Wednesday, August 25, 2004

I Love the Smell of Chalk Dust in the Morning. It Smells Like "I" Before "E" Except After "C"

I need a signature seasonal column, one that the fans start to anticipate weeks ahead of time and even build a special evening around, maybe inviting an exchange student or an estranged relative so all can bask in the glow of the computer screen as the link is clicked and once again it's:

Magic. Utter wonderful spell-checked magic.

Jon Carroll has his signature Thanksgiving column, which is essentially the same old column with a few names changed each year to show he's "hep" and "with it." Herb Caen had that holiday column -- it was a poem, I think -- that suggested people will read the most awful drivel if it's stuffed with people's names because in Herb's case his faithful readers were twitching with the hope of someday having their names in the column.

Oh, I made Herb Caen's column once -- for misspelling the name of San Francisco's vice mayor in this huge story on the city's power brokers. "That was about the time the drinking got out of control," I like to say. (Pause.) "Herb's, not mine!" (Of course, I felt like crying. He's dead, and now I pile on.)

Anyway anyway, it's a good thing to have a signature seasonal column since it saves wear and tear, and it reminds readers you have been around for a long time. ("Editor's Note: This column first ran in December 1973 during the dark days of the Macy's underwear riots, giving hope to....")

I shouldn't be too disdainful. Twenty years from now, a columnist will be reiterating for more than the 20th time a 9/11 column I'll hang my heart's hat on. But that gifted columnist will stand next to a mound of dreck regurgitated by lesser comrades.

Still, the seasonal contemplation is a legitimate subgenre. So I am going with:

Back to School!

Actually, I'm not going back to school this year. I am on sabbatical, which the top academic brains are granted to free them up to work on world peace or hydrogen fusion or whatever. And while I'm futzing with the Big Ideas and the Deep Truths, I don't have to gotoclass preparelectures gradestories advisestudents attendfacultymeetings for one whole year. Heck, I can even unsew my lips from the dean's butt if I feel like it.

Though that would be rash.

Point is that I miss going back to school. I have always liked going back to school. When you lump together public school and graduate school and the time I've taught -- which is now a longer run of years than the time I spent as a journalist -- good goddess! it's 35 years. I always liked school.

If you were a bookish child, when they unlocked the school building at the end of August or the first of September and let you back in, you felt like George Bush in 1980 when Nader showed up with the coke: Bring it on!

I particularly remember buying the tools, the instruments, the basic equipment. I am not talking about buying clothes. My mother "took the boy shopping'" for school clothes, and she would not buy me cream-colored chinos because they would be too hard to keep clean. She always bought me two pairs of corduroy pants, one medium brown and one chocolate.

Didn't care about the clothes. Loved the zipper notebook, the best of which had slots for your protractor and your compass. Ah, little grasshoppers who read me now seeking guidance about what was and what, perchance, may be, there was a time when education consisted almost entirely of using a compass to draw circles on yellow paper and a protractor to draw 45 degree angles. Today people in India do this for us and do it better than us. But there was a time.

The zipper notebook had to be strong -- well-stitched, cover made of thick cardboard covered with fake leather -- because this was long long long long ago, and the only people who had backpacks were Boy Scouts. When you had homework, you crammed all your books inside your zipper notebook and zipped it up, crammed to bursting. Sooner or later it would burst, and making sure it did not burst too soon trained you in the appreciation of cause and effect when it came to the elasticity of cardboard covered in leatherette. But you did not need to be obsessive about the preservation of your zipper notebook, for you got a new one every year if you were an upwardly aspiring blue-collar child the heads of whose parents were filled with such dreams, such dreams.

New shoes, too. I remember SnapJacks, which were shoes without shoelaces, but neither were they loafers. They were huge Frankenstein shoes, which closed about your foot like a trap around a small animal, using a metal device attached to the tongue of the shoe and to the shoe itself that levered the shoe closed once your tootsie was safe inside. SnapJacks, charcoal trousers and a pink shirt: You were to die for it would seem reasonable to conclude.

I am starting to remember other things now. I remember acne, for instance. Oh, there used to be a lot of acne. In some generations it was sprinkled lightly around, but in other generations it was concentrated on only a few, and very rarely one member of a particular population cohort got all of it.

And so it happened in the reign of Eisenhower Augustus I was that youth.

Acne ebbs and flows in its intensity, and all I prayed for as the first day of school approached was not its disappearance -- my faith was already itself ebbing -- but just please that I hit school that first day in kind of a trough of scarlet pimpleness. I had a special medicine I smeared on the zits that probably wasn't a medicine at all but brown makeup dignified and made acceptable by the name of medicine. On my best days I looked sort of ... Splotched. Flakey. As if I had started to decay.

I remember Kay McDonald. She was -- my word, what was the nomenclature of the times? -- stacked. I'm almost sure.

Stacked.

First day of school, face with the topography of the far side of the moon, not exactly hiding from Kay McDonald, more like orbiting her the way Neptune orbits the sun, way out there out of sight but caught by the gravity, drawn distant invisible.

And nobody else is wearing SnapJacks.

I don't think I am going to make this an annual column after all.


1 comment:

G Pabst said...

I ran away from school the first day of kindergarten. And felt like doing it again many many many many days thereafter.

Plead to my mother to let me stay home. Claimed I knew everything I needed to know to make a living, having watched my father carefully as he toiled behind the liquor counter of the family store, I knew the secret to a career in retail was "dust the bottles and take the people's money."

I still believe it. Do the work well and thoroughly and make sure you get paid for it.

"Back to school" - including graduate school - was a blast of wind down the back of my shirt.

Even weekends were hard to see end. Also in the days of Eisenhower, Mattel sponsored a cartoon show on Sundays at 6 pm, a show I almost always watched, "Matty Mattel's Funday Funnies."

Matty was an un-funny animated logo character, but the content was good, including as I recall, a cartoon version of "Beany and Cecil." (Comics and cartoons again)

When the show was over an unseen Greek Chorus sang a dirge - the show's otherwise peppy theme - regretting (was I ever) the end of the weekend and reminding us (as the tempo picked up) that Matty'd be back in just a week/wink.

I had to leave the room before the song began (no turning off the TV in a family my size), lest a brown funk envelope me like a Minnesota camelhair overcoat.

(My Dad had brought such a coat to Arizona, for what reason I'll never know now, and I'd wrestled it off the hanger and tried it on and it gave me that same weighed down, light blocked, musty feeling.)

Summer for me, lads! And holidays. And recess. And lunch! I still love lunch and have accomplished a respectible body of work over the years, I tell myself, at lunches.

It still took me eight years for a BA - even though I was pretty good at the English major thing.

No wonder.

Chalk dust for me was the smell of cold dread.