Monday, July 25, 2022

Any scene of childhood

This morning I was spending some time on Google Street View, cruising down some blocks of my adolescent neighborhood in Wheaton, Maryland, when I was struck again at the magic tricks that memory plays. There are the woods behind the long-gone Equitable Bank where my friends and I drank beer on Friday nights during the football games; across the street there's the parking lot next to that apartment where in my my parents' station wagon we forced down some wide-mouth Mickey's and chased them with fistfuls of barbecue chips, provisions for the accidental poor-man's donuts I laid down on the wet grass. Funny how much more vast the stage sets are when I replay these events, the woods larger, the trees taller, the parking lot dramatically lit, the donuts endlessly spiraling into endless laughter, the suburban corners everywhere shadowed with charged potential.

Nothing new here, no news. You know the story. If we weren't playing Springsteen in the car on our boom box, we were playing him in our heads, his songs—or whatever band or singer's songs scored your nights—soundtracking these minor shenanigans that grew epic in the retelling, soaring from verse to bridge to chorus as if they're our songs only. Those long nights of teenage rebellion and the testing of limits occurred last weekend, somewhere, and will again this weekend, somewhere else—and years from now when those actors return to those stages they'll be struck, too, by how small the sets are, how tacky the props, how underwhelming the lighting, each tasting their own unique bittersweetness.

For years I've taught George Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys," a torturous, dryly confessional essay about Orwell's years at the St. Cyprian prep school. Semester after semester I've watched my students grapple with the essay's ending, where Orwell imagines visiting the school after many years away, and where he lands on this inevitable discovery:

I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!

We debate the words invariably, terrible, and deterioration, and the students gamely attempt to locate themselves in the shoes of an older man (Orwell was in this thirties when he wrote the essay) who's reckoning with the vagaries of memory, not to mention trauma. The students are also, but under less weight, their futures ahead of them. Their collective brow furrows, their face turns solemn, but the recognition of Orwell's epiphany is, of course, beyond them. They'll have to wait a while before it rings true.

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