C: Daddy, college comes after grade school, right?
D: Well, yes, college comes after grade school, Cory, but much later and not right away. Middle school comes right after elementary school.
C: Then comes college, right, Daddy?
D: Well, no, after middle school comes high school.
C: Then comes college?
D: Yes, then comes college.
F: And after college comes work, right, Daddy?
D: For most people, yes, it goes like that: grade school, middle school, high school, college, and then work.
F: Some work can be fun, like Papa’s work, and some work can be just boring, right, Daddy?
C: I’m going to go to college, Daddy, and then it’s going to be work. (Pause.) Daddy, what comes after work?
Daddy starts singing another makeshift lullaby: “There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line…” Some odd strain of sadness has run just beneath the surface excitement of the twins’ first days in kindergarten. On Daddy’s drop-off day, they explain on the walk to school exactly what the morning procedures are, where they are expected to put their lunch boxes, where to hang their backpacks, how to line up when the 8:15 a.m. bell rings, how each of their teachers handles arrival. It all goes down without a hitch, no tears, no apparent stress, heads up, shoulders squared, faces forward. “Bye, Daddy!”
The playground on the way back home fills up with older grade-schoolers, whose bell doesn’t ring until 8:30, pushing bikes into designated areas, unloading backpacks of their own, calling out to each other, moving to join a group of raucous boys lining up for some game at the monkey bars that is clearly so much more than monkey bars or greeting a group of girls engaged in something somewhat quieter but no less complicated. Here and there a lone child stands on the edge, his or her posse yet to arrive, maybe more of a loner by nature, or just not feeling it today. There’s nothing obviously mean or necessarily sad about any of it, just kids gathering for a school day, and yet, it feels sad somehow.
A loss of control? The twins’ Aunt Lori was a stay-at-home mom and talked nearly two decades ago about what a sucker punch the first days of school were for her because they forced a realization, as she stood there every day to watch her older daughter get on the bus, that other people, new peers, older kids, teachers, random adults in the school would all have a strong influence on who they would become from that point on — all influences on their development that she would not even fully understand and certainly could not control. So many steps ahead along a very crooked line.
Bad memories dredged up from childhood? Images do flash: four years old, standing at some preschool that still seems strange today, with its black and white striped over-sized cardboard blocks, crying as Mom headed off to work and not stopping until she came back all of a half a day later; rolling out a blue mat in Mrs. Hixson’s kindergarten class for nap time, walking home alone around noon to hurriedly grab a bowl and the morning cereal box, with all the sugar in the world to pour on top in an empty house, before anyone else came home, washing the bowl and spoon to hide the evidence, of course; a playground that seemed endless at the time, from the bank to the left across the parking lot leading up the hill toward Andy’s house all the way down to the creek’s edge an entire world away at the far right, where only the bigger kids dared to go; dying in sympathy with a female classmate, as she wet her pants during the simplest of presentations in front of Mrs. Wade’s first grade class, a puddle forming on the floor; passing notes with Kelly Boettcher in Mrs. Cheely’s class (what could they possibly have said?); holding two sticks during those endless multiplication table contests with Mrs. Hallemeyer, everyone gunning to take one of them away, and on and on and on. Nothing particularly traumatic in those first few years, but, so many steps ahead, along a crooked, crooked line.
Just plain change? Those older kids will influence them. Their peers will nudge them here and there. Other adults will love them, inspire them, reprimand them, hurt them. But, they would change regardless. Even locked away, “safe” at home, they would change. Yes, they’re fantastic right now, but change could mean even more fantastic or just as fantastic, only in some other way.
D: Did you like your first day at school, Fisher?
F: Yes, Daddy, I loved it! (Pause in the dark.) Actually, Daddy, I didn’t love it.
D: You didn’t?
D: Why not?
F: Because two girls, they uh, er, eh, they made faces at me, so I didn’t like that.
D: Why did they make faces at you?
F: Because I was a new friend. They made faces at Cory, too, but she didn’t see, so, eh, er, uh, she didn’t see. I didn’t like that. That wasn’t nice of those two girls, right, Daddy?
D (squelching the urge to learn their names, stalk them, make them pay, becoming some kind of “Cutter in the Rye”): I don’t know, Fisher. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see their faces. But, if their faces weren’t nice, let’s just say that those two girls didn’t know, Fisher. They didn’t know. And, in time, you won’t be a new friend anymore, they will know, and they won’t be making faces at you anymore.
Birth, home, grade school, junior high, high school, college, work, marriage, kids, retirement… It has the making of a circle, rolling slowly but constantly forward, but sometimes it does feel very much like a crooked line stretched out before them, like many of the pictures their small shaky hands still “scrabble” on paper, random, crumpled little treasure maps, beautiful in their quirkiness and sad because…any treasure hunter following that path to its end passes out of view, at least for stretches, hopefully just for stretches, from where it all began.