Monday, August 26, 2013

The Old School Shadows

Today was the first day of class at my alma mater Manhattan College. Starting school in August just seems unnatural to me. Next week the Catholic high schools in the city will open their doors, and the following week the public schools will follow suit, which means—from where I sit nowadays—more traffic and mayhem to contend with, and very little upside. 

The days are growing shorter. The sun is casting shadows that bespeak autumn, even when the weather is warm and humid. I remember it all too well. Knowing that the new school year started the next morning produced the most dreadful feeling—one that mere words cannot express. I recall sitting on my front stoop the night before school began, when there was still ample summer warmth in the air. This recurring act of summertime, however, compounded the doom and gloom. Summer was over and done with—once more. A loud chorus of crickets always played a funereal dirge on those nights. While I actually prefer fall to summer now, the old school shadows have this uncanny knack for casting a certain pall, even these many years later. Sure, the pall is more short-lived these days, as I quickly acclimate to the more agreeable climes, but it’s real and it's palpable.

I suspect the grammar school and high school experiences are somewhat different than when I was a school kid more than thirty years ago. While revisiting my old high school report cards recently, I couldn’t help but notice the consistency of my inconsistencies. I’d go from the nineties to the seventies at the drop of a hat, and then back to the nineties again. At the end of the day, I was a cumulative eighties student. In my junior and senior years in high school, the report card, which was called the “Scholarship Report,” enabled teachers to leave automated comments. The comments I received, too, ranged far and wide from “Is Courteous and Cooperative” to “Always Well Prepared” to “Poor Study Habits.”

I was most struck by the dual comments I received from my Chemistry teacher in the second quarter of my senior year: “Is Working to Potential” and “Inconsistent Work in Science.” She must have seen right through me, recognized that I’d never be a chemist or even a chemistry teacher, and concluded that my potential was “inconsistency” at best. Funny, but in the first quarter her two comments were: “Excellent Work in Science” and “Very Conscientious Student.” My grades for the first two quarters were an identical "92," but I scored a mere "84" on the mid-term, which is what, I guess, prompted the “inconsistent” dig. She might have at least waited until the third and fourth quarters when I truly earned my inconsistent stripes with an "84" and an "86," and worst than all of that, a miserable "72" on the Chemistry Regents. The fact that it was my last semester in high school, and that I was already enrolled in college, might have had a little something to do with this swan song. I don’t know.

Teachers didn’t keep their emotions in check like they do today. I remember my Chemistry teacher, whom I actually liked despite her general crankiness and periodic snits and tizzies, crying out with a combination of anger and disappointment, “Shocked!” as she handed back an exam in which I had, evidently, underwhelmed her. This woman was a truly dedicated teacher. Fortunately, I did reasonably well in another subject, Finite Math, in my senior year. Because the wry nun who taught the course would return test papers to us by parading up and down the aisles, plunking them down on our desks with these words: “You know what you’re doing,” “You know what you’re doing,” “You DON’T know what you’re doing.” So, I shocked a Chemistry teacher but always knew what I was doing in Math class—inconsistent to the end.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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