My mother must be rocking the ground above her, laughing herself alive again, just at the thought of me being — by my own choice — back in school.
My father, who art in heaven, would despair of the fact that it is Harvard. For a Princeton man, the only thing worse would be if it were Yale.
I hated school. Went every September kicking and screaming, miserable beyond words for weeks until, in the spirit of Kubler-Ross, I reached the inevitable point of acceptance. I recall clearly in the third grade hearing the heavy steel doors slam behind me and thinking, I’m in jail till 3 o’clock and having such a sinking feeling that it literally made me sick. On several other occasions, I would tell my teachers I was going to throw up (the perfect strategy in elementary school because of the threat of a chain reaction) and be sent to the office. The nurse would shove a thermometer in my mouth and then go about her business. I would take said thermometer and place it on the heat radiator directly behind me while her back was turned, then pop it back in my mouth. When she read the alarming results, she immediately phoned my mother and told her to come and get her sick child.
My mother was no fool. After I pulled this stunt for the third time, she refused to drive over to the school and pick me up. “She’s faking,” she told the nurse flatly. “You keep her.”
One day, in the sixth grade, when I found of all things a dying crayfish baking in the sun of the playground’s macadam surface, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Mind you, this was in Louisville, Kentucky. What a crayfish was doing on the playground, I could not say. But there it was and it was dying and so I rescued it. Taking the parched crustacean to my teacher so I could get permission to find it some water (the girl’s restroom is what I was thinking, not the nearest off-campus stream), I was lambasted for attempting to terrorize her. I wish I’d thought to do that but, honestly, all I had in mind was my rescue mission. She made me put the crayfish back where I found it and go into the classroom and write all my spelling words 100 times.
That afternoon after school, propelled by rage, I mixed up a bucket of the finest mud I could concoct and, with my friend Lou abetting the crime, went to my teacher’s house and pelted it with mud balls. Most satisfying! Until we were caught. Which led to my reputation preceding me to junior high.
In junior high, I burned the only book I would ever so assault in my life. It was my Latin I textbook. I burned it in effigy on the steps of the school and left the ashes there in a ceremonial heap for the next rain to erase. I had nothing against Latin. My mother loved Latin and learned more about the English language than I ever would on account of it. She instilled in me a lifelong respect for that dead old language and her memory is probably most often awakened by Latin word origins. Which, in case you don’t know, are everywhere. But I had everything against my Latin teacher who found me wanting in intellect as well as in academic resolve, and said so.
By high school, my best friend had dubbed my new school year blues first-day-of-school-itis. It mattered not a jot that my friends would assemble under one roof again, that pranks and jokes and maybe even LUV awaited me. I still heard those prison doors slamming shut. Every day till May. One teacher remarked so vocally about my potential that two other teachers walking down the hall ahead of us turned to agree. On the august occasion of my sixteenth birthday, my driver’s license wasn’t the only thing on my mind. Dropping out was. It was the looming prospect of McDonald’s as my only likely employer that scared me off.
In college things began to change for me. But not at first. My high school guidance counselor reduced me to an academic amoeba when she gazed over her half-framed glasses, grilled me with her beady little eyes and announced, “You are not college material. Stop wasting everybody’s time.” Then, when no college accepted me, including the state school that graduated all three of my siblings, I began to believe her. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to believe the negative observations and so hard to accept the compliments?
One college, prompted by a letter of recommendation by a trustee emeritus, accepted me — on probation. I’m sure that letter read something like: “If you want that new dormitory, you’ll take this kid in. Don’t believe a word you’ve heard about her. Or believe how crummy her SAT’s were. And for heavens sake and the sake of the college’s endowment, pay no attention to any of her application details.” But probation is probation. I had a chip the weight of a steel j-bar teetering on my shoulder. But I made Dean’s List at the end of the first semester and was voted president of the class by Christmas. What changed, you ask?
Freedom. And prefrontal cortex development. Going to class, cutting class, as I wished. Course options. Professors who burned mid-term exam bluebooks right in front of my appreciative eyes and professors (the previous one counts among them) who vaulted the concept of ‘learning’ from rote memorization and multiple choice pop quizzes to conceptual thinking and the essay test where facts and ideas melded like magic into actual insights.
If my parents were alive today, I promise you they would be dumbstruck by the fact that I am taking courses at Harvard of my own free will. Year after year. Teaching there too. Teaching??? This kid whose sole use for teachers was to find ways to torture them??? Impossible! And so this treatise on Back to School. As I buy my new school shoes and notebooks (some things never change) and run my nose down the inside bindings of my new school books— Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Absalom, Absalom! and Whistling Vivaldi — just to drink in the intoxicating ink of new worlds about to be revealed. Of course, the fact that I’m cutting the first two weeks of class, well, what can I say? I have a reputation to protect.