Back to School

lockerIn the morning, cars full of parents and kids are queuing into the drop-off lanes in front of schools; kids with backpacks are at the bus stops; in the train, a teen has a book open on her lap, finishing a math assignment. New shoes, stiff uniforms, and extra bags filled with athletic gear. I think of the interesting and semi-chaotic day they’ll have: reconnecting with friends, navigating through a class discussion and the lunch line. And I wonder, are they anxious?

Seventh grade was my first year in junior high school, where my elementary school was combined with two or three other feeder schools. When we reported to our new homerooms, I discovered that I only recognized some of the people. Who were these strangers, and what happened to some of my friends? This mild anxiety was only reinforced when I realized that a) we would move to different rooms for each subject, and b) the homeroom group would move as a unit so I assumed I’d never see any other kids.

In elementary school we stayed in a single classroom, our teacher managing to be knowledgeable in every subject, and we ventured out for lunch and recess. So now, we would go to different rooms and have to get to know different teachers for math, science, and English. Getting from room to room wasn’t too hard, though the scant number of minutes we had between classes sometimes meant hustling if you had to get from the first to the third floor in another wing of the building. In that surge of kids moving through the halls, I’d occasionally see friends from other homerooms. We’d wave as we ran into classrooms on opposite sides of the hall, sort of occupying parallel universes.

I would visit my locker before lunch to exchange books for the afternoon. It turned out that my real nemesis that year was the combination lock. I had never used one before, and clearly hadn’t practiced with mine enough, so I had to make multiple attempts. Minutes of my short lunch period slipped away, adrenalin washed over me as I frantically twisted that dial back and forth. Finally I got the lock open and I had to dash to the cafeteria. “Gaining lock proficiency” should have been a line item on my report card – as true an indication of coping in new circumstances as figuring out post-gym showers or how to complete a science lab without setting my hair on fire.

Years later, I stand confidently before my gym locker and turn the dial to reach the numbers 00:10:36. It doesn’t open. I try again – nope. I look around and realize I’m in the wrong row. I feel the unmistakable quiver of junior high panic as I stare down the line of identical locks trying to remember which one is mine.

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