So Long, Seniors: Twenty Years of Goodbyes

1222044_news__students_throw_mortarboards_-_july_14__-large_transth3h5bemkyhxfkdcxjgxv7c8h33cqspnmpifi37zqx8How impossible summer seemed when I was a kid. Climbing off the bus on the last day, heading down the lane towards our house, I couldn’t believe another year had ended and that what stretched before me were nights and nights and days and days of no school. That kind of freedom paralyzed me. Along our lane, laurel bloomed, deer flies swarmed, the brook ran, invisible beneath the skunk cabbage. In the pastures, cows found shade. In the fields, corn sprouted flimsy as new grass. Unlike my own children, I had no camps to attend, no friends with pools in which to float away my afternoons. We had no vacations planned; no jobs off the farm awaited me. I had a calf to get ready for fair season. My father would no doubt need someone to rake hay or finish milking so he could bale hay before the rain started.

But the list of things that would disappear for a few weeks: homework, early mornings, lunch table awkwardness, rote practice with long division and sentence diagramming — my God. What to do with the kind of joy I felt?

Today is the first day of summer vacation, too. Twenty years of teaching are behind me. I still look forward to summer, but not with the same joy, nor with the same paralysis, either. For someone who hated school as much as I did, the only surprise for me now is how much I love teaching. And how much, in so many ways, I dread June.

My friend Blake graduated from UNH the year before I did. During the final few weeks of his time there, we gathered, probably at a table beneath the low ceiling of the Catnip Pub, and Blake talked about what it felt like to be finishing up. “It’s not that I worry about seeing all of you,” he said. “I know we’ll keep in touch, but I’ll miss all those other people you pass on campus every day: the guy who lived across from you freshman year or the kids from the study groups we had for anatomy. I’ll miss the community, you know what I mean?” We said we did, but we didn’t. Not really. Not until it happened to us: that all those people who had been part of our world were suddenly in places that we were not. And for teachers, it happens at the end of every year.

We’ll come visit, they say, and they do. Always wonderful to see them (even if they’re off to South Africa and Prague and Barcelona for a year abroad or to Thailand for an internship or to China to teach poetry and I am exactly where they left me a few years before). But I no longer see them in context. They aren’t the students who gather in front of my desk during directed study anymore to show me pictures of the puppy they’re getting or to collaborate on a giant list entitled: Why Florida Brings the USA Down. They will never gather at the door just before the bell and show me how they intend to dance at the prom that night. We won’t meet to discuss “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” or to do Friday read-arounds from our weekly writing warm ups. They aren’t in the class that makes more allusions to pop culture than literature or the one that randomly brings in cakes to share. Those communities have dispersed permanently. They’ve joined other groups, and I have, too.

Oh sure, we re-connect on social media. That’s a modern day bonus. Some of my former students are in their 40’s now, but in their faces, I still catch a glimpse of the teenagers they used to be and I remember stepping in between one of them and a kid who arrived outside my classroom door to fight him about some long-forgotten girl, or getting my car rear-ended by one when we were out looking for prom venues and laughing so hard, I couldn’t get out to examine the (minor) damage, or hearing one of them tell me about the girl he’d asked to the prom who, all these years later, is his wife.

These memories are fun, but they are also the reason why I refuse to look at yearbooks: Because they seem to capture all the hope teenagers have that they are on the cusp of becoming who we were really meant to be, that life will only get better. That optimism, that naivete, is my undoing. I can’t explain it anymore than I can explain my aversion to the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps it’s that, at least in the case of yearbooks, I don’t like knowing what’s ahead when once upon a time, we were all filled with such promise.

Sometimes, I think I see my former students in the halls. A familiar posture. A similar profile. A hair color. A shirt I recognize. But no. They won’t be here again peering into their lockers or climbing the stairs to the science pod. They have moved on, exactly as we are all meant to do.

This year, my own daughter’s image might haunt the halls of her high school, a community she also left this June with the attendant pomp and circumstance. She is so excited for what’s ahead, so ready to be done with high school. And I? I’ll be here, of course, exactly where she left me except in a very different world.

Just Remember Who Loved You First

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI shouldn’t have checked his answering machine. But the point was: I felt the need to and that impulse alone should be enough for someone to say, You know what? I’m sure there are healthier relationships in which to find oneself. He had taken a part time job at a bar down the beach for the summer, a job he didn’t need at a place where we never went. Sometimes on weekends, the only time we long-distance lovers could be together, he worked by choice. His mother’s voice, his sister’s. A guy from the gym and then the beep that changed everything: A woman’s voice that asked him to meet “us” at the bar. You know, her tone implied, as usual. That’s it. She sounded very casual, a woman used to calling this number and keeping him informed of plans. A woman who didn’t need to leave her name.

That’s the black and white betrayal of relationships. Things are okay, even if they’re not great, and then they are very, very bad. Cloudy but dry, and then torrential, unremitting, mold-inducing, apocalyptic, Biblical.

You’re twenty-three, still a stupid kid. You have a shitty job, an apartment that smells like the cabbage the woman next door cooks nightly, an apartment you’ve furnished from the stuff your sister gave you once she was through with her orange plaid phase. You cruise around in a light blue Chevy Citation, belting out Whitney Houston songs. A boyfriend, even one who might be cheating on you, is a necessary distraction, but it doesn’t remove the nausea you feel when you have what you consider irrefutable proof of his infidelity that he will still refute.

Fast forward thirty years (30?!?). At least as far as my husband is concerned, my competition is reduced to any track meet on some obscure television channel only we subscribe to, any new listing on letsrun.com of road race times, and a cat whose name is Enzo, but who Dennis calls Young Man. None of my husband’s attachments, by the way, inspire that seasick feeling, none inspire the cartoon image of a woman flailing wildly about as she falls blindly down a black hole.

But that doesn’t mean I am through with feeling betrayed. These days, it’s my teenagers who I catch cheating.

Valentine’s Day, for example. Sure, Beatrice remembered to buy me a little token gift. Thoughtful even though she went out specifically that morning to get it. It didn’t take the kind of forethought it required for her to take, print, and frame a picture for her boyfriend or to write all the cheesy notes she wrote him on the candy she bought him (another Reeses why I think you’re cute, etc). But in this flush of a first infatuation, she didn’t forget me. EXCEPT at dinner that night when the boyfriend’s mother (who I have never met) served her brussel sprouts. And Beatrice ate them.

“What do you mean, you ate brussel sprouts?” I say, fighting back the tears.

Since September, her father had been toting bowls of them into the house and I had been roasting them, urging our daughters to try these organic, heirloom, grown-with-dad’s-love-and-devotion pearls. But no. This is the kind of sacrifice, it appears, that she’ll only make for another family.

It was a painful reminder of Apphia and the cocktail wieners. Okay, we’re vegetarians, but we had decided that, if one of our children wanted to eat meat, we’d be fine with that. So, at a Christmas party at my sister-in-law’s, when Apphia asked to try a pig in a blanket, I said (indulgently, I thought): of course. Seven or eight pigs later, Apphia sat beside me on the couch as we got ready for the Yankee Swap.

“Mom,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”

That’s the thing about cheaters. They think clearing their conscious is preferable to preserving their loyal loved one’s equilibrium.

“I eat hot dogs all the time.”

“But how?” I said. “Where?”

These were the days before she straightened her hair so it was all ringlets. Ringlets!! “You know how I always want to buy the mac and cheese for school lunch? Well, they serve mini hot dogs, too. Sometimes, I’m too full to eat the ronis.” Ringlets AND ronis. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Justina would no sooner eat brussel sprouts and hot dogs than she would put her screen down and/or take no for an answer. Finally, I thought, someone deserving of my trust. Until, of course, I discovered the Poland Springs bottle. And then another one. And then a third. In the age of no answering machines, there are still clues left behind, and here was my youngest daughter, a child raised in a house of filtered tap water and reusable bottles, a house that refused to stock up on cases of plastic bottles destined to be strewn, mostly FULL, about the unsuspecting planet because, god forbid, you couldn’t remember if that was your bottle only a sip was missing from or your sister’s!

“We don’t use these,” I said. You and me. All of us on this particular, highly endangered, but still very green branch, of the family tree. Remember, I wanted to say, reading on my bed before you fell asleep every night? Remember how we used to set up a picnic in the wagon on the first great day of spring and eat outside? Remember Mrs. Doubtfire? Stellaluna? High ponytails? Webkinz? “Where are they coming from?”

She regarded me with the nonchalance of a serial offender before revealing the name of her source: “Kayla. She brings me one from her house every morning.”

The world tilted out from under me then. The world weighted down with its landfills, its soccer field trash receptacles overflowing with the non-biodegradable refuse of a generation who believes itself to be one gulp away from certain death by dehydration.

So there they were: the three daughters I thought I knew running around behind my back with other families, other experiences.

My love affair with the temporary bouncer didn’t survive, of course, but it didn’t have to. What choice do I have now, however, but to forgive my daughters for the ways in which they have hurt me? These days, every quiet moment in this big house seems a mark of their disloyalty. How could they pack up their Little Pet Shop toys, their mini kitchen, their costume box, and leave me here in this house so devoid of plastic and High School Musical songs? How could they do what every other mother’s children do and grow up so fast?

And, in the face of these betrayals, what else can I do but try to heal, take an art class, get a couple more cats?

 

Weekend Write In: The Real World is Obviously Overrrated

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And this is me, preparing to read the latest batch of fiction from my students (who are actually wonderful people who make me love my job).

Twenty years ago, one of my students wrote a story about a kid who is bored at his new job in the women’s clothing section of a large department store. We had talked about putting protagonists into a position where they had to make a moral decision. For this protagonist, a person who considered himself one of the good guys, it was whether or not to call store security when he witnessed an older, clearly disadvantaged person shoplifting. The story received a coveted Gold Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. In the letter of congratulations, the contest coordinator made a special point to note that the hardest thing for any young writer to do is to write a short story.

Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about it, but two decades later, those prophetic words stalk me and my students. No matter the models, no matter the warnings, no matter the conferences, young writers turn out — let’s call them rough — pieces of short fiction. Why? Because, for the most part, they want nothing to do with the real world and/or anything that actually happens to people in it.

Take this week, for example. In our Stranger Comes to Town unit, we read a Bo Caldwell story called “When Children Are Present.” It is about what happens when a young man starts working at a daycare and a child dies under mysterious circumstances. We spent a day outlining situations in which a person’s gender might complicate a plot. What happens when a woman takes over as small town volunteer fire chief and someone is killed in a house fire? Is she judged more harshly than the previous male chief would have been? What happens when a peeping Tom disturbs a peaceful, friendly neighborhood. Does the middle aged, unmarried man whose sole passion is fostering cats draw unfair attention?

We read A and P by John Updike. How many of you have been bored at work? I ask. Every hands goes up. Okay, I continue. Now think: what kind of a stranger could come in a disrupt the day? Someone suggests that a 60 year old man gets a job in the teenaged clothing store that she works in. I feel a dangerous glimmer of hope.

I worry that Cheever’s Good-bye My Brother will not appeal to them, but they come in very excited to discuss it. They cite powerful passages. They respond animatedly to the characters. Everyone understands that the blacksheep of the family might, indeed, be a stranger. In fact, many of them know this firsthand. The odd uncle who finally shows up for Thanksgiving. The cousin who dropped out of school and has been living out of dumpsters in New York City despite the family’s wealth.

We draw maps of a setting and describe what kinds of lives exist in it. Several quiet minutes pass as students envision the placement of playgrounds, stadiums, salt marshes. They use color pencils and markers, label all kinds of things. Next, they put these aside and create one paperdoll with some kind of history, a brief description. We tape these to the board and raffle them off. “Take this character,” I say, “and put him or her into your setting. What happens?”

When, finally, it is time to write, they tap away on their keys. Based on their Character Goes on a Journey stories, I am on red alert. Plots for those stories mostly derived from one of three places: The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Clue. But surely my comments and their grades will remind them: real world, real world, real world.

Anyone need help getting started? I ask. A hand shoots up. I glance down at the graphic organizer she’s sketched in her notebook. In the center circle, in all caps: SUPERHERO.

Now, I have two choices and both of them spell failure not for my student, but for me. Do I remind her how difficult it is to create an ENTIRE world and make your reader believe it, thereby crushing her creative impulse? Or do I offer my useless advice and then set her free to write a story that, despite my most optimistic hopes, will fail miserably?

Actually, I can do neither because her question is: What is a really cool way a superhero might come by her powers?

What can I say? My own imagination is just not that vivid.

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes says that no matter how inexperienced kids are, they are capable of writing good poems, a philosophy I have total faith in. Kids stun  — and I mean STUN — me every year with the poems they create. But most things that stun me about fiction have been that numbing kind of stun that comes from a really bad stubbed toe. The searing pain and then the wretched throbbing. The anger you feel towards that stupidly placed piece of furniture, your own lack of grace. God, you need something to punch.

Since I can’t do this, when I start reading another fantasy piece in a heartlessly tall pile of stories, I write a list of all the new words the writer has invented at the bottom of the first page. Only the author knows if these are places, people, tribes who survived the apocalypse, days of the week.

Other stories, I just collect for future Ripley’s Believe it or Not plot device games I might or might not play someday.

For example: The story where a girl invites a stranger to a concert her younger sister desperately wanted to attend so the younger sister gets her revenge by asking out a boy the older sister likes. Eventually, they even marry, and then — wait for it — she discovers he’s their long-lost brother.

The superhero came by her powers by falling on her face during marching band practice. Sniffing pavement, it turns out, makes one invincible. And maybe the story itself didn’t quite come together, but I can applaud the real gem here: a marching band superhero fired up by asphalt. In a fiction writing class full of young people on ridiculously artificial deadlines, this is considered a good day.

Now, I could end this blog entry with a line like Joyce’s: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. It would fit.

Or I could just end it the way young fiction writers do, no matter how many times you beg them not to: And then, I woke up.

 

Napkin Notes to The Stone or How I Met Lauren

black-and-white-candlesOnce upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had two best friends. Funny and creative and bright. Beautiful girls with the kind of long, straight hair I coveted. These were note-writing years and Thanksgiving Day Game rally on the Post Office step years. Years we danced in Ericka Hemphill’s basement to Brick House, years we wore down vests with hoodies underneath them, Levi corduroys, Tretorn sneakers. We took chorus with Mr. Norcia whose heart seemed permanently broken by our tunelessness. In gym class, during the gymnastics unit, Laura Sminkey brought in her Carly Simon album and we hung around pretending to take turns on the trampoline singing You’re So Vain. Saturday Night Live had the original Not Ready for Primetime Players. We knew every word of Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleepovers occurred in people’s re-done basements where we unrolled our sleeping bags on cement floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting and slept like rocks.

I thought the same thing we all think when we’re just becoming teenagers: these days will never end. These friendships will last my whole life. Especially, most fervently, I thought that.

For a person who always knew she wanted to be a writer, who kept journals, who has vivid memories that certainly seem real, I should be able to remember what, exactly, went wrong with those two friendships. The generalities, I recall, and can sum up this way: Whatever it took to be a good friend, I had not quite figured out and it cost me.

I spent a little more than one year of high school without friends (except my 4-H friends, but I was without a license and the half hour between my house and theirs seemed like a journey to Bangladesh). I learned, from a very unique perspective, that, despite how friendly people were when you sat next to them in Spanish class, when it came time to saving you a seat at the lunch table or calling you up to invite you to the basketball game, they had their group and, perhaps they assumed, you still had yours.

Thanks to Donna Schaeffer, Mary Jo Sisco, and Sandra Trombino, I wasn’t lonely for long, but those lessons stayed with me. You could grow very attached to someone and then, everything could end.

The ghosts of those friendships followed me all the way out of Westerly High School and to the University of New Hampshire where one fall night, I sat at my desk doing homework. Lauren Liberman, the girl next door who never seemed to be next door, was sitting in the chair beside me eating a Tootsie Pop and avoiding her own studying.

My roommate, Tedi, was clever and witty and unpredictable. Even so early in the semester, we were used to her making us laugh. But when I said something humorous, Lauren stared at me.

“You’re funny,” she said, the way a suspicious detective would say, “You’re left-handed,” to a suspect in a case where the murderer was left-handed.

I shrugged and continued on with my assignment, ignoring them the rest of the night.

A few weeks later in the dining hall, she said, “You do know what your nickname is here, right?”

I’d never had a nickname and had always wanted one, so this was exciting. But then she said, “The Stone.”

Why was she even here with me? She mostly hung out with Tedi who must’ve had a late class. The first day we’d moved into the university’s biggest and most notorious highrise, Lauren’s mother had cornered Tedi’s and said, “Have your daughter look out for my daughter.” A bond had been forged.

I, on the other hand, wanted none of it. Dependencies. People waiting to eat dinner with you so you didn’t have to eat alone. Late night chats in your pajamas while someone air popped some corn. Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, I would have chanted, if I had had any awareness of my own actions. Obviously, I had no idea how to be a friend. This I had accepted about myself as easily as I understood I needed to avoid calculus at all costs. But so long as I was minding my own business, who cared?

“We call you this because you give nothing away,” she said. “Nothing.”

Outside the cafeteria’s plate glass windows, kids played hacky sack on the sparse lawn or walked in groups towards the library up the hill.

“I don’t know you,” I said.

“No,” she said, “and at this rate, you’ll never get to know anyone. You have to let people in, you know.”

After this ABC Afterschool Special moment, I choked down whatever beige food I’d collected on my tray, mumbled a silent: Fuck you, and headed back out onto a campus where, mercifully, I knew no one. It was one of the reasons I had been so desperate to come here.

I played intramural sports. Interviewed to be a Freshman Camp counselor. Volunteered to help out with the floor’s pasta party. Look at me! I wanted to say. I’m fitting in here just fine, thank you.

Later that semester, back in the dining hall, a boy from my English class walked by me and tossed a napkin onto my tray. George and I walked to class each night with another girl from my dorm. The first boy I’d met on campus happened to be a farmer’s kid, too, red-faced, more painfully awkward than I was (or at least I hoped so).

As he darted out the door in his Allis Chalmers hat and Wranglers, I opened the napkin: Party in my dorm room, Saturday night.

Christ, I thought. The more you try to avoid people, the more napkin notes they toss into your unsuspecting path.

Tedi was heading home that weekend, stocking up on leather boots and silk sweaters at the mall she could see from her bedroom window. I could just refuse the invitation, but that seemed cruel. I might not be interested in George, but I could appreciate the risk he took in chucking that missive in my direction.

“If I’m not back in an hour, call campus security,” I said. In Tedi’s absence, Lauren had camped out on her bed.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. There are times, this many years later, that I still think she’s a little crazy.

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t go alone, can you?”

Maybe not, but I wouldn’t have accompanied her.

Still, we went. To Alexander Hall which was full of jocks minus one Future Farmer of America whose party consisted of me, him, his roommate, and Lauren, who, when they asked us, posed with me in a picture. Trophy girls for the first and only times in our lives, perhaps, we sat together on the plaid bedspread and smiled.

That was the end of that romance, but not the end of my friendship with Lauren. It was a friendship, it turned out. After all, how can you continue to keep your guard up around a person willing to honor your very first napkin note invite? A person whose image, even now, might be tacked up over a workbench on some cold New England farm where a much older George reminisces on his college sweethearts?

She has taught me many things about how to be a friend starting with this: you don’t have to do everything alone. What a gift that was. How it began to heal me. Every friendship I have made since, began in that moment she revealed my nickname. Every one.

Today is my birthday and, in this era of social media, I’ve been wished so many happy birthdays from so many wonderful people. Hard to believe how lucky I am. But along with the gratitude I feel for every greeting, comes the lingering sadness that, once in my life, I lost two people whose friendships I might have had almost five decades later. Those two women keep a part of my history no one else will ever have a glimpse into. And, somehow, I had to let them go. I had to turn to stone, and then, ever so slowly, return to my very flawed and vulnerable self.

It might surprise people that such a happy day always reminds me of less happy ones. But it won’t surprise Lauren.

 

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know About You

He could have been modeled after Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties. A shorter than average young Republican who roamed the halls of UNH’s business school toe-walking in his Docksiders. At a dorm party, when I told him what my major was, he snorted. “English?” He said this the way some other soul who never stumbles into anything might say: You stepped in dogshit. “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I snorted right back at him. “No,” I said. It was not a lie. I had no earthly idea of pursuing that profession. I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how one went about that, so I just moved off towards the garbage pail of spiked punch. He wanted to be an actor: he confessed this after a few more glasses of this particular poison, but he thought it too impractical. I shrugged. What do you say to someone who feels forced to make that decision? We were nineteen years old.

He became an international businessman. I’m sure he’s very happy. I did become a teacher, of course, and despite the anxiety a new school year inspires in me, I’m pretty sure once again: I’m happier than he is.

I don’t resent his long-ago derision (Okay, I do, but it was the 80s. Who didn’t want to make a soulless billion or two?). But I do remember it often.

The next few months, for example, the memory will surface as the seniors in my school (and in my house!)apply for college admission. By the time we set the clocks back, I will have met with a succession of apprehensive young people wielding what they hope will be the college essay that convinces their heart’s desire school to fall in love with them. They will follow me into my room every morning as I unlock the door and take off my coat, knock on my door during lunch, hunt me down during my prep period, write their names on my whiteboard during study, find me after school just as I’m digging my keys out to lock the place up. “Do you have a second?” they will ask, their parents will ask, their guidance counselors will ask.

Some will need a pre-writing conference. They will sit with me to brainstorm ideas. Many of these students will be kids I have never met before, but they will confess vulnerabilities, delineate their failures, share with me descriptions of vacation homes, grandparents’ hands, how it feels to be powerless in the face of tragedy. I’ll ask probing questions: I’ll have to. But they will answer. They will do the work of fleshing out an idea with someone who is almost a total stranger.

Some will slide an early draft across my desk and then sit quietly as I read it. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll note how their hands are clasped; I’ll hear them sigh; I’ll feel the desk move as they jiggle a leg.  I won’t necessarily look at the writing at this point, but at the ideas. Where is the energy? What’s this really about? More discussion follows. They discover something they’d forgotten. The general idea becomes a specific memory. We’re not brainstorming anymore; instead, they’re telling stories.

They’ll come to me with essays their parents suggested they write, things that don’t sound like them at all. They’ll come to me after the professional their parents hired to help them has finished his work. “Where are you in here?” I’ll ask, and often, we’ll start over.

They’ll email me late at night: One last question. How’s this look? What if I added this?

They’ll drop by so I can double check the spelling, their use of apostrophes.

“I really want to get into Brown/Middlebury/UMass Dartmouth/a nursing program/my mother’s alma mater, etc,” they’ll say, imagining I’m holding the magic lamp in my hand instead of their laptop.

Websites, how-to manuals, advise them to tell the admissions office something they can’t know from the rest of the application, something not listed in their resume. The essay prompts ask them to describe a failure, or what defines them, or the place they feel most content. And guess what happens? They do. They write down things they won’t show their parents – things they don’t want their peers to see. They take the kind of risks they can’t take in essays of literary criticism or informative papers for any school subject. And they hand them to me.

My days will have little time for planning, correcting, overseeing make-up work, socializing with colleagues. Instead, I will sit at my desk with their essays in my hand, and I will ask myself: “Who am I that I get to do this?”

You’ve most likely jetted all over the world; I’ve sat behind my desk. But, my god, the worlds I have seen from there, the glimpses I have had into people’s lives, those invitations that humble me, that make me grateful for where I ended up.

So how about you, Mr. International Businessman? What can you tell us that we don’t already know about you? Perhaps it begins with that dream you once had of being on stage? If you wanted to figure it out, I could help you, once the early application deadline has passed, that is.

Tender Years Spent Badly Dressed

John Cafferty from the Beaver Brown Band, whose song Tender Years was chosen as our prom theme. Yes. I said Prom Theme.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsF62Wd4GME[

Junior Prom for Triton’s Class of 2016 is in the books. “How was it,”  I asked my daughter when I saw her the next morning. “Fun,” she said. “But it wasn’t what I expected.” Well, I thought, there’s one thing her prom and mine had in common. But that might have been the only thing.

First of all, she got asked. Not a promposal, that modern day upping the anxiety ante that makes me glad I don’t have a son, (So far, there is no gender equity in this area so the pressure is off girls.) but a perfectly nice young man asked her the old fashioned way: face to face, no hooplah. For my prom, I had to do the asking. For days, weeks, even, I came home and said, “This will be MUCH easier to do on the telephone.” Then, I retreated to my bedroom and stared at the extension until I declared: “You know what? In person will be MUCH easier than calling.” Then I’d pass him in the hallway and think: “Uh-uh. Phone.”

My daughter and I shopped for her dress in December because I had heard horror stories about people waiting three or four hours in warehouses full of other mothers and daughters later on in the season. Too Who-Concert, I said. She looked at me the way she does sometimes and carted a few dozen dresses behind the curtain in the almost empty store.

I had my gown made by my mother’s friend Shirley, picked out the Gunny Sax pattern and the calico myself.

Beatrice chose a blue, bejeweled number that was exactly twice the amount I had intended to pay (which was still more than my wedding dress cost). I don’t remember how much my gown cost. Beatrice looked red carpet ready; I looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The week before prom, Beatrice had her nails done; I chewed mine to bloody stumps in anticipation of the big day. Beatrice did her own hair into an up-do that prompted many to ask where she’d had it done. I, thankfully and just this once, did not blow dry mine into my usual Barry Gibb lookalike style.

We had no no meeting for pictures in two scenic places with other couples. First my date and I had an incredibly awkward staging in our kitchen where I forgot to introduce my dad who came in from the barn — a rare break in the workday. We took a few pictures with the sink in the background, just me with my bouquet and my date with his hands folded in front of him. He wore a navy blue tux. Only when we got in the car to head to Donna’s house (where we have another photo op beneath the clothesline) did I notice he was wearing white socks. We also did not instantaneously upload any of these photos to the internet (thank Christ). In fact, only a year or so ago, did Donna share her pictures with me. I wish I could say I looked better in retrospect, but, no — still the beaming homesteader.

After the interminable Grand March, Beatrice and her classmates boarded busses in the high school’s parking lot, off for a safe and sober evening. After I made my date change into a pair of Donna’s stepfather’s socks, her date drove us to Providence. I’m pretty sure we didn’t wear seatbelts (ddi cars even have them in the back seat in 1981?). Before we got out of Westerly, Donna had spilled Riunite Lambrusco down the front her own WHITE Gunny Sax. (Just to be clear: the drinking age was 18 just a mile and a half away from where we went to high school and if there was an open container law, we hadn’t heard of it). Our chaperones might have smelled the wine on us, or, in Donna’s case, have seen the blatant evidence, but perhaps they were distracted by the cloud of pot smoke and Patchouli that hung over the ballroom.

I remember little about the prom itself. Live music to which we girls danced, afterwards, a party during which time I mostly could not find my date. We watched the sunrise on the beach which, in any other person’s prom night memory, might have been romantic. In mine, my date ignored me and I was left to ponder how amazing it is that such a big star starts out over the horizon as such a tiny orange ball.

When I walked into my house at 5 AM, the bathroom door had just clicked shut: my father waking for his day. My mother sat with her coffee cup at the table: “You better get yourself into bed before your father sees you,” she said. If she had asked how my night had gone, I would have parroted my daughter who neither of us could have imagined that day.

After her prom ended, Beatrice camped out with friends in a closely chaperoned gathering where the parents turned the heat up in their pool. After everyone swam, they gathered around a campfire or played cards in their tents. Soberly. The kind of night that doesn’t inspire anyone’s date to call a year later, as mine did, and apologize for his behavior.

This week, we might put her dress on Craigslist, try to recoup some of the money we spent in our attempt to get the hell out of that store before the trampling began. I don’t know whatever happened to my dress though the image of me in it floats by me somedays, and then I say: Oh, that’s right! I was never in the musical Oklahoma! I never busted sod in Nebraska Territory! That was just what I choose to wear to my first formal occasion.

My First Writing Workshop??

Finally, I sit down. Woodstove (still) burning (third day of spring). Everything that eats here (including the feral cat under the porch and whatever snake shed its pretty impressive skin at the foot of the basement stairs) has hopefully been fed or demands no menu from me. Girls are upstairs glued to a screen, winning that argument for today. What can I say? Uncle. Watch Netflix. Play Guess-the-Logo on your IPhone. I’m sitting down! I’m warm! Spring really IS coming and I am going to put my feet up and watch its approach if it takes the next six weeks.

The cobweb is one strand. One strand with a loop on the end as if it has been sent out on some reconnaissance. Or a minuscule lasso. A tethered smoke ring from a Lilliputian cigar? Should I swipe it? (This would require me standing up). Or do I just sit here and brainstorm metaphors?

Metaphors.

The next day, I do take it down and wave it around a little to see it move. Over the woodstove burning (fourth day of spring), it finds its own current, a balloon-less string on its way. It resists snapping, has collected dust along its filament. I could watch it for hours, but then it reminds me of Mrs. Miller.

The imaginative leap, she might have taught us, is essential to good writing. Take a risk. Let it be bad. Slay your darlings. Write what you know. These lines would have left me awestruck. But Mrs. Miller did what we came to expect from English class. We read a book. We answered questions about the book. We read our answers out loud. We spent a few weeks diagramming sentences. We returned to a book, to answering (in cursive!) the comprehension questions posed, to showing up the next day to raise our hands.

Except for one day.

People said Mrs. Miller smoked a lot of pot. It was 1976, Westerly Junior High. It would not have surprised any of us to discover that the teachers’ lounge was an opium den, the adults perched on mushrooms sucking on hookahs. Suffocating clouds billowed out of there each time the door opened. Who knew what they were smoking between classes? And who cared? We had our own worries. We were caught in a fashion morass somewhere between the BeeGees and Black Sabbath. Everyone owned a blowdryer but no one used gel or mousse or anything else that might ameliorate the desication and volumizing of that kind of blasted heat. Some people, inspired by Welcome Back, Kotter, got perms. But those were mostly the boys. Our bodies regularly betrayed us by menstruating on the day we tried out our new (white!) painters pants or by replicating Vesuvius on the ends of our noses, by granting girls mustaches and denying them to boys, by subjecting us to feet so large, we looked like a race of L-shaped people.

Mrs. Miller did have a weird kind of a lisp. It derived, I think, from the fact that her lower jaw protruded over her upper jaw and shifted a few inches to the right of the rest of her face. These days, someone would break that jaw, wire it shut, prescribe Ensure, and charge her parents six thousand dollars, but back then, she let her hair grow in dark crimped waves, donned her corduroys and Frye boots and assumed a beatnik coolness. Or that of a complete burn-out. She sat behind her desk, peered at us beneath her heavy lids and refused to disguise her boredom.

We filed in as if it was any old day, our postures reflecting our surety that life would never get better than junior high. Whatever Mrs. Miller had in store for us, it would be at the very least, an escape from the humiliation of our daily lives. This time, Mrs. Miller didn’t even bother to stand up. The bell rang and she raised her head. “Write about this,” she said. She took her number 2 Ticonderoga and rolled it across her desk until it fell off. Then, she put her head down and passed out.

My youngest daughter is about to take 15 (not a misprint — FIFTEEN) PARCC tests (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). My middle daughter needs to pass the Biology MCAS in a few weeks. My oldest daughter is taking SAT prep courses two nights a week, aiming for the magic number that will get her into the college of her dreams that we cannot afford. All of the above are good reasons to re-instate those smoking rooms of old. Our teachers might have been killing themselves, but at least they weren’t killing us.

I can also tell you this: no educational assessment I faced and certainly none that my daughters will conquer, could compare to that day in eighth grade language arts for me.

A whole period of creative writing?!?! It would never come again. That sparkling gemstone of a day. A day that indulged those of us who, even then, studied cobwebs, not with the intention of ridding our pristine homes of them, but as a distraction from real life, from the parts of speech, the algorithms, the unsightly evidence of hormones disrupting every surface of our once beautiful selves.