Illustration by Jim Paterson
We were returning from church and feeling pretty good about ourselves, all dressed up and newly cleansed and fortified to our soul, when I glanced out the car window and shattered the cheery after-worship spell.
“Oh crap,” I said.
The big maple tree near the corner of Stone Avenue was showing a hint of color and that meant with lightning speed something sinister would be upon us. My seven-year-old stomach began a slow, steady churning that would cleave and grow.
I’d be shopping for a new jacket instead of playing baseball. I’d be forced into bed painfully clean and painfully early, not smoking cheap cigars with my friends at camp-outs in the woods…not carried from the car, slack-jawed and sleeping after a long summer day at a small mountain lake. I’d be playing in cool basements and gymnasiums instead of in sprinklers, the mud and the hot sun. It meant an end to the simple freedom of summer and the start to the steady pounding regimen of school. And there, bridging the two, that feeling.
It is a strange and jarringly strong mixture of dread and delight…of anxiety and excitement about the promise of a new year.
I’ve considered whether other childhood moments attach such emotion. At a college party one time some friends and I weighed in with our choices. Christmas, family vacations, the last days of school, some suggested, which had merit but weren’t contenders. Then the Fourth of July and Valentine’s Day and Halloween were listed. I was astonished. One guy even suggested Mothers’ Day. I could imagine he was a lot of fun at eight or nine years of age.
Nothing, I maintained, matches the feeling a kid has when, on a hot summer day, it first occurs to him that school will start again… when the first thoughtless adult mutters “are you ready for school” and lunch boxes bloom at the local grocery store.
Nothing matches knowing there are only a few days left.
Nothing matches that first morning when the excitement builds and you don strange, creased clothes and your friends all walk stiffly in new shoes and look nothing like kids you reluctantly left at the baseball field a few nights ago and more like the Sears catalog children posed to greet an off-camera friend. You walk through the familiar school doors and down its familiar halls with their familiar tiles and you look around the room to see who will be your companions in this adventure and who, writing their name on the board at the front of the room, will lead it.
A few weeks ago I was in another room when I heard my mother-in-law offer to buy my first-grade-bound son’s lunchbox if he picked one out, probably herself trying to help ease the emotions he – no lover of school – may have been brewing. He paused, and then warmed to the idea. I paused, got a very strange feeling in my stomach and sat down to enjoy it.
The Washington Post