I said. "It's all a mistake. I don't want to go to school. Can't I just stay home with you?"
"No," my mother said, not unkindly. "You have to go."
And so I did.
Everything changed for me that day.
On that bright, fall September day.
And it was never the same again.

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