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