Saturday, August 30, 2003

Oil vs. antimatter in a no-holds-barred grudge match

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It’s late summer in New England, and everywhere little children are turning to crime and deceit.

You can smell its delicate fragrance in the air every morning, now that school is nearly back in session — the chemical odor of thermometers being pressed against night-lights, the stink of lies told to mothers about intestinal bugs and 24-hour chicken pox. Take a walk early in the morning and you can taste its tang in the air, like cherry-flavored Robitussin swallowed around an imaginary whooping cough.

Hundreds of other children with healthier consciences will hoist their 90-pound backpacks onto their shoulders and head back to school, some kicking, others screaming, most simply trudging through and counting the days until Christmas break.

I was one of those big dorks who anticipated the beginning of school with hope. Officially, I could never be totally happy, because school also meant more work and daily doses of humiliation at the hands of bigger boys, smaller boys and girls of all sizes. But as I’ve aged, I’ve realized that, second to Christmas, back-to-school time was my favorite time of the year.

I never liked summer, for one thing. I picked up that bad habit from many early summers at my hypochondriac grandmother’s house, where fresh air and playing outside was strictly forbidden — because, you see, there’s wind outside. Wind leads to chilly air, which leads to a cold, which leads to the grave. Also, I got these painful migraine headaches whenever I came in the presence of what regular people call “fun.”

I’m improving — thanks for asking.

I also looked forward to school because it was the only thing I was any good at. Sports and I are like oil and water. Worse than oil and water — oil and antimatter. Being a big dork, I know what antimatter is. See what I mean?

So when I was a kid, and CVS would move the beach balls and Slip‘n Slides out of the middle aisle and replace them with notebook filler paper and pencils of every variety, my heart would swell.

It still does. I’m currently a graduate student at a college in Boston, earning a master’s degree in creative writing. For all intents and purposes, I’m an 18th-grader.

Back-to-school shopping is practically one of the reasons why I’m getting another degree. And no back-to-school season would be complete without my fawning over the Trapper Keepers.

For those too old or too young, a Trapper Keeper is a binder that has an assortment of pockets and folders to protect your homework. They come in plain colors for boys — for girls they usually come pre-decorated with unicorns or pandas. They are very complicated, with zippers and three-ring binders and plastic mesh and Velcro and built-in calculators. They presume a level of sophistication that no school-age kid possesses.

I always want to buy a Trapper Keeper every September, even now that I’m in the 18th grade. I’m never as organized as a Trapper Keeper demands you be, but it’s nice to try.

Also, I’ll probably buy a new pair of jeans. I may wait until I start classes first — so I can see what kind the cool 18th graders are wearing.

I even get a kick out of buying books I can’t afford. I’m somewhat lucky in my choice of majors. There aren’t many textbooks that will teach you how to write stories, and those that do exist are worthless, so we don’t need them.

In case you need more proof that I’m a big dork: someday very soon, before school begins, I will spend most of two hours at an office supply store, checking out pens. Think about it.

What aids my enthusiasm is that I’m studying a subject I love, and every September is like learning it all over again. I’d feel differently if somebody forced me to take geometry again. When I see kids schlumping away to school like they’re off to the gas chamber, I remember that I had a few of those days myself. I went to public school in Fall River — I know it’s no picnic.

I want to sidle up to one of these kids on the street — maybe a chubby boy with a mop of dark hair who’s lousy at sports — and tell him how it works.

“It may stink now,” I want to tell him, “but eventually you’re going to realize that all this stuff you’re learning can be unlearned. Your teachers aren’t filling your head with everything they can because they want to be mean — except for the mean ones. They’re doing it so you have all these different choices to decide what you want to do with your life.”

I want to look around to make sure no one else is listening, and reveal to him the biggest secret. “You’re going to figure out your real calling. And then, confidentially, you’re going to forget some stuff you don’t need or want anymore, whether that’s geometry or the principles of antimatter or whatever. You’re going to shove that stuff aside in your brain, like pushing old boxes around in the attic, to make room. That room will become full with all sorts of information that you love.

“And if you’re lucky, and work very hard, you will do this at a magical place they call college. You’ll enter grades so high they don’t have a number for them. It’ll be so nice there, you’ll never again understand why you ever dreaded Septembers.”

And before I sidle away, I want to take him to CVS and buy him a notebook, its pages empty and new.

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