A casual flick and the lights snap off. A thrilling zing pings through the darkened room, passing through each of us like jittery kernels hitting the hot oil. The machine whirrs, the sprockets spin, the audio crackles invitingly, black and white images flicker and blur on the screen in the front of the room. We are ready, so ready! The filmstrip is about to start. We are rapt and enraptured primed to sit tight and watch straight through from beginning to end.
Well of course. That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?
Scene 1: SRA
Brandishing jump ropes, the girls gather in tight little gaggles on the playground, their eyes hooded, arms folded identically tight. I circle like a hungry sparrow, swooping down by the teetertotters, sweeping around the swings, up to the monkey bars searching and searching for a few crumbs, a place to roost. Finally I slip back to the empty classroom and take a seat. A deep breath and I dive right in: The SRA Reading Box. I am up to Silver, already, I am the only one! I start reading and in a moment the ugly florescent lights, the ridiculous yet scary duck and cover drills, the hardened faces of the girls fade away. Only one more level to the very top, on to Gold!
Scene 2: Nothing Revealed
Chalk clutched in her manicured fingers, Miss Borocks floats to the board, and with a flowing, florid script maps out the assignment:
“Write about your deepest fear.”
She smiles beatifically on the class, her eyes hovering on me as she mentions (again) that both she and I are left handed. We are the only ones. She dots her “i” s with tiny hearts. I do not do that, I will not do that, I cannot believe anyone would do that. Ever.
I am not actually certain what my deepest fear is, but if I knew it I certainly was not about to write it in an essay for Miss Borocks.
So I return home and write an essay about fearing to write this essay, pouring over the dictionary to squeeze in as many obscure words as possible, sweating to make the essay unreadable in class. Please don’t read this in class.
Aha! I have revealed NOTHING! At least I don’t think I have.
Scene 3: Spring and Fall
I am curled up happily in hardbacked booth at Drake’s, Russian Caravan Tea unsipped and a grilled cinnamon roll untouched on my tray, my eyes prancing over the pages of poetry. I am reading Hopkins. Only the top of my mussed dark head is visible, but that’s enough: I am spotted. Red-headed Mr. Kenworthy, my English professor, is hovering smilingly, tray in hand.
“May I join you?”
I nod nervously and my eyes dart back to my book but that’s it, I can’t read anything any more.
He squeezes into the booth and starts straighten his papers. “You’re reading Hopkins,” he says, squinting at the title. Do you have a favorite?”
I do, of course. I love Spring and Fall. I wonder if I’ve made a good choice.
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
“What do you think of it?” he asks. He is drinking Russian Caravan as well.
I catch my breath then speak in all a rush, “It’s not simply about a child missing the beauty of the fall leaves, or about the loss of innocence, it’s that devastating last line: ‘It is Margaret you mourn for,’ it feels selfish to me. The little girl is not innocent so much as selfish.”
He pauses, “That’s extraordinary. I never thought of that before. Never heard it mentioned. ” He looks at me with a new found respect.
“Well,” I continue quickly, “I studied the poem in high school.” And just as quickly, his eyes cloud over and his attention shifts elsewhere.
I cringe into my cooling cup of tea. I neglect to say that what I had noted about the Hopkins was my own insight from high school as well.
Oh, how could I?
Scene 4: Stacked
I’m here at last! Shelved on the 9th floor at 50th and Third, happily fenced in my cubicle by pile after pile of teetery first editions. The boxes come to us, the lowly assistants, first. We see the finished books before the editors, before the writers, before everyone! Only after we’ve gorged ourselves, then do we share.
I am like voracious Saturn in the Goya, almost wishing I could greedily devour them all, page by delicious page. All for me, all for me, all for me!
Then my empty stomach rumbles—my slender wallet holds little more than subway fare. What else to do? Oh right! Simply read and reread the cookbooks — Julia Child, Patricia Wells, Maida Heatter — ravenously, gluttonously, insatiably dreaming of dinners— paychecks—- to come.
Scene 5: The DK Pocket Books
Oh they loved them so very much. So small and compact they could hold them in their tiny hands. And so they did, carrying them everywhere, to their twin beds, to the car, to the bathtub, to the playroom, to the playground. Some pages were gritty from the sandbox, other warped from being accidentally left out in the rain. They carried them and they hugged them and they kissed them and they read them. The DK Pocket Books, from Insects to Volcanos, Dinosaurs to Earth Facts, Ancient Rome to Reptiles.
Tiny bursts of knowledge for very tiny boys. Watching them I learned more than I ever did from any book I had ever read.
We are primed to watch the filmstrips of our lives moving in a herky-jerky fashion forward progression, thing to thing to thing. And yet, when we flick the switch for the rewind, the film sometimes sticks. It’s blurry. Where were we?
That’s okay. Look back more closely though and the scenes start to glow golden and gemlike as the segmented jewels of a Klimt. Refocus. Watch them again and again. Like a shaken tin box of fancy cookies, your scenes have left their frilly paper trappings and jumble together. Pick through them, taste them: they can still be sweet. After all, they are yours to relive, rethink, reexperience, retell.