Sunday, September 04, 2005

September Song
There is still a whole lotta Katrina out there to talk about, and we'll get back to all the trouble in the world, probably tomorrow.

Katrina surely represents a life-altering event for those in the middle of it. (It is likely to alter the lives of all of us in some ways before it moves from being news to being history.) But other life-altering events, smaller in scope and more personal, but no less important, are taking place all over the country at the same time, and they're happening to the youngest among us.

The first day of school arrived in Wisconsin this past week. With no children of my own, I unplugged long ago from the rhythm of a schoolkid's year, and I'd forgotten all about it. Then, on my way back from the bagel shop Thursday morning, I saw backpack-laden kids lining up at bus stops.

The fateful day comes a bit later now than it used to here, and much later than it does in other places. (The Mrs. and I have friends in Kentucky whose kids usually start school the second week in August, and our nephews in Michigan have been back for over a week already.) Wisconsin passed a law a few years ago, mostly at the behest of the hospitality industry, forbidding schools to open before September 1. This was intended to cut down the premature exodus of minimum-wage waitstaff, housekeepers, and other seasonal employees at the end of the summer tourist season. Curiously, it doesn't seem to bother anyone that the law makes it necessary for schools to stay in session until mid-June, well after the start of the summer tourist season.

When I was the same age as the backpacking bus-riders in my neighborhood, I never dreaded going back to school. Because I grew up out in the country, by the end of August I wouldn't have seen a lot of my friends for almost three months, and as a result, I was usually quite ready to go back. And because schoolwork was never all that hard for me (at least not until advanced algebra), I didn't mind it.

I know how it feels to wait for a bus on the first day of school, all expectant and fired up and ready to go. But for several consecutive years when I was in grade school, the bus failed to show on the first day. It got so my mother knew exactly which administrator to whack upside the head, so the problem was generally rectified by the second day. Why she never preemptively whacked anybody so they could get it right on the first day remains a mystery unsolved.

The bus was on time at least once, however--on my first day of kindergarten. It was 40 years ago this fall. One snapshot from that morning is as vivid as if it had been taken last week. I am standing at the screen door of my house. I am clutching a red-and-blue plastic mat to lie on during "resting time," the only thing we were required to take to kindergarten. The door had one of those aluminum grates in it, with a letter "B" in the middle, and I am peering between the bars, waiting for the bus. As I wait for the unfamiliar school bus to intrude on the familiar view through the window, I seem to myself very, very small, and the world seems a lot bigger than it ever had before.

I would attend kindergarten, first grade, and half of second grade in one of those classic, early-20th-century public school buildings, brick on the outside, wood and granite tile inside that made every voice echo, huge windows, bulbous yellow suspended light fixtures. I know now that it was a normal, human-sized building by adult standards, but in my memory, perspective is distorted--ceilings are a mile high, hallways are yards wide, and I'm a tiny creature looking up from very close to the floor. Which, in fact, I was.

Of all the other first days, fourth grade stands out. I'd moved to a different school by then, one with all the advanced features of enlightened 1960s design: carpet on the floors, soft lighting, bubblers in every room (which was the thing that impressed my friends and me the most). I was in Mrs. Goodmiller's class that year. Everybody encounters a teacher along the way who is as warm and friendly as a grandmother. Mrs. Goodmiller was mine. My most vivid memory of that day is of Mrs. Goodmiller telling us about one student in our class, David, who was new in our school. He had just recovered from open-heart surgery. (I am guessing that he had transferred to our school because it didn't have any stairs to climb.) On that day, I decided that I would go out of my way to make friends with David. As it turned out, David and I would go through a lot together--and put each other through a lot--as friends, fighting like demons and rebuilding our friendship several times in the next 15 years. He would be my college roommate for a while, and a groomsman in my wedding. His heart trouble finally killed him at age 23, and I've never had as close a friend since.

First day of junior high, first day of high school, first day of classes in college (both times)--not so vivid. A lot has disappeared down the memory hole, and I sometimes mourn the loss of it. When I see kids lined up at the bus stop, there's something inside me that wants to say to them, "Make sure you remember everything, because when you're old, you'll want to." But it's an impulse not really worth acting upon. First of all, you can't remember everything. And second, when you're six or nine (or 12, or 14, or 18), the only thing more absurd than the idea that the days you're having are worth remembering is the idea that you'll age to the point at which you'll want to spend your time remembering.

I said to The Mrs. the other night, "I endure the rest of the year just so I can live through September and October." So here's a warning, which I should make annually, that my tendency to look back, always pronounced, is even stronger during this time of the year. Which means we'll be time-tripping again in this space before November comes. You can bet on it.

Recommended Reading: There are now apparently two explanations designed to deflect the blame from the Bush gang's staggering incompetence: the Katrina disaster either was two events, the hurricane and the flood, and the administration just couldn't have been expected to deal with both, or the confused response was the result of a power struggle between the feds and the governor of Louisiana. If neither of these explanations takes the heat off, there will be new ones, although that may not be necessary. The death of Chief Justice Rehnquist will change the subject quite a bit, proving again my theory that George W. Bush is the luckiest politician, and quite possibly the luckiest man, in American history.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?