A year or so ago, my good friend and wonderful high school English teacher Chris Harrington started collecting short blog posts from past graduates, reflecting on key lessons from their school days that they wish they could share with their former selves. It turned into a unique and powerful stream of thinking and writing, and some teachers added to the blog. It took me a long time to find my voice for this challenge, but recently I did. You can find the whole archive here (and a picture of yours truly from 11th grade), or here is my contribution:
The Time We Spend in School
I have been thinking more deeply of late about the nature of time. Almost certainly this is the sediment of a certain age, when the end of a lifetime is not just some hypothetical, foggy possibility. Time accelerates; years pass more quickly. My own half-life, a concept more commonly associated with radioactive isotopes, is now expressed in my own children, who have been alive for half of my life.
As a former geologist, I have deep respect for very long periods of time. I once stood at the brink of Nevada Falls in Yosemite, leaning out over the gushing, vaulting thousand-fire-hoses of rapid springtime melt from the largest snowpack in recent memory, shooting past the granite cliff, pounding into the valley below, and I thought about time. Here was really big, noisy, high-velocity water, one of the greatest erosional agents on the planet, in its full glory and frightening power, and…nothing. I didn’t see a single flake of granite spall off the lip of that raging falls, or later at the base, not a single pebble moved under the thundering deluge and monsoon spray. And yet, these majestic Sierras, with their snowy peaks and green forests, their ravines and defiles and ephemeral human artifacts, will be flattened, eroded down to sea level as surely as the sun rises each day, within a handful of millions of years. In that moment, a million became a very large number to me, because a year can be a very short time.
A year now is the time it takes for my avocado trees to go from bloom to fruit, to picking time, and back again. It was just yesterday that we put the Christmas boxes into the attic, and now we are taking them back down again. A week can pass in a few moments. Time is relative, as Einstein proved. It accelerates as we get older.
But years can also last forever. When I was ten years old, I remembered being eternally eight. Mostly, I remember each September, on the first day of school, that the arc of the coming year, in reality just nine months, stretched off into a distant void with no promise of an end. School years, that time in which I knew I would sit in a classroom, hope for validation, endure praise and taunts, diligently turn in my homework until the next summer release came around, seemed to me the longest and most unfair period of time ever created by gods or man.
And yet a school year was never one thing, one unit of inseparable time. It is a series of quantum events, many of which are crushingly alike, a stream of sameness that probably helped to mold or erode me, but that don’t occupy any tangible coordinates in my memory. That stream is what we call school, but it is not.
In my getting-to-be-old reflection, I see now that school years are a stew of moments, minutes, days, events, words, images that I can still, decades later, boot up from my flash memory in an instant: a sunny afternoon on the kindergarten playground; a stern remonstration from a stern teacher in third grade; a kind word from a kind teacher in fourth grade; the bully on Halloween night in middle school; and more vividly the rapid passage through high school, four years from which I can, still today, extract a mosaic of those separable bits, each piece seemingly unconnected at the time, but now, looking back, welded like the individual mineral grains of that Sierra granite over which poured the waters of melting snow. The championship. The girls I loved. The girls who did not love me back. A deep discussion with a teacher who really cared that I learned how to write. A prank gone very wrong. The school newspaper nearing midnight deadline. A patient friend. An appreciative audience. A great book. A shortcut I should not have taken. An energetic debate.
High school is not a place or a gaggle of classes, each with a name and subject and place in the schedule. It is a medley of events, very small events, much shorter than a class period or a semester. Time-on-task and life-long importance were almost always inversely correlated in my school years. Each memorable thread is gone in the moment, but lasts in the aggregate. Most are smeared out of our fallible memories, but some are brilliant, continue to shine; they are sticky parts of who we become. I think I wish that my younger self knew, each of those Septembers when I went to the first day of that next endless school year filled with faulty assumptions, vain hopes, and irrational fears, that the brilliant pieces of the mosaic were inevitable, and that they would stick with me until the time in life when years get short.