My grade school had a silent lunch period. We were expected to sit on those old brown benches that were a sliver waiting to happen, and then after we'd eaten, they made us sit on the floor along the wall. The silence was enthusiastically enforced by college students who patrolled the rippled old floor of the gymnasium and handed out all kinds of punishments to anyone who made noise. I think their favorite was to make kids stand facing the wall. Does anyone even do that any more? I think of myself as a very docile and dutiful person, but one day I got caught. To this day, I maintain that I had leaned over to my friend only just about to say something, but he made me stand with my nose to the wall. Shocked and humiliated, I stood in the little stretchy pants and matching striped top my mom had ordered from the JC Penney catalog, blubbering, clinging to the thought that my older brothers ate cold lunch so they were outside playing and wouldn't know of my shame.
I should have realized news of this kind spreads like wildfire. This was when children walked home from school, I suppose we walked a mile or so, and no doubt it was uphill the entire way. The longest mile of my life, I walked that winter day, trudging over snow banks, dragging my plaid book bag, begging my brother not to tell. He toyed with me until we were a few steps from our back door, agreeing not to tattle and then changing his mind, evoking a fresh round of pleas. Of course he blabbed the second we were inside the house, though I'm not sure Mom caught the details, since I did my best to drown him out by wailing in hysterics. After all that misery, Mom wisely laughed and it was over. Unfortunately, the scars have lasted.
Years later, my brothers had a paper route, and my job was to collect the subscription fees - $1.10 for two weeks of news, and half the time people made me come back because they didn't have the money and didn't want to bother to write a check. Often they left me standing outside in the cold while they pretended to look for money in sofa cushions. Naturally, I wanted to seem cool, so I was never wearing a stocking cap, and those headbands that cover your ears had not yet been invented. It was an odd job with many drawbacks, but I cleared $10 a month, so I dealt with the strangeness of people.
The first time I went to collect at the new neighbor's, the nice young wife did invite me inside, though I thought it was creepy that the man, who was talking on the phone while I waited for her to scrape up the money, seemed to be paying a little too much attention to me. But then, just as he hung up the phone, I realized who he was, at the exact moment he recognized me. He started to ask if I had attended the grade school in the neighborhood, while I was yelling "You made me stand against the wall." He roared with laughter, and we've been friends ever since.
I don't mean to say I had anything but a lovely, goofy childhood. But I envy college students for a while every fall. They make it look so easy, being young and wearing purposely tattered jeans and sweatshirts, or these days, lots of them wear their pajamas to class. They casually pad around in flip flops and pink flannel pj pants, talking on their cell phones, whereas I've never made anything look easy in my entire life. I hope they are more aware than I was of how amazing an opportunity it is to be a student. I hope they are savoring this great time of life, wearing pajamas all day, talking if they feel like it over lunch, devoting the bulk of their time to learning how to learn.
Thank you for reading.