It suddenly smells like back to school. Harriet can’t identify the source triggering the memory, but that’s the image conjured up when she finally gets around to opening the morning paper a little after lunch.
She takes a deep breath thinking maybe it smells like the book bag she had in grade school. The kind they don’t make anymore. Of course, there are a lot of things they don’t make anymore. That notion sets her to thinking momentarily who the great “they”, who’ve controlled and defined her life, might actually be.
“You need to be specific,” was the one thing she tried to instill in her ninth grade English classes. “Site an example,” she’d repeat with every class as she critiqued the load of papers she assigned and then returned with grades running the gamut from D to A. Fs and A+s being rare.
Sad so few students stood out in her thirty year tenure, eventually fading into the group comprising the “they:” The only thing distinguishing one group from another, the current clothing trend. Most of the students she remembered were from her early years on the job. Early years when she imagined she could make a difference.
In the beginning, she’d tried to impress upon her students a classic was a book that spoke to us over decades, even centuries. “People haven’t really changed all that much,” was the way she prefaced her remarks.
As one year ran into the next, she came to accept the glazed look on the sea of faces seated in her classroom when it was time to discuss their latest reading assignment. Little enthusiasm for Dickens, Twain or Fitzgerald. Not that Harriet supposed it mattered. How many people actually read the classics once they’d finished school?
“You’ve given it your best shot,” was the way Peter, her husband expressed it. “Maybe you should think about retiring.” And, since she was eligible for her pension, she decided at the end of last year, “why not,” and set the wheels in motion.
Truthfully, she told herself seated at the kitchen table turning the pages of the newspaper, there hadn’t been that many teachers who’d inspired her either, so she supposed her experience at the front of the room was to be expected.
“They all seemed so old,” she told the editorial page as she skimmed the articles. “And not very with it. Me exactly,” she concluded moving onto the metro section.
“Youth must be served,” was the way her father expressed it and Harriet knew her own parents had had concerns about the direction of her life, but she’d always loved to read. Even if she didn’t apply herself in other subjects.
“What must the math teachers have thought about me?” she wondered reaching the funny papers with the crossword puzzles. She’d tried to apply herself, but math just wasn’t her forte. Science wasn’t much better. “Maybe all my students were the same way.”
“What are you going to do with all your spare time?” a younger teacher asked with a smile on Harriet’s last day.
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find plenty to keep me busy.” Harriet had had enough practice. Summer vacation, training for the rest of her life, she mused, and she’d been very good at it. “I might even go back to school,” she added.
“Back to school,” the teacher nodded her head knowingly.
“At least this time, I might appreciate what I’m studying.”
At the end of the summer though, Harriet was at loose ends, not certain what to actually do with her days. She avoided the aisles filled with back to school supplies at stores where she shopped. And, her own plans to take a couple classes at the extension center, were put on the back burner till after the holidays. She wasn’t quite ready yet for that.
With Peter off to work, she had the house to herself. Watching the sun move across the yard, there was a noticeable change of season. She sighed, tapping her pen against the edge of the table struggling with twenty-five down on the crossword puzzle.
She’d never worked one until her mother died. The crossword was her mother’s avocation, something she never tired of. Keeping vigil in the hospital the last couple weeks, Harriet picked up the paper, taking up where her mother left off.
“They say working puzzles keeps your mind sharp,” the nurse checking her mother’s vitals commented, observing Harriet hard at work.
“So I’ve heard,” Harriet smiled. The staff had been nice at the hospital. Perhaps she should think about volunteering, visiting with people who seemed to be on their own. She remembered some of the rooms where no one but hospital staff came and went. Curious about the woman across the hall, Harriet had asked, “Doesn’t she have any family?”
“No,” the nurse shook her head and Harriet remembered, thinking how sad.
“I’m depressing myself,” she said, neatly folding the paper so Peter could glance through it tonight. The scent of back to school fading. Best to keep busy in her attempts to define the next phase of her life.
She clicked on the television as she straightened up the living room, briefly contemplating dusting and sorting through the bookshelves, but it was too nice a day to be confined indoors, so she abandoned that plan, opting for a walk around the park instead. “I could use the exercise,” she said, hoping talking to herself wouldn’t become a habit.
Outdoors, there was a cool feeling in the air. She smiled, taking in a deep breath, one foot following the other as she headed towards the park.
She stopped at the first intersection and waiting to cross the street, realized there were schools on each of the four corners of the park. Suddenly, the schools were more than buildings where life was going on without her as she passed. They were brick and mortar symbols of the part of her life that had ended. And, for the first time, she was overwhelmed by the notion she, too, could be swallowed up into the great “they“.