In my writing workshops I encourage memoirists to focus on life’s branching points. These are the events that leave your life forever changed. A branching point may come about by choice or by chance; it may seem terrible at the time but turn out to be the beginning of a wonderful new phase. I emphasize branching points because that’s where “the plump fish of memory are lurking,” to quote James Birren. Where there’s a branch there’s a good story–something that reveals your character. Here’s my earliest memory of a branching point.
I was born in October of 1956. I was my mother’s third child in as many years.
For my first school year, my parents chose St. Richard’s Academy on Indianapolis’ near north side, even though we lived 15 miles north in Carmel. I think this was because my mother began working for a publishing company near that school—and because they would take me while I was still five years old, which Carmel’s public school would not.
I loved St. Richards from the moment I entered its gothic pointy-roofed garden gate at age 5 and 11/12ths, wearing my little plaid kilt and a green wool blazer with a heraldic crest embroidered on its chest pocket.
St. Richard’s was Episcopalian, and Anglophile in every conceivable way. We had teachers imported from England who taught from textbooks imported from England. From these I learned that, “We live on a small island next to a large continent.” Our math lessons involved working on times tables and long division as well as addition and subtraction, aided by graph paper to keep our columns neat. We learned French with readings and exercises about “deux soldats du bois.” We learned to write longhand using fountain pens we filled ourselves from small glass bottles. We colored maps of Europe in careful horizontal strokes, long wooden colored pencils gripped in our tiny fists.
Then the year was over, and my parents transferred me to the public school in Carmel for second grade. Here the students only printed their alphabets, using stubby pencils. The teacher took away my fountain pen and forbade me to write longhand. No elegant colored pencils here, only crayons. No long division, no times tables, no French.
And so I went into my vivid imagination, and I didn’t come out until sometime in the fourth grade, when I realized with terror that I had forgotten everything I’d learned in the first grade, and failed to take in any new information since.
A mental habit of absent-mindedness and a fear of math are the permanent scars of my early education. Going through school with peers always slightly older than myself also left its scars, leading to a tendency to go along with older children’s suggestions that led me to trouble as often as not.
St. Richard’s Academy was Paradise.
How much of my life since has been an attempt to get back to that first Happy Place?