Category Archives: School

Elementary Logic

One of the first people to influence my love of books was my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Oliver.

(I’m not sure if that’s her real name, it was certainly something that sounded like “Oliver.”)

Tall, straw-haired, soft-spoken Mrs. Oliver. Quick to help you find the books you’re looking for and to suggest other books you might enjoy, sometimes very much and often for different reasons. Knowledgable and stalwart, friendly yet adamant, Mrs. Oliver.

She was very good at her job. She was, in every way that counted, perfection.

Our library was small but serviceable, the books arranged according to grade level as well as alphabetically. Lower grades (kindergarten to grade 3) on the lower shelves. Higher grades (4 to 6) on the higher shelves. Easy peasy. A very workable, easy-to-understand system.

I read widely and largely ignored this system. The “fact books” (i.e. “Facts on Dogs,” “Facts on Trucks,” “Facts on Trees,” “Facts on The Breeze”… your basic all-purpose non-fiction for beginners) located on the fourth shelf from the bottom – the shelf meant for the older students and not second-graders like me – were a particular favourite. I read them often, even checked a few out using our self-check-out system (back then, a sign-out sheet with matching card placed in an envelope glued to the inside jacket of the books).

I did this for weeks. I did it for months and months.

***

This is a true story:

One day, as I reached for the fourth level self, Mrs. Oliver appeared and, gently but firmly, stopped me.

“You can’t take those books out, I’m afraid. They’re for the older students only.” She pulled the book from my hands and put it back in its place on its shelf. From then on, she watched me whenever I was in the library, making sure I would not access books above my grade. Making sure the system, the whole system, in its entirely, worked, and was therefore perfect.

She was always still and in every other respect, the one and only Mrs. Oliver.

By the time I reached the fifth grade, and was therefore able to take out almost any book I wished, Mrs. Oliver was gone, replaced by someone whose name and face I definitely do not remember.

But I do remember thinking, the day she took the book away from my small hands: “Oh, Mrs. Oliver. You just did it, didn’t you?

You made an enemy for life.”

Let me repeat.

For life, Mrs. Oliver.

 

 

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Filed under Books, Childhood, Education, People, School, THE PAST, Words

Lay of the Land

Some people are landscapes, and I catch myself staring at them so that I can take them in; their vistas, outlines and curves and bends. Each and every one of their distinguishing (and distinguished, depending, frankly, on the face) features.

It’s something I’ve done since as long as I can remember.

(And I remember getting into more than one schoolyard fight for “staring hard” at other kids and, once, as a first grader, getting into it deep a sixth grader whose prominent brow, delicate nose and permanently puckered mouth was like staring into the very depths of a suddenly de-randomized, nearly cogent universe…I feel like I was very close to something then, even if that something ended up chasing me back to the little kids’ side of the schoolyard, fists like cinder blocks raised in semi-righteous anger, puckered mouth ruining itself like a torn suture as they raged on at me).

It’s true, though: sometimes they catch me, the people do, staring at them. Taking them in. My options then are very limited. 1) Ignore and break away, or 2) Keep right on staring. Very little needs to be said in the moment.

Look. It’s not personal. You just have an interesting smile, a striking pose, an odd jawline, great limbs, a kind expression (or a monstrous one).

These are not compliments or criticisms or facts.

Just me, taking in the lay of the land and then moving on so we can both get on with the rest of our lives.

Now doesn’t that sound nice – isn’t that OK – if not totally one hundred percent reasonable?

 

 

 

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Filed under Childhood, Hobbies, Mind and Body, People, School, THE PAST

The Day The Sun Exploded, Astounding Helmet To An Incredible Degree (All Things Considered)

I don’t even know if his name was really “Helmet” but I remember that’s what people called him because of the way he cut his hair (or maybe it was just the way his hair was cut. He may not have had all that much to do with it. I remember my own parents subjecting me to Very Bad Haircuts from the ages of 2 to 13).

Eighth grade English class. Middle school reading, writing and that catch-all “comprehension” (whatever that means, and however so measured).

Helmet wasn’t a nice guy, and he wasn’t a jerk. He was mostly background, a personality that would pop up now and then to make himself heard. He stood stooped and gangly, a redhead with freckles and shirts short at the hem and long in the sleeves, each partially chewed. Uneven eyes set above a restrained nose and a wide mouth with overlarge, slightly hanging teeth. Jeans, mostly. Brown shoes.

The reading was Lord of the Flies, and Helmet was dismissive.

“Who cares what’ll happen to those boys? Humans will go on forever.” Such was Helmet’s very precise, very exacting logic. What, in the grand scheme of things, was one island population – one that’s anyway not even all that populated and populated with an unruly group of miscellaneous British children besides?

“Until the sun explodes,” someone added. I want to say it was Jean, but it was probably Paul, whose one aim that semester was to seem wise beyond his years.

“What?” Helmet blinked, peeling himself away from his spot along the wall. “What?”

“Super nova,” I said. “It’ll go super nova.”

What?” The idea slowly embedded itself in the soft tissues of Helmet’s head, creating a neural pathway where there had not been one before. “The sun…is going to explode?” No one had ever told him.

“Red giant,” I said. “And then -”

“Everybody who’s not dead yet dies,” Paul, definitely Paul, added hastily, so eager to get ahead of the point he missed it entirely. “Everything dies.”

“No! Really?” Helmet gasped. “Really. For sure?”

“Helmet. The sun will explode one day. It’s going to go out and become a black hole and the heat and light of our universe will be gone,” said was our teacher, Mr. E, who was also mostly background, but who somehow found the energy to pipe up every now and then to move the class along. Such was his dedication, and the limits of his particular skill set as an educator.

Helmet gaped. “No…”

“It won’t happen, not for a long, long time,” said Mr. E.

“How long?” Helmet asked, time suddenly very much a factor now that forever was off the table.

“Billions of years. At least.”

Helmet didn’t answer at first. “Oh.”

“Why don’t you ask Mr. D,” suggested Mr. E. Mr. D was our science teacher.

But Helmet was beyond science at that point. Beyond the stars themselves, the universe – no, life itself now cold, pointless. A sow’s head on a pike, staring with dead eyes into the nothingness beyond.

Or maybe…perhaps not.

“Where’s your summary?” asked Mr. E, tired now, wanting only to collect everyone’s homework and declare the class over (and only five minutes early this time).

“Yeah…I didn’t read the book,” Helmet replied. He shook his head as if to clear it. Tugged at a sleeve, rubbed it thoughtfully against his chin.

Grinned.

 

 

 

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Filed under Books, Change, Education, People, School, Science, THE PAST

The Swan

“Mr. Fister,[*] Cindy wants a swan!”

“Well,” said Fister, looking directly at my face and smiling the way animals do when issuing some imminent threat, “then she can ask for one.”

The exchange was a surprise; I was hovering in the doorway of the school’s Hospitality class waiting for Dolly so we could walk home.

I was not angling for a swan, one of dozens of confectionary creations made that afternoon by the class for parents’ night.

I did not want a swan. I did not want to ask for a swan. The swans looked chalky to me, dry and especially pathetic. They looked like uneven, bottom-heavy worms that tapered upwards into a vague S-shape with two dark sprinkles for eyes and a gob of icing for a beak.

They looked like hell.

Dolly looked at me expectedly. Mr. Fister tucked his small teeth under the greying hair of his handlebar mustache.

Hell is.

“Mr. Fister, can I have a swan?”

Mr. Fister watched as I reluctantly plucked a swan at random; one from among the demented flock before me. That was probably the worst part: that despite everything, I had also brought this on myself.

I took one bite: I was right. It was chalky, dry. It tasted like stale, hollowed-out bread. And something else, far more distasteful…

The incident remains largely forgotten in my daily life. But sometimes, when I encounter ugly birds or badly-executed desserts or unseemly, overbearing men, or when Dolly again does something that particularly annoys, I remember that foul-tasting little swan, the only innocent among the four of us that day.

 

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[*] Was “Fister” even his real name? If it ever mattered, it doesn’t now.

 

 

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Filed under Birds, Education, Family, People, School, THE PAST

Small Confessions

Mr. X used the school’s PA system to call me from homeroom to the music room. I knew what it was about, but remained remarkably calm as I made my way down the hallways of our sad little school, the smell of damp and mothballs catching in the back of my throat.

[Confession: I had signed out one of the trumpets from the school’s collection over the weekend, and through a series of (then) hellish but ultimately (as in now) comedic events, managed to damage the instrument very badly.]

The music room was not, as I had expected, empty. There was a class in full swing and everyone went silent as I entered the room and found Mr. X standing in front of them, right next to the ruined horn. He’d propped it up in its case on a stool and opened the lid: a mangled metal mummy put on display for all to see.

[Confession: I was fully ready to cop to the damage I’d done. Had mentally prepared for it in the hallway. But something about Mr. X having the class ready in wait, as witness – something about the theatrics of the whole music room set up turned me around on that.]

“One thing you should know about me: I don’t get angry. I get even.” That was what he told every class at the beginning of the year. It was delivered as a joke, but not to be taken as such. Not entirely. Standing there, called out in front of the class (mostly kids I didn’t know, but I few I most definitely did), standing in front of the messed-up trumpet, in front of him, I now knew that for sure. It was hardly a joke.

[Confession: At first, I thought it was an extremely funny thing to say: “I don’t get angry. I get even.” That particular brand of sardonic humour was, like, so in back in the day.]

“Do you know what happened to this trumpet?” he asked, loudly, and without preamble. And of course I did because, not only had I done it (or rather, allowed it to happen), but my name was on the sign-out sheet for exactly one trumpet (though, to my great benefit, it had taken a day or two for that particular trumpet to make it back into class circulation).

The students whispered (“she did it!”). Some laughed.

“No,” I answered. “I don’t know.”

“Because it looks like someone’s beat the hell out of this thing.”

“Wasn’t me.”

The teaching assistant (some young guy whose name must have been something like “Allan”) held up the sign-out binder. “It says you signed out a trumpet.”

“I did.” No lie there.

I remember the silence that engulfed the room as Mr. X, Allan and I stood there (a trumpet is not the trumpet, is not that trumpet, is it?). As the class quieted and settled in to watch.

I learned a lot about silence that day.

[Confession: My bowels had turned to ice. I was so sure they had me and would have probably admitted everything had Mr. X not chosen to speak in the very next moment.]

“OK. You say no. You say you don’t know. Go back to class.” It was clearly an admonishment, a small victory via public humiliation. But I think: his as well as mine.

He remains the only non-white teacher I ever had growing up (this includes elementary, middle and high school). So it also felt like a betrayal.

[Confession: I stopped taking music after that semester, although I signed out the exact same trumpet, (after they’d fixed it), at least twice more before the end of term using, of course, the new sign-out sheet in which date, name, instrument and INSTRUMENT NUMBER were prominently listed.]

Mr. X never mentioned the trumpet to me again. I never paid for the damages or was (officially) labelled the culprit. The other students quickly tired of the intrigue and scandal (such as it was in our pathetic little ‘burg) and moved on to the next thing, whatever that was.

A few years later, when I learned he died, and that he’d been killed in a skiing accident, I remember thinking: No way.

[Confession: But what I said was, “Just like Sonny Bono.”]

Yes. Just like Sonny Bono. I confess, I said that. I confess, I could have done better. I confess, that if in this whole story there is any fault to find or blame to assign, it’s not to be found anywhere I can imagine.

 

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P.S. Fuck you, Allan.

 

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Filed under Death, Education, People, Race, School, THE PAST