Growing up is after all only the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares.
The reason so many coming-of-age tales revolve around boarding schools—The Catcher in the Rye, Dead Poets Society, A Separate Peace—is that they are the perfect setting for the unique and incredible experience that Lessing says is a part of growing up. From that first walk across a well-watered quad, three thoughts arise: This is new; I am alone; what will happen? Overnight the world changes, shrinking in size yet swelling in possibility. The freshman has just been assigned an equal measure of freedom and responsibility, and will soon discover the pleasure specific to each—as well as the wicked delight in allowing the two to clash.
I was on a Greyhound headed north on I-91 when I finished The Catcher in the Rye, and as I watched the skeletal trees whiz past I said to myself, I’ll remember this feeling. I wondered if the real reason to read books is for their power to embalm your present self for future reference: this is who I was when I finished you. The thought made me feel very original, and in that cold and cramped bus it occurred to me that at fourteen I, like Holden Caulfield, had come of age. My first semester of boarding school was over, and gone was the boy I’d been at the start of it. I was coming home to the dirt roads of Vermont a man; Massachusetts had changed me.
At school I had smoked cigarettes at a bend in the Sudbury River called Eden. My roommate and I had padded our asses with paperbacks before being beaten by a senior wielding the “Beating Stick.” I had begun to impress a bevy of sophomore girls who lived in Holmes House, making their giggles rise into the night air not yet invaded by the ringing of curfew bells. I chose what I ate. I kept track of all my assignments in a day planner and crossed out each one when it was completed. I was self-sufficient—showers, soccer, study hall.Continue reading » September 11, 2014
Later this summer, I’ll go home and help my mom cull the boxes of school papers still clogging my parents’ basement. We’ve made tentative stabs at deaccession in the past, only to get distracted by the odd treasure hiding in the flotsam and jetsam: a sweet note from my kindergarten-aged sister to my mom, a homemade “book” from my fifth-grade year in which a student is magically sent to Vietnam to fight an unjust war.
I find that I have forgotten most of elementary school so completely—tests I clearly labored over are now blanks in my memory—that I’m loath to throw these things out completely, though I’ll likely never look at them again. I’ll probably scan them, making a little archive that can live in a hard drive until a crash or an upgrade takes the decision out of my hands.
In October 1948, the students of Spencer Graded School in Roane County, West Virginia, gained national attention when thirteen-year-old David Mace led his classmates in “burial rites” for their comic books. Newspapers cast Mace, costumed in black slacks and a white shirt, as a grave and sober preacher figure. Mace solemnly reminded the school’s six hundred students that they were meeting “here today to take a step which we believe will benefit ourselves, our community and our country.” Comic books, he said, “are mentally, physically, and morally injurious to boys and girls, [and] we propose to burn those in our possession.”
The “cremation” represented the culmination of a month-long campaign in which Mace, an eighth grader recruited to the cause by his reading teacher, Mabel Riddel, who devoted one class each week to Bible study, had led more than 250 students in a door-to-door collection drive that netted two thousand comic books. The pile was six feet high, but it likely didn’t represent the entirety of the schoolchildren’s comics; one student recalled that he had “selected my oldest, most worn, least valuable comic books to bring,” leaving “all of them that were any good at home.”
Before he started the blaze with a Superman comic, Mace first led the assembled students in a dramatic call and response:
“Do you, fellow students, believe that comic books have caused the downfall of many youthful readers?”
“Do you believe that you will benefit by refusing to indulge in comic book readings?”
“Then let us commit them to the fire.”
The fire lasted over an hour, the flames reaching more than twenty-five feet. While Mrs. Riddel stared into the flames, some of the children cried.Continue reading » August 12, 2014