Dan Kempner Contributing Writer
“It was so easy then, never making any plans,” Carly Simon wrote in 1972, when my pony tail and I were thirteen and heading into seventh grade. “It was so easy then, holding hands.”
And it was. I mean, come on. For all the youthful angst we went through in those years … and for all that we loathed and feared at the end of summer … and for the onset of Miss Perkins’ icy stare and Mr. Fisher’s algebra class, it was so easy. What the hell happened? What were we thinking? Why did we want it to be over for good?
School was scripted. It was mapped out. The only choices were in the cafeteria. It was all planned for us, and we had plenty of company and were assigned lockers and teachers and times to play. We had fields and sports teams and I even walked home regularly with a tuba. A tuba! Imagine going somewhere where people give you a giant brass instrument, teach you how to play it and encourage you to take it home to practice.
Can I please, please go back?
“School’s out. For. Ever,” Alice Cooper sang that very same year. And it was. And then it was up to us. Up to me. The schedule, the playtime, the bills, the nurse if I was ill and all the grownup trappings we all have but few truly handle as grownups. It was all mine now and a royal pain in the keister it turned out to be, this grown-up thing.
In school my only brush with commerce was plying the Marble vendors outside Cresthaven Elementary in Toronto. Children would set up little stalls at recess, a highly organized, kid-regulated sort of marble midway, and you could bring your biggest aggies and cheapest swirlies over and shoot to win their best. That was it. No mutual funds or auto insurance, just me and some kid trying not to lose our smokeys.
After graduation it was all on me. All of it. My whole life was orchestrated by adults until Bang! I’m told, “Hey, just get out there and make it happen.”
And when it came to girls… For some reason we used to line them up against some part of the school wall that wasn’t devoted to the marble marketplace, then run at them and mash them. We did this, I swear we did. We liked it. I’m pretty sure they liked it.
Try that in the real, adult world and see what it gets you. Once school was over, and there was no ready-made pool of cuties for me to mash or to lust over, drool over, fret and sweat over or occasionally to make out with or more, the whole thing went pear shaped. I had to learn how to meet, how to date, how to ask out, all over again. And there was so much more at stake – so many more consequences.
[NOTE: Though there was that time in middle school when a girl made a most impetuous proposition late one night. My parents hilariously thought it was sound judgement to leave my big sister and me alone for three days and, after most of the high school invaded for the duration I found myself upstairs with this young lady and her suggestion. “I’d love to,” I answered, “but I don’t even have a paper route, let alone a job. Since that’s where little babies come from, I don’t think we should do that.” How’s that for a twelve year old?]
More than 30 years later I went back to school, to graduate school. This time, of course, there were loans. There were credentials, and possibly many thousands in income at stake. What did I get out of it? A wife, of course. I met my wife. And it was natural, that is the point. Once again I was swimming in a ready-made pool of lovelies who needed help with their homework. Et Voila! But as a kid I didn’t know how good that made it, how easy it was there, how grateful I should have been every morning when the bus arrived to pick me up.
Not everyone had a lot of friends in those years, that is true. Yet there was a surplus of candidates, the same age and all together in class and on the playground. While the Alphas were sorting themselves out from the Omegas, all that was wanting was a bit of chemistry. Not sure exactly what that magic is that somehow bonds this one to that one, but I envision it just as life is believed to have begun: A rock, some random strands of amino acids with a little water lapping over them.
A year, a decade, an eon or two goes by and then! The lightning strikes just so and kindles what Heinlein called, “that oddity of distorted entropy called life.” In school it was, “that oddity of distorted human relationship called friendship,” and seemed to us just as random. All the ingredients were there. A few hundred boys and girls from the same area, the same age, doing the same activities in the same rooms.
Man, it was all laid out on a platter. This is so obviously true in retrospect that I found, when once school was truly in the rear-view mirror, that I had absolutely no skills for making friends in any other context. It took years, decades, to realize that creating a friendship out of whole cloth was a skill, a practice, an act of will and guts and patience and, sometimes, bitter rejection. That delicate moment of asking another, “Hey, you want to get a cup of coffee?” or, “You want to come over to watch the game?” was a 1000 times harder as an adult. As kids we were already in the cafeteria, already sitting at the same tables, already savaging the same kids behind their backs out of envy and spite. As men we sit in isolation for years sometimes before we reach out.
So in truth, my whole life since graduation has been a desire to go back to those places where things were planned for me. Where playmates were provided in abundance. Sports teams, dances, meals were all run by adults whose job it was to speed us safely from one to the next. If I was scared or blue, there was someone to talk to. Sick? There was someone to nurse me.
All of that and everything else is on me now. Peter Gabriel remarked, during one of his concerts, “Excuse me. I have some growing up to do.” True that, Peter, back at ya.
“Now every tender failure seems to overthrow old dreams,” Carly Simon concludes. The end of summer then seemed like the worst possible drag and we shunned it. Going back to school now seems like a dream.
Can I please, please … go back?