SHAPED MEMORIES AND A SWEET NEW YEAR

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I’ve long been envious of the verbal snapshots that the great diarists of the past such as Samuel Pepys or Winston Churchill. With a key observation, a pithy phrase, a few jotted words, they punctuated their lives in ink. I’ve always been amazed at how terse many of these daily observations are. Not verbose. Not show offy. Just a scattering of words that serve as bread-crumbed path to memory.

I was thinking about this, thinking about so many things really, as I drove drone-like along the highway, having once again helped set the year in motion, having sent everyone off to school once again. I miss them. I want so much to remember. I’m frightened that I won’t remember. I fret.

But remembering should be easy, shouldn’t it? With the touch of a button I can snap off a dozen photos, with another swipe I can organize and categorize them. With a final fillip I can even swirl them into a Sundance quality montage. The funny thing is, I don’t do this. I don’t really want to.

September is always a pull up your socks kind of a month.   New shoes, new teachers, new ideas, new beginnings. Moving forward, there is always the pull of the past, the fear of forgetting where you came from, from what brought you to this point to get you where you’re going.

I’ve stopped trying to remember everything. That’s overwhelming, impossible. But there is another way. Memory for me has become kaleidoscopic, ever shifting, always responsive to another twist of the dial. I sieve my memories, washing away the dross. It’s true there are gaps. It’s true my thoughts often aren’t always linear. Instead my memories are responsive to where I am and to what I’m doing. They’re malleable. To crystallize them, freeze them wouldn’t work for me. Because for me, memory isn’t a trip to the past so much as a path to the present.

So while I do take and keep photographs of those I care for they’re not the first place I look when I want to stir memories. Instead I’ll conjure images that are for me far more evocative and powerful.

  • Miniature cacti plants in an apartment window
  • A trio of tiny socks
  • Double scoop of Superman ice cream
  • A box of Lucky Charms.
  • A bottle of coke and a stack of Hydrox
  • Double- breasted pinstriped suits
  • A green-striped rugby shirt
  • A Charles Culver camel
  • “Bow-ties are cool.”
  • The elusive Charizard
  • The Strand
  • “Come, you Game Boys!”
  • Piles of Pocket DKs
  • “Just a slice” of pumpkin pie
  • Tins of Mandelbrot
  • Pizza Bob’s
  • A Double-Tiered, handmade, backyard fort
  • A deep green GTO
  • “Breathe”
  • A pint of Haagen-Dazs, a dishtowel, a spoon
  • Sunglasses inside
  • A giant bowl of cherries

The swirling thoughts that are stirred bring all of these people closest to me vividly back once again. These images are my rubric, my guideposts. To think in images keeps memory alive, not pasted into a scrapbook. It’s a brave and thrilling thing to do. It’s worth it to give yourself the pleasure of crafting memory instead of grasping for it.

The great diarists left themselves a map to recreating memory. I try to do the same. What a gift, what a joy! Once again my mind returns to the magical Richard Jeffries who said in The Story of My Heart,

“Full to the brim of the wondrous past, I felt the wondrous present!”

And that is just how I want to feel, how I hope everyone feels, as we once again sweep into the brace of September and onward to a sweet new year.

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THE RIGHT THING AT THE RIGHT TIME

College applications, rife with their convoluded secret codes of “EA” “ED” “Restricted EA” and so on have nothing on the real tension and drama of high school senior year: coming up with a cogent yearbook quote. After all, this mouthful of words is supposed to be not just the summation of who you are but a glimpse who you hope to be.

Here is mine:

“Men in history lose their centering in eternity when they grow anxious for the outcome of their deeds.” Huston Smith

Mmmm. But “anxious for the outcome” was exactly what I was. And so after a very interesting zig-zag through a number of years I became the very thing I never thought I’d be. I am a teacher. This was not a plan. Nor was it a calling, at least one I was aware of. But sometimes a path zigs in just the right direction, even if that isn’t the direction one was expecting. For someone who habitually kept eyes on the outcome, teaching anchors me firmly in the moment at hand.

I am witness to some remarkable things as the accidental teacher. Come with me and see some of what I see.

***

The kids are all together, waiting for the signal to send them shuffling off to class. They mostly roam as tiny, laughing packs, bouncing off each other like pinballs in an arcade game. But there are always one or two kids who stand apart and on their own, glued to the wall.

Finished with snacks and with nothing to do but circle the room, a group of cool boys lights upon one of these solitary kids. To grown up eyes they’re including him, how nice it is that they’re talking to him. But that’s not what’s happening at all. If you look closely you’ll see they’re not smiling but smirking. They’re not talking but taunting. You’ve got to admire their technique: it’s not what they’re saying but how they are saying it.  It’s a lot of “heeeeyyyy great shirt with all those stripes” or “Have you ever actually counted the freckles on your face?” Or “What is that thing that you’re reading?” It’s clear too that the solitary kid doesn’t want to talk to them. He looks uncomfortable. Panicky. Almost desperate. He tries to move away but they keep moving with him. Then they are all called to class and it’s over. But it happens the next day. And the next. It’s a game without an ending.

Until one day it’s different. The solitary kid comes into the room and finds the pack of boys before they find him. He doesn’t look for a safe corner—he actually walks right up to them. They are not expecting that. But there’s no drama. He says hi and offers some of his bag of gummy sharks. They take a few and then he just walks away. Completely off guard, the pack leaves him alone that day.

The kid makes a point of saying hello to that group of boys every day before going off by himself. Sometimes he offers candy, sometimes not. But now they leave him alone. Game over.

***

They were a great class and they had a great plan. Annie, one of the quietest girls in our room was having a birthday. The others decided they would surprise her by shouting “Happy Birthday” when she came through the classroom door, sing to her, ask her what she was going to do after school, make her the star for the day. Just before class started one of the girls ran into the room in a near panic. “We can’t do this,” she said. “I just saw Annie in the hallway and said ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. She looked really terrified. She’s so shy that if we  a big deal it will be too much for her.” Class went on as normal. Annie looked relieved.

***

He’s the kind of kid who walks into walls because he’s always so preoccupied about whatever it is he is thinking about. Even so he looks up and makes a point of saying hello to the same red-headed kid whenever he passes him in the hallway or sees him in the library. Never misses. One day, a guy grabs the kid and asks him why he bothers saying hello to this boy with the red hair. “You’re an idiot,” the guy says, “That red-headed kid won’t ever answer you. Don’t you know he’s autistic?” The kid responds, “Yeah, I know that. And I also know he’s a person.”

***

The classroom is not a fairyland and there are times when it’s hard for moments like these to rise above the chaos. But things like this do  happen all the time. The other kids are watching. They’re learning.

People wonder how teachers can bear to teach the same lessons for so many years. The answer, of course, is that we never do. Lessons are like paintings.   Paintings aren’t ever complete, are never static—they are always shifting with the responses of different people, creating and recreating something fascinating each time.

Teaching brings me right to the moment at hand. The kids I teach are not focusing on encapsulating their lives in a yearbook quote or contemplating their centering in eternity. They are just living and like so many of us,trying to do the right thing at the right time.

 

TRAVEL DIMES

Stuffed into three or four drawers and crammed into my glove compartments are dozens and dozens of sealed envelopes. The envelopes are empty save for a single dime in each. They’re important, so I keep them safe.

I find myself thinking about the dimes and what they mean to me every September as school starts again. After a whole summer at home with little kids, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling exhausted and even little euphoric. But for a lot of people behind the exultation of sending kids back to school is a niggling sense of uncertainty. We want them to go, but really are they going to be okay? How will we know? What do we do? Are we doing enough?

Fear and uncertainty can make people, even devoted and loving parents, do strange things. I’ve seen parents who anxiously interrupt their children’s classes in the middle of the day with a surprise treat to parents who literally stop traffic at school to nimbly leap from the drivers seat, do an end run around their car just to plant a kiss on junior’s cheek. Or parents whose concern for their offspring is so great that they actually hide in the bushes to observe recess.

Is it our children’s safety that we worry about or the uncertainty of what their lives are like without us? Because when children cross the threshold of school an amazing thing happens. Their lives become their own. Separate from ours. They deserve that.

I know the world is a different place from the days when I used to walk the few blocks to school alone. But alone I could look at things and think, even if I wasn’t thinking of anything much. Once I found a four-leaf clover but I couldn’t reach it because it was behind a fence. (It might also been a three-leaf clover and a green bug. I’m still not sure.) When I walked back to school after lunch there were days I would spend my milk money at the ice cream truck. Sometimes I would just count all the cracks in the sidewalk. Nothing earthshaking. But I was looking at the world through my own eyes and no one else’s. Everybody, even children, deserves his or her own view.

But years ago separation was a fact of life. No longer. Today we are wirelessly tethered to each other with smart phones, but really, those lines can snarl like invisible apron strings. There is no wondering any more if someone you love is okay, little trust in either them or in the unknown. We have the ability to know and we want to know now. Parents can and do track their kids via satellite. When kids are away at “technology free” camps, their parents can still “stalk” them by scanning hundreds of daily uploaded photos from the camps themselves.

Which brings me back to the dimes.

A long time ago whenever any of us would leave on a trip my little Gram would give us what she called “travel dimes”. She always said it was so we could use a pay phone to call home if we ever needed to. But we knew each dime meant that she loved us, that she trusted us, and she would always be there for us. My mother has kept up the tradition, plying me, my sisters, the grandchildren, anyone close to her, with dimes in sealed envelopes before every trip. She gives us the envelopes with the dimes and trusts we do our best to be safe.

And although a dime will scarcely buy a stick of gum today, my sisters and I also send travel dimes to those we love as they travel hither and yon. Virtual ones, sent to our children via text. They still work. In my world that quietly says what I need to say. Stay safe as you explore the world. I love you. I’m here whenever you need me. I’ll be here when you come home.