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Wistful Bystander on Road Back to School

August 31, 1986|Zan Thompson

This is the Labor Day weekend, the last smoggy gasp of summer, and long before your tan fades it will be Christmas. I love Christmas, but it seems to get closer every year. I never get the plastic covers on the yard furniture before the jolly old soul is ho-ho-hoing down the chimney. Actually, I have never had plastic yard furniture covers, so all of my stuff becomes kind of a uniform battleship gray. It's not bad, but it doesn't look like the yard furniture I see in magazines.

Who are those ladies and gentlemen whose lawns are clipped and green, whose hanging baskets hold tumbles of color and whose furniture resembles a window in a garden shop? They are the same people who understand IRAs and know when to move into bonds; they have found somewhere for their winter holiday that is newer than Cozumel, and they know how to make witty canapes out of trail mix. A pox upon them and keep them out of my way.

This is also the beginning of the committee year, when those peppy little notices begin to appear in your mailboxes adjuring you to be on time, meet your quota, sell your table. I have a poor attitude about committees. I am intimidated by the people who get all their assignments done and then tell about it at the meetings. Of course, there is always one member who will talk a great game and then never do anything. I either sit beside someone who delights me and makes me giggle or I stare at my snagged fingernails in sullen silence.

Most of all, this is the beginning of the school year when the children are going back to school and I want to go with them. New clothes, new books, new friends, reunions with the old ones, new doors to open. Every cliche in the book fits, from the smart click on the fastener on the new lunch box to the smell of new pencils.

This happens to me every year. I feel lost and disenfranchised while the rest of the kids place their new shoes on the golden road to a new country. I am lost and by the wind grieved, left standing in the summer dust while the school-goers run by.

For the past week, I have been watching young men and women who were kids in June leave for their freshman year in various colleges and universities, and I have a hard time keeping off the planes.

The next four years will bring those young people a taste of almost everything they'll experience in their lives. Triumphs, frustrations, glories, victories and soul-shriveling defeat will be administered to them according to their measure.

Some of them will fall by the wayside. Some just won't come through when the going gets rough. It will be more fun to cut class on a sharp fall day than to make some dreary lab. And, look, that's all right, at least once in a while. I cannot understand a California kid who doesn't hear the surf calling and run to meet it. You just can't do it all the time. The term paper has to be written and the annotated bibliography typed on 3x5 cards.

Some of the young people going to college, the lucky ones, will find out that they're people, not just someone whose parents live at such and such an address. The lucky ones will find the intoxication of learning something and making it on their own. They'll find a line of poetry, a mathematical formula, a history passage, a line spoken in a lecture course. And that will become a touchstone which they can hold all their lives. They will be lighted and warmed by that moment, that phrase, that eight bars of melody for as long as they live.

I had a high school Latin teacher named Miss Anne Edwards, a large, heavy-set lady with iron-gray hair that she tossed off her forehead with a leonine lift. Latin was not my favorite subject, but Miss Edwards was one of my favorite teachers. When some kid had the effrontery to ask why we had to take Latin, she sneered with such a roar of feeling that you realized you were in on something important, something that mattered. "Because it makes you think, you poor child. Because you come in here with brains like pudding, as undisciplined and shapeless as a bowl of tapioca pudding. And I am here to shape it into a mind. I don't care if you like me. Remember that. I am not running for Most Popular Teacher. I am here so that 20, 40, 50 years from now you will be capable of thinking a logical thought, writing a sentence, with a subject, a predicate, an object and an indirect object. All right, Zan, you may begin the lesson."

And I'd start hoping sincerely to get through to the end, but, barring that, hoping at least not to faint or maybe die right there in freshman Latin.

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