The biggest lie I was told as a child was that school was preparing me for a career. I don’t mind having had to learn a lot of stuff that I haven’t had to use. A basic understanding of science, economics, history, and culture make me a well-rounded person and a killer at Jeopardy!, at least sitting on the couch at home. I can rack up thousands of dollars and imagine just how wealthy I could become if they’d let me compete in the annual kids’ tournament so it doesn’t matter that I’ve completely forgotten what the quadratic formula is and what it’s used for. The problem, one I’m reminded of every year when kids go back to school, is that school wasn’t like working at a job at all. Well, there are some resemblances. Depending on where you work you might have a cafeteria where you go and get lunch every day, although chances are you don’t have to deal with a bully who takes your milk money because those kids all grew up and went into the telemarketing industry. And in a lot of jobs there are breaks for holidays. They’re just a lot shorter than they were when we were in school, and the main thing, the most important thing, is that there is no summer recess. Summer was all we looked forward to when we were in school, except for those weird kids who really liked school and grew up to be actuaries.
I’m not saying I want a three-month vacation every year, although I wouldn’t turn it down either. What I really remember fondly, aside from having a three month vacation every year, is that feeling of going back to school when summer was over. It was a time when I felt energized and excited, like my whole life was going to change for the better. I’d start school saying to myself, this is the year everything changes, this is the year I will get straight A’s, turn in every assignment on time, and be like one of those kids who actually likes school, but not weird about it because I don’t want to be an actuary. This is the year I will become such a model student I’ll be set on the path to Harvard and becoming president of the Lampoon, because I was an ambitious and worldly eight-year old. Every new school year was a chance to sweep away everything that happened last year and start over with a clean slate–oh yeah, this year, I’d say to myself, will be the year I stay after class and clean the slates!–or at least a nice new notebook that this year, I’d tell myself, I’ll fill with actual schoolwork and not terrible song lyrics and cartoons of my teachers turning into Lovecraftian monsters. And I stayed naively optimistic about turning over a new academic leaf well into high school. There was the year when, instead of a notebook, I got a set of folders, a different color for every subject. On the first day of school we were sitting quietly doing nothing because our homeroom teacher, Mr. Dobson, was still recovering from his two and a half-month bender. Well, I was sitting there memorizing the first twenty digits of pi, and a friend of mine who was very artistic, asked if he could decorate one of my folders. “Sure,” I said, and handed him the red one. “This one’s for English.” So a few minutes later he handed it back to me covered with pictures of punks and goblins and demons and a squid riding a motorcycle, all under an elaborate banner that said “I ♥ Urine Soaked Bread” and I swore I would kill him when I stopped laughing, but since I figured I’d be the only one to see it I kept it. Then my English teacher announced that she wanted us to keep our work in folders and once a week we’d have to turn them in so she could make sure we were keeping up with our assignments. And I could have switched folders or gotten a new one but instead I just handed in the red one. She didn’t say anything about it. The next week she didn’t say anything about the portrait of her sprouting tentacles out of her skirt either, although she did write in red marker on the song lyrics, “Sounds like third-rate Pink Floyd,” but that’s another story.
Anyway, I miss that fresh and excited feeling of starting over, of potential greatness, even if it was followed by an inevitable crash that left me feeling like I’d ruined everything, had no clue what was going on, and would never succeed at anything, which usually hit about halfway through the second day of school.