Saturday, July 12, 2008

#121 - The Template

With my daughter's impending ascent into kindergarten, my mother sent out a small spiral bound book called School Days, a chronicle of my academic years from Pre-School to graduation. It's a scrap book of sorts, featuring pocket pages stuffed with report cards and class pictures, each page printed with spaces to document the particular information that made that school grade the blockbuster year of life that it was---favorite subjects, lists of friends, and spaces for various other information that will surely prove embarrassing if I ever ran for public office. ("Mr. Reagan, I refer to the Additional Information section for 1974, fourth grade: Do you have any evidence or corroboration of your claim, ‘I am the Fonz’?”)

Perusing the material, I was fascinated to find that I was not at all the bright student I remember myself to be. In fact, the boy chronicled in those pages wasn't me at all---I never recalled myself as a stellar student, but as it turns out, my high school grades were awful: I would have had to put in slightly more effort to have achieved mediocrity. I have regularly asserted that Mrs. Murphy's senior year English class is what directed me to my later BA in English, but the report card indicates Cs and Ds with a note, "Bill is bright and very capable to do his work. However, Bill is lazy." I flipped to junior year, another English class that I remember distinctly (perhaps because Ms. Campbell could have stood in for Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels), but more Cs and Ds. I was genuinely shocked to realize that reality and memory could be so divergent. (Perhaps I wasn't the Fonz after all?)

I was heartened by my strong junior high scores, but I attended three different junior highs and thus had no social activities to distract me from school work. Elementary school guidance reports were riddled with surprising comments: in fourth grade, a check mark under needs improvement for "practicing self control, open to criticism, gets along well with others, respects authority, accepts responsibility, ability to share with others, concentrates on work, works well with others, takes pride in work." Second grade, "a sunny disposition, but needs to improve work habits greatly," then three months later, "Has not shown any improvement in work habits---does not seem too concerned with school." (But I take solace in this comment on my language Arts performance for both second and third grades, I was praised for my ability to write an imaginative story. I'm just hoping that's not a scholastic euphemism for lying.

What must have been frustrating for my parents is the national testing scores. On every standardized test, from grade 4 to grade 11, I consistently scored over the 90th percentile, often in the 98th percentile. Apparently Mrs. Murphy was right: When it came to school, I was lazy.

I had begun the School Days book at my senior year and worked backward chronologically, savoring the trip down memory lane and boring my wife with my reminisces until I finally reached the first grade. I pulled the class photo from the pocket, and my laughter stopped mid-exhale. Had I been a cartoon character, I would have had to pick up my jaw with my hands and hold it to the bottom of my face.

The cause was the amazingly beautiful Amazon woman who stood in the picture. She wasn't an actual Amazon---in fact, she was probably 5'9"---but when you are the only adult in a photo of 5 year olds, the camera adds 30 inches. A moment before I'm not sure I could not have named my first grade teacher, but I found myself involuntarily saying her name aloud: "Ms. Ryan". In my mind, it sounded like "Rosebud".

What came rushing through me was a sense of puzzle pieces being rapidly assembled, bits of history linked where no logical connection was previously found. At that moment, I realized that despite having slipped from my radar for a few decades, Mrs. Ryan was the template, the model I had unknowingly used throughout my life to define what made a woman beautiful. I'm sure I had no idea at the time, but staring back my life, I knew this to be irrefutable truth.

Fissures immediately began to form in the foundation of my psyche. I have long insisted that my first definition of "sexy" was provided by the same woman who had informed many of my peer's fantasy world: Batgirl. Skin-tight leather, flowing red hair, a no-nonsense attitude----let's face it, Batgirl could have worked days fighting crime and nights as a dominatrix without having to change her clothes between shifts. (Lest Batgirl be offended that she could be ousted from the seat of sexual power by a mere first grade teacher, I feel confident that she still deserves credit for my affinity for knee-high leather boots on a woman--frankly, any woman.) Mrs. Ryan versus Batgirl---now that is a comic book I would like to see. (In the version I see in my mind, Mrs. Ryan would surely kick her ass. Her catch phrase? "Time for your lessons, Batgirl!") While DC Comics dreamed up a smart, provocative woman worthy of stirring strange prepubescent longings, at her best, she amused in two dimensions, a mere cartoon. Mrs. Ryan existed in---and thoroughly occupied---three dimensions. I once asked a woman who she thought was more beautiful, Lauren Bacall or Marilyn Monroe: "Lauren Bacall, of course. Marilyn Monroe is a kitten; Lauren Bacall is a thoroughbred." Insert Batgirl and Mrs. Ryan into that analogy.

Considering that I was five when I knew her, I'm aware that I might be revising history. But seeing her picture, it immediately felt like an ingrained truth, knowledge I had always had but simply hadn't accessed. Beautiful, yes, but what she defined is laughter and intelligence, two things far more attractive than skin tight leather clothes. The first-grade photo seemed to catch Mrs. Ryan mid-chuckle, probably responding to the corny humor of a flirtatious photographer who surely wanted to snap any old shot of the brats and say, "Okay, get lost kids, just a couple of the teacher now." I have always been partial to genuineness over affectation, kindness infused with honesty and directness, beauty as a state of mind rather than the state of one's face, and she embodies all of those things. (Of course, my mother is all of these things as well, so credit given where credit is certainly due, but I never pursued woman who looked like my mother; I can attest from that picture that the same cannot be said about Mrs. Ryan.)

It's funny to think back and imagine her having an adult life, with dates and rent payments and eagerly anticipated summer excursions to distant ports. For a first grader, the teacher has no life outside of the classroom---she is there as the children rush out to catch the bus at the final bell, she is there the next morning when they return to class. She is "the teacher", not "a person who teaches for a living." So maybe she was two dimensional to me then, too. But it’s clear to me today that the elements of the essential third dimension were under construction even at that early age, to be assembled years later from a forgotten blueprint long filed away in the pocket of a School Days album.