(c) 2002 Jordan White
“She walked away into the dazzling June sunshine, and she never looked back.”
That is what I, an overly self-dramatizing thirteen-year-old, told myself as I headed for home after my last day of junior high.
It was 1959. Skirts were long, ponytails were “in”, cars had fins and everyone was full of the sort of optimism that comes into play when no one knows any better.
Soon the nation would elect a handsome young president with a glamorous brunette wife and the optimism would spin out of control, making us all oblivious to the fact that the world was moving closer and closer to disaster.
I wanted to be a writer even then, so I spent lots of time thinking of myself in the third person and observing all of my activities in a way that I thought made them suitable material for my first novel.
So, walking home on that June day from a school I thought I hated, “not looking back” seemed only fitting.
After all, it was a grimy red-brick Georgian-style building with a huge smokestack, whose purpose was to vent the smoke and stuff from what was called the “boiler”, an old-fashioned sort of furnace that made the radiators hiss. The lunchroom smelled of sour milk. We wore blue uniforms to gym class, where our teachers called us humiliating names if we could not tumble properly (mine was “Madame Fufu”, I suppose an oblique and racist reference to my almond-shaped eyes), or didn’t shave under our arms (your deodorant won’t work, they said).
It was an inequitable education. Our merits were not achieved so much by acquiring knowledge that we did not have as for being able to showcase what we already knew. A naturally-athletic child excelled at gym class, a mathematically-gifted one aced arithmetic tests, and little artists were cooed over by the matronly art teacher as if she had created the nascent Rembrandt herself. Yet I knew, and we all knew, the teachers didn’t do anything but show up and talk. Any actual learning we acquired at school was strictly by accident.
I learned to write by reading literature, which I suppose is the way most kids do, and I was right about a lot the selections I made. I read J.D. Salinger and John Updike and “The Atlantic Monthly”. I loved Walter Farley’s “Black Stallion” books, especially the one where young Alec discovers a secret island whose hidden interior is filled with beautiful Arabian horses, reached only by spelunking through a series of mysterious caverns as dark as pitch.
I was right about other things too. I was right not to expect too much of what the world could do for me, preferring to chart my own courses and seldom asking for advice. I knew that talk was cheap. I was right, too, to understand that a girl should not rely on her looks, her allure, or her youthful attractiveness. Instead, I invested my time in becoming a clever child who knew how to negotiate, or perhaps even manipulate, and I learned as many skills as I could. I knew how to boondoggle any pattern, taught myself to play the guitar and to sing in harmony. I won all the neighborhood bike races, learning that bigger bikes were faster than little bikes. I’d borrow my big sister’s huge, old, green Schwinn that she had discarded long before. I’d come in first every time. (The races were always downhill.)
But, as I have found out as I’ve gotten older, I was not right about everything.
In fact, I was wrong about a lot. I thought that love was blind; I found out that it is not. I thought that there was security in promises made, and that, too, was a false assumption. I found out that nothing is forever and that he who loves least, in all likelihood, loves best.
But that’s another story. The thing I was really wrong about, on that brilliant June day, was the part about my never looking back.
Since I’ve become a somewhat disillusioned adult, who longs for the optimism of a time when America couldn’t lose, I’d say there’s very little time that I don’t find myself doing just that.
Looking back, that is, and looking back with a nostalgia, a longing for those days when our hearts could soar to watch a rocket launch, and it seemed all right to send our best to fight a war (as it turned out) we couldn’t win, and where a handsome, charming man from Massachusetts made us really believe in it all.
Sometimes you find yourself looking back, simply because you cannot bear to look ahead.