So there is a hurricane barreling its way towards Boston. In a sense, this is perfect, a perfect beginning to this school year. In my mind’s eye, the start of the school year and hurricanes are forever linked. It’s the marriage of Gloria and Andrew two previous hurricanes that have shaped my experience of hurricane season in New England.
For those who live in the Gulf, this may seem silly, because by comparison, we don’t get as many stormy hurricane eyes staring us in the face. In fact I don’t remember paying much attention to hurricanes until 1985, when Gloria came to town.
I was eleven. It was the start of sixth grade. Despite being bookish compared to the rest of the population of the United States (which is not very difficult), I did not like the start of school. I liked my Trapper Keepers. And I liked seeing classmates. But basically the end of August to the start of November made me almost physically ill. First was my feeling that my teachers would hate me. I don’t mean dislike, I mean I was convinced I was the student to be reviled the school over. I was a good kid. I never once ended up in “the office”. So I am not sure where the basis for this came from. Possibly it came from first and second grade when I started school late because my mother was trying to enroll me in private school, which did not work out until I was eight. So although I was only a few days behind, I always felt on display, like the soy sauce on a perpetual Lazy Susan.
Or maybe it was, because of this bookish tendency, the start of school was a failed promise for me to be cool. I can be very honest and say that being cool in the sixth grade is quite a challenge if you still play with dolls and sleep with the light on. It was also not made easier by the fact that my clothes came from Decelle’s and Ann and Hope, not The Gap, which was the pinnacle of preppy cool that I knew I was entitled to, but which my mother was keeping me from attaining, what with having to buy clothes for not just me, but my sisters, too.
1985 was no different. I was not very cool. And I spent most days feeling very, very anxious.
Which was why Gloria was so exciting. Before any rain even fell, school was called off. My sister and I spent the day playing with our friends in our duplex, while the four parents sat around as if it was the Super Bowl. Power lines fizzed and sparked and spun like Pentecostal eels in the streets. The lights went out by evening and my sisters and I feel asleep to the whir of the Boston Edison trying to repair the damage. The next day we took a drive through Arlington and Belmont and Cambridge, the places were we had all our Saturday lessons. Duct tape X’s marked almost every window and door. If you rolled down your window the sound of buzz saws never ended. For a few days I was spared from school, and I felt calm.
Andrew was much different. If Gloria was the kind of girl who danced on bar tops and took off her top for beer, Andrew was the dud of a boyfriend holding Gloria’s purse and shoes and shirt in the corner, drinking a Rolling Rock.
I must say that no matter how much I love school, I have always hated those first few weeks. My experience of college, from my pre-frosh weekend (look it up. Frosh was indeed a term. I went to school with hippies) up through until Thanksgiving Break, was tainted with an extreme feeling of doom. Despite getting almost a full ride to my first choice private school, I was terrified of leaving home. When I arrived at prefrosh weekend and had to eat in the dining hall with my host, I freaked out. When a few people mentioned they’d be seeing me on the Hill for some kind of party, I almost peed myself. I found a payphone and made my mother come get me. I had begged her to not leave Connecticut. And although we were on the brink of going into public housing, she paid for a hotel for the weekend and came and peeled me off the pavement outside of Butterfield, which is referred to as the Butt, which to me was appropriate. During my whole four years there I only stepped foot in that place a handful more times and those times were not by happy choices.
When it was time to actually GO to college, I tried many tactics to remain home, feeling this was somehow diabolically opposite to what a normal American teenager should be doing when she gets in to her first choice of school. First I avoided the topic. School shopping? Nah, no thanks, spend it on my sisters, since we don’t really have the money anyway. Pack? Nope! I can do that in one night, leave me alone. Summer reading (all frosh were supposed to read the same books based on a theme, and then go to seminars about them during orientation. By some divine miracle the theme was JFK my frosh year. “You’ve been obsessed with all that stuff for years!” my mom cried when she read my frosh packet. “Isn’t that WONDERFUL?” But I was slightly horrified. To be able to shrug off this going to college thing, I would have to deny my love for all things JKF. This almost physically hurt. But I did it, not reading LIBRA until a week before school began and then picking fights with everyone in my family because I was grumpy I had to rush through it because it turned out I actually liked it, and I felt like an idiot). The kicker came when I just flat out began pleading my with mother to let me stay in Arlington for the rest of my life. “PLEASE! I’ll keep working at the library. I’ll live in the basement!” When my mom reminded me we didn’t really have access to the basement in our rental apartment, I said I would live in the attic, which was way creepier but which you could get to from my room. “You’re going, Kirsten, this is utterly ridiculous. You’re not staying here to make five dollars and twenty-five cents an hour at the Robbins Library, that’s just stupid.”
Mothers have a way of pointing out the obvious.
But an impending natural disaster gave me hope. And being miserable with the prospect of having to grow up a littler, I relished in any company I could get. And I got it from one of my high school friends, who didn’t want to go to school either.
As news reports focused on Andrew and his path, we feverishly called each other and schemed. I was still a good kid, and so was my friend, so our conversations went something like this:
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt—“
“Oh no, no”
“But if it could hit Wesleyan and then Tufts, that’d be great!”
“Yeah, like maybe we could miss just a little”
But Andrew was very much that dweeb with the Rolling Rock.
“Andrew fucking sucks”
“Yeah, Andrew sucks”
“When do you leave?”
“My mom is making me start to pack”
“It totally should have hit Middletown, then Medford. No one had to even get hurt.
And he was.
No match for a girl like Gloria.
And now, years later, I am preparing for my own back to school. Usually that includes writing syllabi and, as of late, scrambling to find a sitter. But this year my daughter joins the fray. School clothes have been bought. She has selected her powder blue Tinkerbell back pack that I think adds to the degradation of women but which I purchased without so much as a post feminist peep. We’ve begun reading books about school and missing mommy and next week we will play in the playground near Temple Shalom, which houses her classroom.
And I cannot help but smile to think that perhaps, for her, this school memory will be laced with Earl. A howling protest to the end of summer; her father stocking up on flashlights and checking the Weather Channel; her mother pointing to the screen and saying “No, look, it’s not even going to hit Nantucket”. I hope she knows that no matter what the teachers do, we love her. And while her clothes may not be internet-boutique-chic, she is the coolest preschooler I know.