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May 4, 2009

TT: Never such innocence

An old schoolmate who found me on Facebook passed on this 1962 photo of my first-grade class:

FIRST%20GRADE%20CLASS%20PHOTO.jpg

I can't think my way back into the lost world that is preserved in this photograph--I can only see it in flashes--but I had no trouble spotting the child I was in 1962, shapeless and unformed yet well on the way to becoming recognizable. I already liked to read, and I was clumsy and hated sports. I recall myself as being shy, too, though the woman who sent me the picture says that she remembers me arguing fiercely with our teacher, a tough old bird by the name of Clura Hall. Mrs. Hall, it seems, disapproved of the fact that I wrote with my left hand and was determined to make me change my errant ways. I didn't.

mat.jpgOther things remain unchanged as well. The school that I attended in 1962, Matthews Elementary, is still open for business. It's one block north of 713 Hickory Drive, the house where I grew up and where my 79-year-old mother still lives. Most of the people in the photo are alive, and some of them can still be found in or near Smalltown, U.S.A., though I haven't seen any of them for years.

Are they changed utterly? Am I? What do I have in common with the boy on the front row? I'm still left-handed, brown-eyed, and clumsy. I still love to read--and I'm still shy, though I've learned to behave otherwise. But I moved away from Smalltown well over half a lifetime ago, and I left behind much of what I thought I was. First I wanted to be a fireman, then a concert violinist, then a schoolteacher. Never did I imagine myself living in New York, writing books, or becoming a drama critic. Nor would the boy in the picture have been able to grasp what it would mean to do any of those things.

If I could talk to him, what would I say--and would there be anything I could say that would make sense to him? Listen, Terry, your friends are going to start thinking that you're strange, but don't worry--you'll grow up and move away from Smalltown and spend your life among people who think you're perfectly normal. Somehow I doubt that would register. A few months ago I posted an excerpt from "Walking Distance," a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone in which Gig Young trips over a crack in time, finds himself in the small town where he grew up, and runs into a little boy who turns out to be his younger self. He tries to do what I just imagined doing--and, needless to say, it doesn't work. Small children know nothing of the future: they barely know the difference between today and tomorrow. What they see is what there is.

340205.jpgDo I know better now? I wonder. Samuel Beckett said it: "We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener. At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on." Have I awakened at last from my youthful dream of the eternal present, forty-seven years after my first class photo was taken, the one at which I now look with bemusement? Am I seizing the day? Or is someone else looking at me and shaking his head at my continuing obliviousness to the speed with which the hands race round the clock?

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You can watch "Walking Distance" by going here.

Posted May 4, 2009 12:00 AM

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