Fall is my favorite season, and for me it begins now, with August's slow demise: the particular slant in the afternoon light, crab apples smashed on the sidewalks, the warm press of earlier darkness, and the build up to school. After ten years of teaching elementary and middle school (which followed a lifetime of being in school myself), the last weeks of August will always feel to me like a breathless slide toward the first day of school.
Today, in honor of the especially inscrutable cliffhanger that is now, this shimmering liminal space about to evaporate, and in honor of the searing and sad events of the past week--especially the tragic death of Robin Williams (heartbroken) and the horrifying shooting of Michael Brown--I share with you an essay I wrote for the Rake twelve years ago, on the cusp of another school year, which always felt to me like another chance, and still does.
LAST NIGHT MY SON MAX got jolted awake by a nightmare. In his dream, our car got slammed from behind and Max catapulted out of his seat. His head got wedged in the crevice between the front passenger seat and the car door, and it knocked the wind out of him. “But the scariest part wasn’t that, or being stuck,” Max told me. “The scariest part was that I was screaming and screaming but no one heard me.” A few days before the nightmare, Max turned 10. Developmentally speaking, he’s been driven out from the hazy garden of early childhood and he now sees the world in an irrevocably more realistic light. It’s not surprising that it sometimes terrifies him.
I’ve been thinking about death lately. I visited my grandmother’s grave for the first time in five years, and I watched with fascination as my 7-year-old daughter Lillie and her brother and sister and two cousins placed unwrapped Hershey Kisses gingerly around the edges of the marker, because Nana loved candy. Then, in search of a way to express something she could not name, Lillie busied herself scraping the mossy growth out from the carved letters of the gray marble headstone of a woman she never knew. She had no idea how to show reverence and yet she did so with aching tenderness.
I felt the same way recently when I looked after my friend’s two children whose grandfather had died that morning. Later on, my friend and her husband came over to share dinner. I set the table, choosing the better linen table cloth with small embroidered daisies and the pretty linen napkins I’d never used before. I told my friend that I felt helplessly unable to be graceful in the face of death. It seemed somehow surreal for us to be eating pad Thai and mock duck just as if life goes on unaltered. As slender yellow elm leaves begin to litter my sidewalk, I brace myself for the irresistible beauty and melancholy of September, now entangled with painful memories of terrorism, tragedy, and war.
Last month I traveled east for an intensive training program for third-grade Waldorf teachers. The presenter was Eugene Schwartz, master teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School and New York native. He understood the unease we teachers felt about the best way to face a first week of school that will forever coincide with the commemoration of September 11. The collapse of the Twin Towers had a harrowing impact on Schwartz’s students and school community. At the moment the news of the attacks broke at Green Meadow, Schwartz was outside with his fifth-grade class for picture day. The school administrator was advised by local district officials to keep students indoors until they could be picked up by their parents, who trickled in over the course of the rest of the day. Except for the two fathers who died.
On that same morning in Minneapolis, I got a call at school from my sister just before the morning bell rang. I picked up the phone and my sister shouted that there had been this bizarre plane crash at the World Trade Center, and had I heard from our older sister, who lives in Brooklyn? Of course I hadn’t, and it was a grueling day before we were able to get through to her and piece together the story of how she’d boarded the last train out of Penn Station on her way to teach a class at Rutgers when the first tower collapsed. She ended up stranded in New Jersey overnight before she eventually wended her way back to a dust-covered apartment in Brooklyn.
From there I slogged along with the rest of middle America through the dirty waters of a distant horror on the one hand and the need to go through the usual daily routine on the other. The daily routine prevailed without a contest, and although I cried my eyes out when my son’s parakeet died last winter, it wasn’t until visiting the memorial wall at Ground Zero this summer that I cried about September 11. But even then my tears were clumsy.
Unlike Lillie, I don’t so easily know how to scrape moss from the cracks of what I can’t comprehend. I can only hold Max tight until his silent screams fade away and he breathes peacefully back to sleep, and I can only stand in uncertainty before the schoolchildren in September, drawing inspiration from their willingness to revere a world they will understand less before they understand it more.