Tuesday, April 18, 2006

THE PAPER CLOSET: A short true story


Pause, originally uploaded by gori-jp.

...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.


44 comments:

Diana said...

I met Yehuda Amichai once, in college! I was to write about his visit to our city for the college newspaper, and about his newest book of poems. I understood less about poetry then than I even do now and I'm afraid my questions revealed this. He was unimpressed.

And hey, it's not the quantity of the memories that matters, but the quality.

Jonathan said...

3rd grade... Would that mean you were about eight or nine years old?

It's an interesting observation how, as we get older, we gain new perspectives on our own experiences as we ourselves mature and understand more of what it is to live in the adult world.

The suffering caused by alcohol addiction can be very cruel... and, like any addiction, difficult for those who are not addicted, to understand.

Sky said...

a very complex observation by a young child...

i wonder what her story really was...and what happened to her in the years that passed.

rdl said...

Well that one gave me goosebumps; well done!

Sharon Hurlbut said...

You may not have many memories, but if they are all as detailed as this one, you are rich indeed. This is a startling, sad story, beautifully told.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Most days of childhood do not leave as deep or indelible memory as this. Our psyches could hardly contain a thousand images as moving as this one. It would be an unbearable heaviness, as heavy Mrs M's pain, to hold each and every memory so vividly.

Brenda said...

I find that the flashback technique here works beautifully, and I know it is a true story, but memory and this format are seamless together. As readers we are not only taken back to this significant childhood memory, but left to wonder at her life before and since, and at the growing well of wisdom in you that surely had already sprung its roots when this incident took place.

The descriptions are vivid, perfect, and I could not just visualize everything but enter into the emotional complexity being presented here.

Incredibly well crafted, in other words. xo

Patry Francis said...

diana: How fortunate you were to have seen him! I wonder about the question you asked him. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was a good one. Really, there are no wrong questions about poetry.

jonathan: Yes, eight. It's strange now to go back and watch that child running down the ancient hallways to escape what she's seen. At this point in time, she is no more connected to "me" than the unfortunate Mrs. M.

Thanks, Sky. I wonder those things as well.

R: Goosebumps are good.

Sharon: Memories are strange and wonderful things. Whether numerous or few, I wonder where I'd be as a writer without them.

r.d.: Good point. Not only would an excess of strong memories sink the psyche, there would be no way for any of them to stand out.

brenda: thank you so much for your lovely comments. Yesterday, I was asked, via a writing prompt, who my ideal reader was. At the time, I didn't know, but now I do: someone who was truly willing to enter the story, to follow me into the paper closet or down the pea green hallway of my old school as you did. Thanks again.

tom said...

Hey...as a teacher, I can see where Mrs. Morose was coming from....somedays I'd like to take lunch at the local pub......very nice job on the remembrance...your style is such that I can see the room and picture the sadness of the teacher.
It has been said that some men lead lives of quiet desperation.....some women, too.
tom@boomer times

floots said...

beautifully and sympathetically done
tells us a lot abot her - and you
thank you

MB said...

You've done it again, Patry. And you took me with you.

Patry Francis said...

Tom: Mrs. Morose! What a perfect name! Nice to get the teacher's perspective. Still I think I'd rather be drinking down at the pub with you, then sipping in the paper closet with her.

floots: That little girl, Patry, is a "character" to me now--though I guess I can't entirely disown her.

mb: Always great to have you aboard. Thank you!

Melly said...

Sorry Patry, but you are a winner :)
You remember with vivid imagery and emotions and even if it is a few events, it matters!

Simply Coll said...

I remember when we had little ink wells sitting on our desktops and actually used them to learn penmanship. Your story has me travelling down my own memory lane.

Fred Garber said...

This story of the teacher sneakin a little taste in the paper and you catching her at it made me start thinking of my days in school. Wasn't there a song called "Drinkin in the Paper Closet"? By Brownsville Station?

Patry Francis said...

melly: Thank you!

simply coll: Isn't it strange--how one memory triggers another. I started believing I had none, but as soon as I allowed myself to "enter" that dilapidated building, they came flooding back.

fred: A song! You're kidding me! Wonder if the guy who wrote it was also a student of Mrs. M's. Nah. Paper closets everywhere were actually perfect for pursing clandestine activities of all kinds.

Dale said...

(o)

liz elayne said...

i, too, feel like much of my childhood elementary schools days are a bit of a blur. i appreciate the way that you have taken this memory from your younger years and illustrated it from the empathetic perspective of your adult self. the mysteries of the paper closet revealed.
i have been thinking about spending time writing about my 4th grade year and this seems to be just what i needed to read to get me going.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Patry-- You might want to check out npr.org Morning Edition archives. There are two stories-- one from Wednesday 4/19 and a follow-up on Thursday 4/20-- on a woman with extraordinary memory. It's quite interesting how she describes the burden of being able to recall every day of her life since she was 12 years old. I thought of you and this post when I heard her story.

Living Part Deux said...

What a delicious discovery your blog is. Kerstin's comments on her blog today sent me straightway searching for you - and what a find. I LOVED this story, and can't wait to read backwards and read more! Your story has also sent me mentally delving into gradeschool memories, and although I would have sworn I have very few, they are popping into my consciousness. Thank you for catapulting me into this journey!

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Marilyn said...

The first thing that jumped out at me reading this was the hooks in the hallway...ours were in a back corner of the classroom...but that area was inexplicably called the 'cloak room.' I swear we had a paper closet, too...but out in the hallway. Reading your story, I began to picture you opening OUR paper closet to find your discovery. GREAT story!

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finnegan said...

Patry, I'll give you the extra cash for a hit-man if you like.

We not only need distance and time, but also to find the right words. Ones that illuminate not only who we were, but who we are.

You've done so here with a very sure hand. Thank you for sharing this.

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zhoen said...

Sorry you are getting spammed, this is why I turned on the verification function.

I remember when I was about 20, I could not recall much of my childhood. Only over time have I recovered so much of it, one memory evoking another until it all gathers around me, for approval and understanding and amusement.

Children understand so much more than they are given credit for, though they often do not have the words to express it.

Amishlaw said...

A suberb story, once again, Patry. I like the double meaning of the title, as well as the compassion you showed for the teacher.

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TDharma said...

beautifully told...I appreciate your sweet compassion towards this woman...what an experience for an eight year old!

I remember those paper closets...and cloak rooms...and the teacher checking our hands as we returned from recess to make sure they were clean.

I also remember the joy of banging the erasers together outside to clean them of their chalk dust. (Imagine letting a kid breathe all that in now.)

ainelivia said...

"but I have lived long enough to know my own variations of her anguish."

As always it is your empathy with the character that is warming.

I have a variation on this story: I wasn't allowed to go to the toilet and the rest is history, that's a story for another time.

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bevjackson said...

Patry,
What beautiful prose and wonderful recall. (I do think I have blocked so much of childhood!)
I truly enjoyed this, and admire your skills enormously.

patti digh said...

what a haunting story - thank you for this image of undeniable knowing...

Pearl said...

Others have said it but I'll chime in: You make such vivid scenes! Thanks for sharing it.

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Anonymous said...

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