Fourth graders to start the day. The teacher reminds me we have a severe weather drill at 9:00, ten minutes before I’m scheduled to leave. I shoo the teacher out of the room so she can get her full planning meeting. I’ll review procedures, I reassure her.
“Do you want to hear a story?”
Of course they do. So I start…
“When I was a kid, we had tornado drills. I grew up in what’s called tornado alley. We also had these things called textbooks. Now, they’re mostly online.” I pick up a heft dictionary to demonstrate. “During tornado drills, we all grabbed the biggest textbook, the only time we used it–I don’t even know what subject was, but when we got into the hallway, we crouched down against the wall, single file with someone in front of us. We opened the book in half and put it over our heads and necks. Inevitably, J.C. was somewhere in that line. I prayed with my heart and soul that he wasn’t in front of me. This kid, no matter how far away you were, always sliced the air with a bodily stink bomb. If J.C. wound up right in front of you, forget it. You could smell it from the other end of the hall. Don’t be a J.C. during the drill.”
My sister’s impromptu and welcome visit this weekend prompted a backyard hangout around the fire pit. Defaulting to high school memories, we discussed skipping school. Rule follower here, mostly. Classic first-born people pleaser characteristics. I wore my responsibility with honor, like a Hogwarts prefect. Except that I grew up in a small town where everyone can easily find out your business.
The first time I ever skipped school was the spring semester of my senior year. I think it was the first time I was absent since my bout with chicken pox when I was in kindergarten. Starting with first grade, I was in the running for the Lifetime (Sort of) Achievement Award for perfect attendance, the most embarrassing award I received at the end of every year. After that first absence, I went to school sick. No one sent me home because I learned to deal with discomfort. Boxes of Luden’s cherry cough drops were staples in my backpack. Halls eventually took over and Chloraspetic throat spray tamed my raw sore throats during winter months.
When most cool kids planned to skip school, they took off out of town. There wasn’t anything to do, so unless there was a plan to hide out in someone’s home and run the risk of being seen driving around during the school day, most kids drove an hour to the nearest big “city.” We heard about mall adventures, proved with matching Guess t-shirts or sunglasses or earrings. First, it must have been nice to have a car to leave town. Followed by knowing how to get to the mall without an adult. And having money to shop for matching Guess shirts.
One day, when my mom asked if I wanted to go shopping, I wasn’t sure what she meant. We usually ran errands on weekends. It’s mid-week. She said we’d go shopping. I didn’t think much of it until she added the part about missing school. Being a responsible mini-adult, I asked about missing class, making up class work, and returning to school. She assured me she’d write a note to excuse the absence.
We took off on our excursion with Uncle Danny tagging along. Uncle Danny was the best shopping partner. He still is. I wasn’t with friends, but we wound up at the mall. We hit the mega-clearance aisles and I wound up with two prom dresses. A bit guilty about getting two, my mom mentioned the other one could be saved for my sister the following year. They were such a good deal, she didn’t want to miss the opportunity to save major cash on another prom dress.
We ate out at a real restaurant. Took our time. Ran a few errands and headed back home by late afternoon.
The following morning, Mom wrote a note. I opened it and re-read it several times before I made my way to the office. There it was, her note, explaining that I was absent from school because I had a cold. I was nervous turning it in because I clearly had no signs of a cold. I mean, when I did have a cold, I reeked of cherry cough drops. I gave it to the secretary. My stomach churned. They took my note and I lingered as if waiting to be reprimanded. Surely they could see my lie. Or rather, my mom’s little made up story of a cold-less cold.
“Okay, get to class.”
That was it? I went back to class. It was so, easy. And I only had a few months left to do it again. Only I didn’t do it again.
I don’t remember having my classwork pile up on me. I don’t remember anyone making a big deal out my absence. I picked up where I left off. I couldn’t even skip school, the right way, but I did it. And it was one of my favorite days. My induction into adulthood.
I’m not a great listener. I’m worse at it with family than with strangers. Worse still, listening to my Self. This weekend, I tried a technique Julia Cameron suggests in her newest book, The Listening Path: The Creative Art of Attention. Similar to The Artist’s Way, Cameron includes exercises to practice the skill as a way to tap into creativity. Being silent. Listening to everything, rather than hearing.
One way to listen to that inner voice is to write to one’s Self, or inner child. I did that on Saturday, asking some big questions I’ve been trying to figure out. I wrote in script form and gave my Self the name of Little Cat, using pink ink with responses in purple.
What am I doing? This is wonky. But, it’s my notebook, I can do whatever I want. I wound up with five pages of questions and answers, dialogue. Some I thought I knew and others I didn’t realize were options. Skeptical during my writing, I had to tell Little Cat to shut up already. Let it flow. Stop and listen. Respectfully. Attentively. Fully.
Today, I continued thinking about my questions. I haven’t returned (yet) to my notebook to re-read answers, but I have the gist. After a conversation, in the silence of my being, they shouted at me. They were whispers on Saturday, but I wouldn’t listen.
Okay, Self, I get it. I’m listening now. Forgive me for dismissing you.
When I was a kid, the jail sat next to the library. I’d go in to exchange my books, the cool air conditioning, evaporating sweat dripping from my neck resulting from the bike ride there in the hot Texas sun. I wondered if I’d ever be able to take a peek behind the door separating the library and jail. The neighboring door just behind the librarian’s circulation desk remained locked. I imagined a Mayberry jail, one of the criminals trying to figure out a way to retrieve the keys from Barney Fife or rig up some contraption to yank them off an unattended nail next to the cell.
Was Ms. Roper afraid? Did anyone ever open that door? Was there even anyone in jail? Ever? Maybe it was just there to make us think it was the jail. I lived in a tiny blink and you’ll miss it town. I never heard of anyone being arrested. That happened in cities like New York, not our town. Why was it next to the library?
One place, shuts down and isolates a person. The other frees them up. What strange neighbors, the jail and the library.
Walking out, I’d take a look at the neighbor’s front door. The window with the blinds drawn shut. My bike still waiting for me. Hugging my book stack in one arm, I’d steady myself in the seat and pedal off, until next time.