“That’s all I’m going to tell about.
I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all,
and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t.
That stuff doesn’t interest me too much right now.”
– Holden Caulfield, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’
§ § §
When I was just two days short of graduating from Grade 8, anticipating not just the end of public school, but Summer holidays and then high school life with my fellow geeks, dweebs and pencil necks, my teacher gave all of us one last assignment.
“Your life is about to change forever,” Mr. Andrews said.
Shit! If there’s anything worse than parents attempting the ‘birds and the bees’ dialectic, it’s one of your so-called elders telling you that ‘your life is about to change forever’ while they look wistfully out the window to the horizon, and you sit there praying for the bell that can never come soon enough.
“I have one last assignment for you,” he said, barely getting the sentence out before groans of ‘You’ve got to be kidding’, and ‘Give us a break’ drowned him out.
“Quiet down,” he said. “Seriously. You’ll all thank me for this when you’re older and have kids of your own.”
Oh, where’s the fucking bell?!
Mr. Andrews continued. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
Okay – he had our attention now.
“Your grades are already locked, and you all passed. But I’d like you to do it. I think you’ll find it an interesting exercise.”
Futility 101 here I come.
“I want you to take a pen and a piece of paper and write the first page of your personal autobiography.”
What the…?! Excuse me?!
“Pretend you’re 30 years old,” he said. More groans. “Holden Caulfield all grown up. Looking back on your life so far… what’s your story – your story so far?”
Terry leaned over to me and whispered, “What the fuck’s Holding Coffee? What’s he talking about…?” Reading The Catcher In The Rye wasn’t compulsory and was still a few years off for some of us. I hadn’t read it, but I had a copy I’d received as a birthday present from a distant relative.
“What would that first page look like if you wrote it… looking back on a life you haven’t lived yet?” Mr. Andrews turned finally to face the dumbfounded class. He paused, looking at us, then laughed the way he always did when he said something intellectual, something he knew was above everyone’s heads.
“Let’s simplify it.” He switched into full-tilt teacher mode, marching around the room, making points with his right index finger as he spoke in teacher sentences.
“What are your dreams – now? What do you want to do? What do you want to be? If you looked back over your life, then, what do you think you’d see, now…?”
They were rhetorical questions. We were all 13 or 14 years old – we had no fucking idea who we were nor what we wanted to be. OUT, was what we wanted to be. Out of there. Running across the school yard to the river. Hanging out under the bridge and trying to guess the make of the cars by the sound they made as they traveled on the overhead snow grate.
The ‘rest of our lives’ was more than two months away. It was summer, school was over, and we wanted out. Over and out – that’s all we were thinking, that hot late afternoon in June.
The bell rang. There is a God! We all gave silent praise. But no one moved.
Mr. Andrew’s right index finger had one more point to make.
“Think about it… what was your life like? What did you do? What did you become?” He paused for effect. “What did you accomplish…?”
Susan broke the silence. “Can we… go now…?”
“See you all tomorrow,” he said, barely completing the sentence before the sound of scraping desks and stomping shoe leather drowned him out.
“LAST DAY!” he yelled after us. We thought as one: Too fucking right!
Our class joined a few hundred other kids from all grades as we ran across the school yard to the river and the bridge.
“Are you gonna write anything?” I asked Terry later.
“Naw,” he said. “If it ain’t worth anything, what’s the point?”
“Yeah,” was all I said.
Later that night I picked up my copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye and read it… cover to cover. Half of it with a flashlight under the covers so as not to awaken my two younger brothers with whom I shared the room.
The next morning over breakfast I took out a pen and a piece of paper and wrote the first page of my autobiography. My life had changed forever, and I didn’t need to be thirty-years-old to see it. All it took was a small red paperback book with gold writing on the cover.
What I wrote then still seems like a logical place to start:
“I was born in the year of rock ‘n roll.
On April 18, 1953, while John Wayne was helping plant the American flag atop Iwo Jima, my mother was in the back seat of a ‘52 blue-on-blue Chevy Bel-Air Coupe having a cigarette and making small talk with a man she hardly knew.
Nine months later Bill Haley and the Comets released “Rock Around The Clock” and my mother went into labour – I was born the next day.
Ten pounds and a breach birth later the doctor slapped me on the ass to start me crying, and my mother slapped me across the face to make me stop. Such is life.
As the years went by, being a square peg in a round hole lost the occasional fascination of a hobby and took on the comfortable, every-day work clothes of a mantra. I’m still chanting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
I had good teachers.