Leaving The Nest Is Easy; Flying Is Something Else

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Each year, as late August rolls around, nature wakens from its summer doldrums, stretches its arms, and pauses for a moment as it surveys hill and dale in nervous contemplation of the coming fall. A subtle unrest spreads its way across the land. The summer sun, though still powerful, no longer bakes the earth enough so that night is as warm and welcoming as the day. In a dry climate, a 95-degree day often gives way to a 50-degree night.

Daylight hours, seemingly endless at the beginning of the month, grow perceptibly shorter. Nighttime hours lengthen.

It is a time of year when almost every morning, in almost every tree, hatchlings can be seen eying the air in nervous anticipation of that first clumsy fluttering of wings, one which will either carry them to a nearby fence post or land them on the ground directly below the nest. Feathered mothers, looking weary and shopworn after a summer spent getting their offspring to the moment of truth, eye hatchlings, prodding them gently forward.

Down by the creek in the morning haze a cow turns its flanks and circles in hopes that a hungry calf will take notice of the lush green grass of late summer. A glimpse into the shaded pines across the creek reveals a doe gently butting this year’s spring-born fawn toward the lush shoots on which it must learn to feed.

All nature seems intent on breaking with the easy days of summer and turning the focus of the young toward the need to set foot upon the rutted path to adulthood.

And nature includes us. In houses right across the nation, the same thing is taking place.

On front porches everywhere are other shopworn and weary mothers, their eyes fixed on their young and their minds fixed on a day that has been a long time in arriving. Looking up at them, backpacks on shoulders and unsuspecting smiles on faces, are 7-year-old toddlers — 4 million of them every year — about to flap their wings and fly off into an unknown future.

I wish I could warn them. Hey kids! This is not kindergarten! No more finger painting in Dad’s old shirt. No more rows of kiddos napping on worn beach towels. This is it! The real thing!

This is ...

First-grade.

Oh, how little they know about what lies ahead of them. How little they realize how the warm and nurturing world is going to come crashing down around their ears over the next nine months.

Lookout kid! You’re headed for the domain of Matilda Baumer, otherwise known as Attila The Bun. Make a break for it. Right now. Before that bright yellow bus rolls up, clatters open its door, lures you inside, and slams the door shut — forever.

Trust me, kid. I know of what I speak. I’ve been there. I’m a product of Miss Baumer, Room 1A. Look at me. Take a careful look. You want to end up like this?

How well I remember that first day, the high ceilinged room with the Palmer system of handwriting on narrow posters running across the top of the chalkboard and around the room. Oh, how innocent we were. How little we knew as we sat there wide-eyed and unsuspecting as The Bun passed out rough sheets of gray paper with inch-wide lines on them. How little we knew as she strode the aisles passing out pens, heavy heels thudding on worn boards.

Up to the chalkboard strolled The Bun. In her hand she held a strange weapon, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Fixed to its wooden frame at intervals were pieces of white and yellow chalk. She drew it across the chalkboard. Scr-e-e-e-e-ch! A set of lines appeared, incredibly straight and heavy.

That should have warned me, but it didn’t. Everything about The Bun was straight and heavy, including a dress made of heavy prison-gray cotton.

She took a piece of chalk and began making vertical lines between the top two chalk lines. All across the chalkboard she went, never missing a stroke.

A series of tightly grouped lines looking like dead grass appeared.

“That,” she said, turning and frowning down at us, “Is what you are going to do. Start now.”

I looked at the pen. The paper. The inch-wide lines. I had held a pen before, but this one was thinner than the crayons we used in kindergarten and hard to grip in small fingers. I applied pen to paper. A line appeared, not very vertical. I repeated it. Another line appeared. It didn’t seem so hard. I kept at it.

As I worked I listened to heavy heels thudding on worn boards. Every few seconds I heard, “Between the lines!” or “Closer together!” or “Heavier! Heavier!” or “What are you waiting for?”

In between each angry criticism came the sound of something heavy slapping on an equally heavy flesh. Suddenly, something dark stopped beside me, shutting off the light from the windows.

“Terrible!” a voice growled. “You’re not trying! Get your lines closer together!” Out of the corner of one eye I saw a heavy ruler slap a giant hand.

Whack! I dared not move a muscle.

The shadow moved off. “I’ll be back!”

That I survived that year was a miracle. I know that because my class sat on one side of a row of benches in the cafeteria each day, while a class of third-graders sat on the other side. We were not allowed to talk. We were not allowed to smile. We were not allowed to do anything. Nevertheless, the third-graders somehow managed to whisper at us without looking up or moving their lips.

“You kids are dead. You got Attila The Bun for a teacher. You know how that bun of hers gets so tight? She has kids chained down in her cellar. First-graders. There’s a turnstile. They’re roped to it and they have to turn it. All night. So it makes her hair tighter and tighter. All night. Until it hurts so bad she wants to kill all the first-graders in the world. You’ll see. You’re dead.”

After a day or two we graduated from vertical lines to overlapping circles, and sometime that year we went to actual a’s and b’s and whatever.

I never got the lines right. Or the circles. Or the letters.

Seventy years later I still don’t write, I print. Mostly with a LaserWriter, but sometimes with my inkjet.

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