Colleen was a hand-waver, one of the slightly obnoxious ones who’d bounce in her seat while caught up in the throes of enthusiasm. “Me! Me, teacher! Call on me!” she’d insist. Valerie, on the other hand, was the slinker in the group. She’d sit in the back row of our third grade classroom, sinking lower and lower into her one-armed wooden desk until you thought she just might dissolve into a puddle and flow away beneath the door, evaporating out of our lives forever.
Neither a slinker nor a hand-waver, I preferred to sit at the front of the class. Our teacher spent most of her time distracted by the hand-wavers and trying to ferret out the slinkers, so I rarely was called on. When it did happen I’d squirm and fuss, and then mumble a few words. Sometimes I’d shake my head and shrug my shoulders in a perfect gesture of casual detachment, as if to say, “No, I don’t have the answer, but you already knew that.”
No matter how my teacher coaxed, I wouldn’t tell her the product of 3 x 8, or name the capital of Nebraska or spell “stitches” properly unless I was allowed to go to the blackboard. If I was chosen to go to the board, I worked the arithmetic problems or spelled the words without difficulty. My performance was so erratic she began to call on me more often - sometimes telling me to stay in my seat, and sometimes asking me to go to the board.
One day, she asked me to stay after school. I was terrified. I knew a few kids who’d been detained after school, and my parents wouldn’t be happy for me to be included in that group. As it turned out, I hadn’t done anything wrong. She only wanted a bit of privacy to ask me a question. “When there’s a problem on the board and I ask you to give me the answer from your seat, you seem to be guessing. But when you go to the blackboard, you always get it right. Can you tell me why?”
Of course I could tell her, and I did. I couldn’t read the blackboard from my desk. “Hm-ummm,” said my teacher, reaching for a pen. “I want you to take this note home to your parents…”
I took the note, and life took a turn for the better. To that point I’d lived in a world of soft focus and blurred edges. Fall leaves piling up along the fences or swirling through frost-tinged streets were beautiful, but I saw them only as indistinct patches of color. Held twelve inches from my nose, the words on my vocabulary flash cards were legible, but anything written on a blackboard was visible only as a chalky smudge. Threading a needle was easy. Reading a sign across a room meant getting up and moving closer. What my teacher discovered and my parents soon knew may have developed over time, but it was affecting my life. I wasn’t slow or shy, and I certainly didn’t need a tutor. I was near-sighted, and I needed glasses
My first glasses were an abomination. They were girlish but thick, with pink plaid frames. I despised them, even though I must have chosen them myself. With the glasses I could see the blackboard perfectly well, although certain classmates tempered my pleasure by hurling a multitude of childish taunts in my direction. The traditional “Four-eyes!” was a favorite, along with the less common but more creative “Fish face!”, an insult presumably meant to suggest my strong resemblance to a goldfish, staring out into the world from my bowl.
On the other hand, not even the worst teasing could overcome my amazement at changes wrought by the glasses. The out-of-focus world I’d grown accustomed to gave way to sharp, vibrant images that sometimes seemed overwhelming. Alphabet letters marched around the top of my classroom wall with absolute, cursive clarity. I no longer strained to see a clock, or squinted to see which classmates were on the playground. Astonishments abounded, particularly the astonishment of trees.
I’d always loved leaves, both the green canopy of summer and the red and golden residue of autumn that drifted around our yard. I collected hickory and oak, pressed maple between sheets of waxed paper and worked elm into autumn bouquets with tall, purple grasses. When our easy-going parents raked the fallen bounty into piles taller than our tallest friend, we jumped and tumbled until one last raking gave way to burning and we inhaled the incense of the season like intoxicated devotees of some great, autumnal god.
Inevitably, the day arrived when I looked at the season’s shimmering color with new glasses and new eyes. “Look!” I said. “There are leaves on the trees!”
It was a stunning discovery. Of course I knew leaves came from trees. I wasn’t blind, or stupid. But never before had I grasped with such force and clarity the relationship between stubborn leaves still clinging to their twigs and those already fallen to the ground. When I first was able to see both “near leaves” and “far leaves” in a single glance, I remember feeling a strange combination of nostalgia and grief – sadness at the falling of the season, and sympathy for the increasingly bare-branched tree, condemned to endure the falling of its leaves.
In short, it was my first glimpse of the transitory nature of life. Musing over the experience, I remember Gerard Manley Hopkins and his Margaret.
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Though I grieved like Margaret, my own natural, seasonal grief was balanced with a fresh and giddy exultation, the joy of seeing trees joined to their scattered leaves in the ease of a single glance. Leaves might fall and winter come, but I lived by a new vision of wholeness, able to imagine the sight of spring’s faint, green fringes lacing across the sky, spreading into summer’s canopy and then tumbling again into autumn’s receptive arms. I would see it all with my new eyes - both the turning of the seasons and the tranformation of the groves.
Such was the promise of childhood. Today, after years of beauty and clarity, after decades of wandering the groves in all their seasons, gold to green and gold again, there is a hint of a different autumn. Beneath my feet the uneasy leaves crackle and sigh, their veins still sharp, their edges crisp and well defined. Yet in the distance, the trees that bore my leafy carpet are blurring, fading, dissolving before the tide of my own advancing age.
A slow, unhappy diminution of sight has begun to take its toll, an unnatural unleaving of the golden groves that leads to the inevitable question: will I become again the child I was, trapped in a world of blurred realities, struggling to make out the message scrawled across the chalkboard of my life? Or will there be a correction, a reprieve, a renewed opportunity to take in the beauties of the season with the ease of a single glance?
Answers will come, in their time. For now, the fall of every leaf serves as a memento mori, a reminder that, however sharp and clear our vision of the world and its beauty, fading is inevitable.
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
If childhood was a time for re-leafing, for knitting together pieces and bits of a world pulled apart by natural infirmity, old age brings its own experience of infirmity and change. Like the trees, we have our seasons. Leaves fall, vision fades and darkness descends even as the goldengroves’ shimmer glides along the edges of the hills. “It ever was, and is, and shall be,” says Heraclitus, ” ever-living fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”
It’s the “going out” that can be distressing. But age brings wisdom as well as infirmity. I’ve seen the world whole and I’ve seen its parts. I’ve stitched together and torn asunder and I’ve learned the bitter, bracing truth: the great tree of life sheds each of us as naturally as the maple sheds its leaves. It is, as they say, the way of the world. As one who chooses to live both in the world and of the world, there is no choice but to cling to my branch with tenacity and fall in my season with grace, secure in the promise that the grove itself will endure, golden in the falling light.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.