Reading Writing and Arithmetic
There is a certain weather that existed when I was at boarding school that doesn’t exist any more. It was on Sundays, in the spring; a cold white light in late afternoon; chilly, no one lounging on the greens, but outside my window, somewhere, a song bird would start trilling at intervals at around 4:00 pm. It was too early for the agreeable descent of twilight and it was too early for the yellow light of the dining hall. It was dead, dull white. It was chilly indoors because the heat was off. I sat at my desk with ragged soft old textbooks: The Brothers Gracci giving grain to the plebians; Charlemagne converting. The most alarming of all was math, under that white sky the awful stirring of a universe. In ninth grade, I sat in a skirt in a classroom on a weekday and now on Sunday I struggled with the reckoning.
3x + 1=10
-1 = -1
One of the most dyspeptic and unwelcome learnings of my school career: that numbers could be extracted from letters. Dead quiet too cold late spring. Silent corridors, no parents calling their daughters. Perhaps they too knew the desultory teen conversation that this kind of day produced. What would I have said to my parents? The day is dreary and I have this sheet of letters to extract into numbers for Miss O’Brien tomorrow morning.
Sophomore year, angry at this weather, I would hike to the back of campus in an enormous wool sweater with a clove cigarette. Study hours weren’t until after dinner, there wasn’t even the banal drama of breaking a rule. I would find a spring rill, a brook—I’d knock rocks and old winter leaves with my shoe. I’d light the clove cigarette, a childish smacking of the lips at that sweet warm close taste, and then—I’d end up pacing under the white sky, that bird song limning the air. I was pacing. I was smoking and pacing. Then I would stop because adults smoked and paced. I would resist. No: I knew that there were childlike things I needed to pay attention to. I’d walk to Slocum and peer in the costume department. Still clothing from when we had uniforms—a we that stretched back 200 years.
Outside again, walking along the stone towers: under that shadowless sky, harrowing unkindess of life and death: a bird feather. Craggy stones. Tulips shedding petals.
Junior year, the college admissions year, fear caught me. Recessive genes and molecules and Euclidian geometry. I hated feeling afraid, but I liked what feeling afraid erased. It did not matter if I was pretty. Love, and better yet, the need for love, felt far away on those days.
And then suddenly, senior year it was all pointless, and nature was returned to me in a way I never was able to possess it before. I never could get myself to go to the library at 4 pm on a Sunday. It had to be in my room, in my desk, with my lamp on and silence. Kate was in her room, doing her math homework kneeling on the floor. Sarah was probably at her desk. Biddleman was in the lounge under the leadened paned glass, reading history and rubbing her feet. Leigh would come out of her room and sharpen her pencils in the sharpener under the wooden balustrade. Now, I could stand that she was going to go back to pull numbers out of letters. What I could not stand is that we were all going to go away from each other soon, and we would never know each other again.