What day is this?
I’d be terrified that I’d slept right through the end of summer vacation, and that the return to school was a single sunrise away. Stumbling from my room, legs tangled in sheets, I’d shuffle down the stairs with my feet spread apart, careful to avoid the squeaky section in the middle. I’d sneak into the kitchen to check the calendar hanging on the side of the refrigerator.
The page hadn’t been changed to September. That meant we were still cocooned in the storage tank of lazy, undemanding freedom that in June had seemed so inexhaustible. We were down to the dregs, but at least we had that, and every drop – every moment – was now precious. Breathing again, I’d climb the stairs and crawl into bed, clutching the cool pillow as if it were the summer itself and I were hanging on for dear life.
It wasn’t that I disliked school. It was that I hated school. But I also knew about setting goals, and so once back in class, I quickly turned my attention to finding out how many more days we had left before the Christmas break. As a math exercise, I’d convert that figure into hours, minutes, and possibly even seconds. Then I’d stare at the clock and watch the time tick by.
I carried all the required supplies and materials. Notebooks, binders, index cards, twelve-inch ruler, and compass. Loose-leaf, construction, and graph paper. An assignment book. And a bottle of white glue that would be used once, then clogged and dried shut forever.
Pencils were lined up in a zippered case, all sharpened and aimed in the direction of some concept I had not yet begun to struggle with. Their erasers were still perfect pink cylinders, unaware of the beating they were about to take as they once again endeavored to outlast the chiseled graphite points at the other end.
But those erasers would soon be reduced to impotent bumps, barely rising above the green metal band circling the yellow wood. Meanwhile, the pencil points would still be forgetting to carry the two, and putting the I before E in all the wrong words. I’d be forced to hold the pencil exactly perpendicular to the paper if I were to have any hope of removing the latest in a relentless series of mistakes. Worn out, defeated, and all but obliterated, the blackened and concave rubber tips would plead for forgiveness: We’re sorry. We did all we could, but long division was just too much for us. And that outline you had to do for your English teacher, the one who insisted that you use Roman numerals, that was a real killer.
My classmates were the most difficult to deal with. There was the girl who carried on before every exam, test, and quiz, wringing her hands and whining about how she hadn’t studied and was definitely going to flunk. After we handed in our papers, she’d start in all over again, shaking and crying and terrified that her parents were going to lock her in the closet. Then we’d get our grades back and she’d gotten a hundred. She always got a hundred. That was her average. She’d announce it with astonishment, the way you might report on Martians landing in the soccer field. Then she’d shrug her shoulders up to her ears, as though she were trying to hug her own brain. Her parents didn’t lock her in the closet, but we never stopped wishing someone would.We also had the confident genius, the one who showed no emotion whatsoever and took every perfect score in stride. Even in the fourth grade, everyone knew he’d grow up to be a famous scientist or a heart surgeon. It was like going to school with Aristotle. Not that the rest of us knew who Aristotle was.
There was the frantic hand-raiser who wanted desperately to respond to every question the teacher asked. She’d bounce in her seat and wave her arm like someone having a seizure. When she wasn’t acknowledged, she’d keep waving anyway, as though she knew darn well that the dumbbell who’d been chosen was going to blow it. Eventually, she’d grow tired and have to switch arms, using her other hand to hold it up. Those of us who didn’t know the answer would take the opposite approach: we’d look down at our desks, or pretend we had to tie our shoe, or that we needed to scratch something. Somehow, though, we were usually the ones who got called on. The know-it-all got her chance only when the teacher herself had lost interest in education, and was just hoping to get through the lesson.
And in every class, there was a boy who seemed to not know anything. I used to pray some teacher would spot him an easy question – like “What color is your shirt? – just to let him off the hook, or build his confidence. But nobody ever did. Instead, they’d ask him to ascertain the cube root of a nine-digit number, or define a word he’d never seen in his life, or explain the symbolism in chapter six of a novel he had no idea we were reading. It was excruciating, especially because this would always happen right before recess, when my bladder was about to explode.
I’m grown up now, but the nightmares continue, triggered by the very sight of those back-to-school sales. The racks of spiral notebooks and the stacks of paper, all as yet unblemished by careless computations and sloppy penmanship. Boxes of pencils, unsharpened and ready for brilliance, their clean erasers staring skyward in unknowing bliss.
I still awaken, gasping and drenched in the middle of the night. For a few frightening moments, I’m in the fourth grade again, seated next to the frantic hand-raiser and directly behind Aristotle, the heart surgeon. Then I realize that I’m almost fifty-eight, which makes me much older than the teacher. I also remember that the calculator has been invented, and that with the push of a few buttons, I can figure out how many seconds there are between now and Thanksgiving. But the most important difference, I guess, is that I finally understand how precious those seconds really are.