...whoever remembers their childhood best
is the winner,
if there are any winners.
--Yehuda Amichai (from 1924)
If Amichai is right, it seems like I'm NOT a winner. The six years I spent in elementary school, for instance, have eclipsed into a few brief scenes and some sharp memories of physical objects: the old paper cutter that looked like it might easily lop off a finger if you weren't careful, the crank pencil sharpener we needed permission to use, the hooks where we hung our coats in the hallway.
The school I attended was a fortress- like building in an old mill town. It has since been converted to an office building. Surrounding it was not the sprawling state of the art playground equipment and well-tended ball fields contemporary schools have, but a scrappy dirt yard. It was the place where I first grappled with the accumulated knowledge of the human race, where I formed passionate childhood friendships, and learned the secret rules and hierarchies that govern any closed society. But I retain only three truly vivid memories. I will share one.
It concerns my third grade teacher. Mrs. M.was perhaps the truly dolorous human beings I've ever encountered. Everything about her suggested a great heaviness. From the oppressive flatness with which she read a poem or recited the time tables to the underwater slowness that characterized her movements, Mrs. M. oozed gloom. Even her shoes were black and heavy.
On the day of my vivid memory, I needed permission to go to the girl's room. However, Mrs. M. was busy in the paper closet. Another anachronism, the paper closet was a pantry sized space where fragrant paper in various shapes,weights, and colors was stored in neat stacks on the shelves. Until that day, it was one of my favorite places. I squirmed in my seat while Mrs. M. remained in the closet with the door closed.
Only the threat of her morose countenance kept us quiet in our seats.
Finally, unable to wait any longer, I burst into the closet. There I came face to face with my teacher just as she was bringing a small bottle to her lips. Though I was not a very sophisticated child, I immediately understood what I had seen; and worse, Mrs. M. knew that I had. Her face deepened to an even more threatening shade of purple.
It can't have been more than a few seconds that we stood there trapped in the confines of that small space and our own awkward knowing. But illustrating one of the great mysteries of time, those few seconds have stretched into years. I took in every broken capillary on her mottled cheeks; I absorbed the deep misery in her green eyes. In that moment in the paper closet, I had inadvertently crossed the border between the semi-protected world of childhood into the wild geography of adult rage and pain.
"Get out!" Mrs. M. cried in her throaty voice, with a wave of her hand. "You heard me; go!"
"The girl's room...I have to go to the girls' room," I stammered, trying to restore the classroom to a place of predictable rules where I never had to contemplate Mrs. M's life as anything other than a teacher. Trying to take back what I had seen.
"Just go!" Mrs. M. repeated with a savagery that finally broke through her heaviness.
I ran all the way to the girls' room, ignoring the rules about walking in the hallway, and traveling only with the requisite permission slip in hand.
I lingered in the stall long beyond the acceptable time, but when I returned Mrs. M. said nothing. Somehow I had known she wouldn't. Instead, she turned her back and faced the black board, never to look deeply at me again.
I, too, would spend the rest of the year avoiding the dark emotions that colored her skin and filled her eyes.
As an adult, of course, I look on the woman in the paper closet with sorrow--and with empathy. I've never been trapped by the need for a furtive sip, but I have lived long enough to know my own variations of her anguish. I wonder if she feared I would tell someone. If she perhaps, worried for her job. Somehow I don't think so. Somehow, I think that as we confronted each other in the paper closet, she, looked at me deeply, too; and what she saw was the soul of a fascinated observer. One who would store the memory up and turn it over in her mind until she could understand it.
If she'd known what I did--even then--she would have also seen that someday, somewhere, I would write about it.