Arms Wide Open
This week our columnist examines the inexorable journey from the innocence of youth through the foibles of adulthood.
"I've looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all."
- Excerpt from Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell
I’ve recently been looking back on my life, reminiscing, assessing, recalling times of joy and contentment, disappoint, abject pain and sadness, the victories and the defeats. I suppose this process; this taking measure of one’s life, is a function of age.
I’ve ultimately come to grips with my destiny and resolved that I cannot hold on to my youth forever, that long ago I made the decent into the dreaded abyss of adulthood and, though my inner child lives on within my true essence; I’m approaching the last few miles of the race. I’ve come to Heartbreak Hill; I’m no longer running on level ground and the finish line is growing inexorably closer.
I’ve been booted off Sugar Mountain, kicking and screaming, never to return. I’d made a long, dogged attempt to cling to my waning youth, to embrace my pseudo Peter Pan complex, but I awoke one day and it had all vanished - Neverland, Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys - all of them – gone!
I first noticed the signs of my diminishing youth some years ago. It began with the unexpected manifestation of a strange yet familiar voice emanating from my mouth. At first it came sporadically, when I least expected it, when my guard was down, and most frequently when I was talking to my children. It was often accompanied by gestures and expressions not of my own making. The words rolled off my tongue with such ease, “You kids had better sit down and be quiet right this minute or I’m going to turn this car around and take you home.”
God help me! I had become my parents! I was doing and saying things I had sworn I would never do. What could possibly be next – PTA meetings?
So there I was at my son’s first PTA meeting. We had enrolled him in kindergarten at the Palo Alto school in Phoenix; a posh, uppity kind of place where the teachers call themselves educators and act like they’re the cat’s meow simply because they work there. You know the type. Kind of like the obnoxious waiter in a fancy restaurant who’s oozing with pretention and snobbery as though he’s someone special because he works in an overpriced café. I sit there, watching this guy’s act and think, Hello! You are waiting on me! Not that those types of things bother me at all!
So yes, I went to PTA meetings; the beginning of my long, arduous journey toward adulthood; a grown-up, exactly like my parents. Well, maybe not exactly like my parents, but much too close for comfort for my money.
This adult thing was all very new to me. I certainly hadn’t displayed even a smidgen of adult behavior as a student in the Mansfield Public Schools. I believe I emerged as the designated class entertainer, aka class clown, though I despise that terminology with every ounce of my being, at the beginning of the fifth grade at the Park Row School, which now houses the Mansfield Town Offices.
Mrs. Morse, my third grade teacher, was a wonderful woman who had no inkling how to deal with a bright, overly- rambunctious ten-year-old. For those of you who aren’t following; that would be me.
While Mrs. Morse worked at the chalk board, her back to the class; I put on a fabulously entertaining show for my classmates, doing whatever I could to draw all the attention away from her and to myself. I was a seasoned professional! I lived for this stuff.
Mrs. Morse’s solution was not a good one, nor was it very creative. She’d have me take my desk up and put it right next to hers, where I’d spend the rest of the day on center stage; exactly where I wanted to be. What on earth was she thinking? Apparently, this situation was not covered in any of her college teaching courses.
As I said, her solution was less than effective. Putting an entertainer up in front of the class, in his element, center stage, does not demonstrate a pronounced talent for deductive reasoning. Needless to say, Mrs. Morse and I saw a lot of one another that year. I think she liked me.
My talents grew exponentially over the next three or four years, proof positive that the old adage, practice makes perfect , is true.
In the eighth grade I was unceremoniously introduced to old-fashioned discipline by a science teacher in an old tweed sport coat that reeked of stale cigarettes - John Dunn! I had met my match. Mr. Dunn was an equal opportunity disciplinarian, absolutely impartial when it came to doling out punishment, and he was not impressed by my antics.
I was on the eighth grade football team and since Mr. Dunn was a rabid sports fan I figured he’d give me a pass – let me do my thing in his class. I was wrong!
The incident that sticks out most vividly in my memory is the time I got a Progress Report in Mr. Dunn’s class. In those days, the reports were sent home with the student (big mistake) and were to be signed by a parent and returned by hand to the issuing teacher (second big mistake).
To this day, I can’t figure out why they were called Progress Reports. Shouldn’t they have been called Lack of Progress Reports? That would have been much more accurate, don’t you think? Things like that bother me – inaccurate terminology like semi-boneless ham. What the heck does that mean? Listen – either it has a bone or it doesn’t. A portion of a bone is still a bone, right? So what the heck is semi-boneless and who’s the lackey who came up with that word? He or she is undoubtedly a very semi-fascinating individual.
I’m ranting. Sorry!
So, being the enterprising young prodigy that I was, and given the fact that I had no desire to endure whatever punishment I would face at home, I made the ill-fated decision to forge my mother’s signature on my Progress Report.
After much trepidation and gnashing of teeth (remember, I was an entertainer not a criminal) I took the Progress Report to my bedroom and signed it, Helena Havey, but it didn’t look quite as clean as it looks here. I wish I could show you how it actually looked, but Microsoft Word doesn’t have a font called smudged mess.
I returned to school the following day, went up to the second floor of the Junior Wing of the High School, the building now known as the Qualters Middle School, walked in to Mr. Dunn’s classroom and handed him my Progress Report. He took one look at it, looked up at me, grabbed me by the arm and marched me out into the hallway where he slammed me up against the lockers. Yes, I said, slammed me! That was his Modus operandi.
Many a young man had experienced the head meets locker style discipline of John Dunn. The girls, however, escaped the trip to the hall because this all occurred prior to Women’s Liberation and, although some deserved the locker treatment, Mr. Dunn merely raised his voice to them and they’d cry. Girls were still allowed to do that back then – you know – act like girls.
Mr. Dunn’s methods were quite effective, though in this day and age he’d be fired, incarcerated and sued.
“I could take one look at your mother and know that her handwriting doesn’t look like that,” he screamed, smashing his fist against the locker, missing my head by inches. “You signed this, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” I whimpered.
“Let’s try this again,” Mr. Dunn shrieked, handing me the Progress Report. “and this time have your mother sign it. You understand?”
“Yes,” I replied, a bead of sweat rolling down my forehead.
“Let’s go,” he said, pushing open the door to his classroom. “How’s football going?”
“Good, thanks,” I replied, amazed at the change in his tenor.
Mr. Dunn smiled. “Good,” he said. “No more screw-ups, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed.
I took my seat, having survived the most terrifying moment of my young life, feeling pretty good that I had made it through my ordeal intact and that apparently Mr. Dunn wasn’t going to tell my mother what I had done – and that’s when it dawned on me. I was going to have to tell my mother what I had done.
Mr. Dunn was fiendishly clever and he had taught me a great lesson. We got along just fine after that. Fear is a tremendously effective motivator.
Naturally, when I confessed to my mother she was furious. I don’t recall my punishment, but you can rest assured there was one. But through this rather unpleasant experience, I took another step forward in my personal growth. It’s the little lessons in life that are often-times the most valuable.
The passage from carefree childhood to confused adolescent to adulthood is a long, arduous, sometimes painful one. Our memories are the only treasures we get to keep in the end. Memories of love and love lost; memories of people, places and events that have shaped our lives. We are the summation of our experiences.
As I look back on my life today, as I’m sure I will many times to come, I am truly humbled as I see more and more clearly that the tapestry divinely woven for us is no random act. Our lives are not by chance. Our lives are by appointment - a gift given for a time – and then the end. Yet we continue to cling tenaciously to life.
Embrace life with arms wide open! Make it a great week!