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Old School, For The First Day of School

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You’ve come a long way kid, I do not say to myself.

            You can’t go home again, the saying goes. Of course, if you never leave, you’re already there. But you still think about things. Today, I can walk past the school that seemed like a skyscraper, circa 1977. That’s the comfort of cliché, and I wear it when I need to, when I can. My hometown—Reston, Virginia—grew up. I grew up. Today, I look in at a classroom I may have sat in during a different century, a different lifetime. I see myself reflected in that window and wonder if I ever could have envisioned seeing this man on the outside, looking in.

You have come a long way, if you think about it (I think).

Think about it: Remember first grade? I was that kid, the pitiful little chump crying for his mother on the first day of school (the first day of the rest of your life, you did not think). It was inexplicable, even to me, on some levels. After all, kindergarten had been a cakewalk: all year, not a single issue, certainly no separation anxiety. So what happened? Stage fright stepping into the big leagues? Latent mama’s-boy syndrome? The birth of an anxiety that would stalk me like the weak and injured prey I sometimes was, on and off throughout childhood? All of the above?

The teacher, as I recall, was as sympathetic as she could be, but the show had to go on. This was old school, which is not to say it was old school: a generation or two earlier and the teacher probably would have paddled my ass and I would have been singled out, then and there, as that kid. I was that kid, but I got over it. Most kids do.

My poor mother. As if she wasn’t having her own problems, watching her second-born child (the baby) go from half-days to full days (the novelty of lunch; the redemption of recess), walking there and back, over a mile each way (this was old school, after all) and taking that next step away from her embrace and into the open if hostile arms of the wicked, wonderful world. Why was her son having issues where her daughter had none? She did what any reasonable mother would do: she figured maybe I wasn’t ready, or that I needed a little more encouragement, or that maybe if we all wished intently enough we could suspend time and it would stay 1977 forever. All of which is to say, it was intolerable to her as a mother and as a woman—as a sensitive human being—to imagine her son melting down once she was out of his sight.

Fortunately for all of us, sterner heads prevailed. Pops would have none of it (he was old school), and he stepped in and assumed the role of bad cop, the role every father eventually embraces with varying degrees of ambivalence. After all, their kids aren’t going to police themselves, are they? Before they can learn the Golden Rule, they have to understand what rules are. (This hurts me more than it hurts you, they don’t say.) And above all, you can’t stand by and do nothing while your son turns into a sissy before your eyes.

“That was a tough one,” he would later say (he’ll say it now if you ask him). “But I knew, if we didn’t make you go to school, we knew…”

He never really finishes that thought and he never really has to. We all know what that would, or could have led to. For me; for anyone. And I’m not talking about ludicrous clichés like becoming a sissy (are sissies born or made?) or crawling back into the womb—metaphorically speaking. Sometimes it’s enough just to be that kid.

I remember him taking me to school that second (and maybe third) day, grimacing at me once the waterworks started and asking me if I wanted him to take off his belt (he was old school). I didn’t want him to take off his belt, and I didn’t want to go into that classroom: my first quandary, a real-time cause and effect not found in a coloring book. The chess game was on and I could barely play checkers, but even a seven-year-old knows when it’s his move. Ultimately the fear of the belt prevailed (perhaps, on some subconscious level, the anathema of becoming that kid also played a part). Old School kicked New Age’s ass, and all was right in the world and the Gospel According to Pops.

The story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t end there.

In the interest of full disclosure, while I was able (or obliged) to make the lonely march into that classroom, I still needed a little time to complete this transition. I’m not sure how it happened, but for at least a day and possibly as long as a week, I latched on to some unfortunate second grader. Naturally, at that age—and all through high school—it’s remarkable how the kids only one year older might as well be an entirely different species. This particular kid (who, in the interest of fullest disclosure, I seem to recall was named David, but that’s a leap of faith giving my memory more credit than it deserves) was taller, quiet, and—I must have instinctively understood—an alpha dog. I followed him around like a puppy, and even as I could sense he was appalled by my desperation, I took considerable solace in the fact that he didn’t deny me. In fact, my simile is apt, because I recall he tolerated me much like an older dog deals with a sharp-toothed and impertinent pup: that look of wary exasperation, the resigned acknowledgment that it can’t cast out one of its own kind. Between Pop’s belt and David’s benevolence, I found the necessary ingredients—and impetus—for advancement: I was on my way.

A quick shout out to David, wherever you may be (and whatever your name actually is): I thank you for letting me cling to you like a remora as we cruised the halls and cubbies I would soon become comfortable with. Perhaps your example gave me an early appreciation for underdogs and those amongst us who just need a little encouragement, a little solidarity. I hope, if you have kids, they are well-adjusted and independent and have a healthy dose of old school. And if they aren’t, I hope they seek out a second grader as patient as you were, back in another lifetime when you unwittingly held the keys to the kingdom.

*Excerpted from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone (available next week!)

And, in case you understandably about to puke at the shameless sentimentality of this song choice (probably my least favorite from the great Rumours album); I actually looked to see what the #1 hit song was in the first week of September, 1977 was. It’s out of my hands, folks.

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"As both the President of a colorectal cancer non profit, and more importantly a son who also lost his mother to this disease, I found this memoir emotional, educational, and edgy. I highly recommend this read for patients, survivors, caretakers, and physicians alike. Congratulations Sean, for this amazing story, your mother would be proud."

- Michael Sapienza, President and Founder, Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation

May 27, 2015