This recollection involves a conflicted experience that took place in grade school in the late afternoon. Looking back on this, I can appreciate this conflict which was intellectual but these thoughts were created because of a time and place. I realize that I was too young to engage in critical thinking on an elevated level, but it also says something about how maybe the intellect matures because of perceptions created by physical and visual experience. Back then my physical and intellectual interests did not go beyond riding my Schwinn bike and watching the televised Mickey Mouse club.
It was late afternoon on a sunny day in March in the late 50’s. I had just finished a stay-after-school-session on long division again and breezed out the exit seeking fresh air and longed for respite from the gloomy, dark atmosphere of that prison classroom where I was the only occupant. I attended a parochial school run by the nuns – one of many back then during the age of life-in-suburbia. I say run by the nuns since they were the main driving force behind our education in the classroom – strict, focused, uniformed, marching in straight lines, and sitting up straight – but they hired a lay teacher (not a nun) to handle the 5th grade and she was a math witch!
Mrs. Reed, a fifth grade Math teacher with a pencil sticking in the bun of her hairdo was on some kind of insane crusade to make me understand long division. I was pretty stubborn when I think back on it since I was the only kid willing to sit there for an hour or two not doing anything except staring at those math problems – and the clock – and waiting out my time. I could have left earlier by finishing the problems in front of me, but I chose to wait out the clock and not do the work – extreme depths of obstinate laziness!
It was a warm day in the Pacific Northwest, and as I exited the building, I stopped a moment and beheld a deserted, empty lifeless playground that just a few hours before was teeming with activity right after school. It was a somewhat troubling reality to subconsciously be expecting to see crowds of kids chasing, skipping, and jumping but instead to observe a lifeless expanse of nothingness. I viewed this while overcome with an empty lonely feeling as I searched the expanse of the paved playground in vain for any kind of movement – nothing. I heard the inside doors of the school close with a muffled slam as my jail-keeper teacher was leaving out the front of the now deserted building – out of sight.
I lingered, totally quiet and alone, attempting to come to grips with the silence and desolation of a completely empty space. The contradictory existence of a space that was alive with playground activity for much of the day was now vacant and lifeless. While bordering on what was a depressed feeling of emptiness and loneliness; it was also oddly peaceful and somewhat relaxing which is why I guessed I lingered for a little longer – on the one hand missing the company of others – any others – and on the other hand accepting the peaceful stillness of absolute and complete solitude. Even the houses on the fringes of the playground seemed like lifeless sepulchers with no discernable evidence of any kind of movement in or around them.
With the exception of a feint breeze lightly shaking the branches of the Evergreens that surrounded this space, there was no movement, no sound, nothing resembling otherness in sight. The longer I lingered, the more at peace I felt with the exception of the slight urgency to move on, to fulfill what Frost said were, “Promises to keep.” Reluctantly I began the mile-long trek homeward as I put together in my mind, once again, an explanation for my tardy return from after-school-prison.
As I plodded my way home, I pondered the stillness that accompanied late afternoons and why they were the way they were. It was, I decided, a unique time tunnel right before the figurative end-of-the-day whistle blows signaling a rush to get home away from the work day. It was a time that slowed down – it was siesta time – it was recovery time from a challenging work day that featured quiet, calm, seclusion and reflection. I also thought about the need for otherness in human existence – I must have this need or I would not have been consumed, at least for moments, with this feeling although conflicted with that of peaceful isolation. The irony of this experience points to the fact that I had no interest in learning about long division, and because of this, I was introduced to a reality of existence.
Gary Arthur has published two text books, five case studies, one poem, and one short story. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Humanities from Cal State, Dominguez Hills.