Door to Door: The Week of Sighs
When we were kids an East Sacramento summer was a spree of freedom, even when it was blistering hot. I remember doing the famous fried egg experiment on the sidewalk, but fled the worst afternoons to climb to the top bunk with a book in our cool house on 42nd Street. I had turned the bedroom calendar to the wall. These days were transcendent. There could be no reminders of time.
In the evenings we tumbled out of doors again to ride our bikes, skate, build forts in the vacant lot, have fascinating encounters with strange kids who sometimes wandered over from across D Street. But mostly the lot was ours; we called it our “territory” and made paths through it, played that we were Robin Hood’s merry outlaws, and told knock-knock jokes in British accents. The world seemed to stay endlessly lit. We played on even when dusk deepened, and mothers began to call us home. Finally, my father, who could whistle without moving his lips, an impressive skill we could not acquire, let out a shrill blast that forced us to scamper to our houses.
I wanted this life to last forever. It was rich and giddy. The days stretched on and each morning smelled so fresh and sweet it almost gave you a pang. It was all ours.
The first bad sign came with the Sacramento Bee. A page fell out: Back to School sales. They featured joyfully smiling girls standing around clutching binders and gazing at the sparkle from one another’s new shoes. The boys were depicted in a similar fantasy—they grinned at book-bags, at one another, at a football nestled under the arm of another grinning boy, and all wore slacks more creased than the grins.
“Oh no. Look,” I said to my mother. She was a kindly woman who had obliged me by moving the kitchen calendar to the inside of a cupboard so I wouldn’t have to see it.
“There’s still the State Fair,” she said, folding up the ad page. “You always like that.”
True enough. The Fair was a reliable feast of astonishments, particularly the chunky, snorting animals and the lurid signs above the freak shows we were not allowed to attend. But the fair was essentially an interruption in the gloom that had begun its descent.
We didn’t have to shop for clothes because we went to Sacred Heart and wore uniforms: blue, pleated skirts, white middy blouses and red ties. It was grieved to see my mother hang these items in a row in our closet. “Aren’t you sad we have to go back?” I said to my sister, Kathleen. But she said she was happy because she’d get to see her friend, Amelia, again, and she was excited to find out who her teacher would be: Sister Jerome or Sister Andrew. I said she was a traitor, but she made a face at me, which is what traitors do. I asked my friend Mark, who went to public school, and whose mother had already bought him new clothes. “I hate school,” Mark said. ”I wish I could squish it.” He stomped his foot. Mark and I both did well enough in school when we got there, but it was the going that offended us.
When you go to school you can’t stay up late reading enthralling novels because you’re going to have to get up early to go read about the national exports of Paraguay or some other dreary place identical to the other dreary places. You can’t read about the man imprisoned in an iron mask because you’re going to be imprisoned yourself in an iron routine of classes, prayers, skimpy recesses, nuns, strictness, and long, suffocating afternoons taking quizzes about Paraguay.
I hated school because I loved freedom. I loved choosing my own books from McKinley Library, loved lolling through afternoons reading them. Once, during the despondent pre-school week before the fifth grade, I brought a paper around and asked kids to write what they thought about school starting up. I remember that most wrote “hate,” one wrote that school is stupid, one wrote, “Ug.” A smart girl named Susan who wore glasses wrote “Yay.” My father thought it interesting that I solicited opinions and predicted that I might be a reporter one day.
But you have to go to school to be a reporter. You have to go to school to be anything. That last week of freedom—the Week of Sighs—was hard. Our mother, to her everlasting credit, showed no unseemly happiness; peace was soon to come to her, but she kept a sober mien and let us have Coca Cola on the final Saturday.
I saw the ads on TV the other night. I know somewhere near there are kids in mournful preparation. But I know something now I would never have suspected then. There are other mourners—teachers. I revived the fifth grade survey, queried a few of them. Four said: “Oh God no—it’s too soon;” one said, “I hope I don’t have to check for head lice this year;” two said they needed raises, and when the others heard about the raises, they said, “Make that unanimous.” All are taking on-line or night classes along with working full time.
Now I listen more closely. I can still hear the Week of Sighs. But it has twice the volume I heard as a child.
Pat Lynch is a Sacramento writer with astute social consciousness and a reporter’s sharp eye. She tunes us in: to language with its revelations and betrayals, to subtexts, to nuance, to irony. Her characters engage us emotionally; her stories peel away the layers with humor and great humanity. Purchase her book, “All That Glisters And Other Stories”, at Lulu.com or call 916-457-2725 for a 20 percent discount.