Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Biology, Beauty and (Lack of) Chemistry


Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done.
-- William Blake

Madison High a few years before I got there. Those are ink blots, by the way, not my morbid thoughts.
And so it came to pass that my high-school days finally ended, but before I explore the euphoria of college, I must share some final, lingering high-school memories. I don't think these contain any sort of moral or reveal a key step toward my self-awareness or any of that. But they do reveal something about the gulf between teachers and students, and about biology, chemistry and aesthetics. 

Anyway, it's too bad I didn't laugh at these things when they were happening. Sometimes it takes a long time for something to become funny.

My biology teacher, who we'll call Mrs. Shelbourne, was a lip-smacker (she was always working something in her mouth, maybe a cough lozenge or breath mint) and at times she seemed  mildly deranged in a menopausal, bipolar way. On her good days, she was wrapped and rapt in some secret joy that had nothing at all to do with us. 

Perhaps her spirits were being lifted by a Mother's Little Helper. Even in the '60s, there were legal chemicals that would take that frown and turn it upside down.

Just days after I moved from Pinetta and entered her class in the last weeks of my sophomore year (at which time she introduced me as Royce because she heard "Royce Tarlin" when I told her my name), she grew almost teary-eyed explaining to us the beauty of menstruation. As we sat with our mouths agape, picturing any number of unbeautiful things, she kept repeating, “It really is beautiful. It’s not ugly. When you think abut what’s really happening, it’s really beautiful.And her cheeks caved in as she sucked harder on her lozenge.

I thought and thought, but couldn't make it beautiful.

She was so caught up in the ecstasy of that monthly cleansing that her face glowed like St. Teresa’s as she searched desperately and futilely for just one set of 15-year-old eyes to light up in agreement. (Decades later this would often happen to me in the classroom when I was seized by the music of a sentence or a line of poetry or by some audacious snatch of dark humor and found myself beside myself, having a party of one while a class full of teenagers looked on with grave concern, preparing their cell phones for a call to the office in case I was having a breakdown.) 

The next day, however, her make-up would be poorly applied, there’d be dark circles under her large brown eyes, and yesterday’s wild smile would be transformed into a tight-lipped accusing frown, one eyebrow arched. Just by existing, we were worse than nuisances to her on those days. I, for one, felt I had done something to her the night before I should apologize for.

In my senior year, Madison High's regular chemistry teacher went on leave to recover from something or to die or to get his master’s degree or something of that nature, and the school brought in Mrs. Shelbourne to take his place. I never figured out what was going on in that class, what she was supposed to be teaching, but I did learn to crack my nose (it’s just an illusion -- you do it with your thumbnails) from Billy Jones who also taught me several crude jokes and some comically vulgar expressions. He didn’t mean to teach them to me – he was talking to the guy next to him, Frank Napoli, but still.

I remember talk of the Periodic Table of Elements or something like that, but mostly I remember, sitting three tables in front of me, and to the right, Sonya Rostov,* the most beautiful girl at Madison High (I know, it's in the eye of the beholder, tough to quantify and all of that, but trust me). Not only was she doe-eyed, she was Bambi with breasts, and I mean that in a good way. 

She had alabaster skin made alabasterer by those dark brown deer eyes and dark brown hair, long enough to rest on her alabaster (probably) shoulders, before it flipped nonchalantly outward as was the style in the late '60s. 
Something like this.

She had a nice tongue. By that, I mean when she chomped vigorously on her bubblegum, it -- her tongue -- was visible, even from a distance, which is as close as I ever got to her, and it showed when she laughed and sometimes when she just talked. In class, I could see her only from the back, sitting stiffly upright with crossed legs, one leg swinging pendulum-like, a slipper dangling dangerously, precariously from a lovely foot. 

In rare moments, her leg would come to rest, her mouth would freeze in mid-chomp, and, chin in hand, her face would freeze into a daydream stare, and her brown eyes would appear to see through not only the window, but the Madison landscape it revealed.

In short, she became a statue, while chemistry class foolishly continued in real time.

I have no idea and never stopped to wonder if she were bright or dumb or interesting or dull. I never once spoke to her, and was rarely close enough to know what she said to anyone else. I never even entertained the idea of talking to her, let alone dating her, let alone doing anything else to her. But I remember her eyes, her swinging calves and her tongue. And I remember she could pretty much make a guy pass out from her beauty alone.

And never again did I trust people who blandly asserted that beauty is only skin deep. For us sunflowers, it is the sun itself. 

Speaking of beauty, now I remember some chemistry: "Au" means "gold." If only gold could stay. . . .

I walked home for lunch every day, a ritual brought on by the roaring loneliness of the crowded Madison High lunchroom, and after lunch I’d trudge back down the hill for chemistry class. One day, probably in May, I just didn’t go back. I gave up on chemistry.

I had calculated that I was going to get an “F” for the semester anyway, so I figured “What’s the use?” It wasn’t only the “F” in chemistry. I was just done. I saw no reason to be there anymore. Not only was I completely miserable and lost in class, I felt the kind of isolation only a teen surrounded by other teens can feel. And of course there was no chance of finding consolation in the company of the beautiful and untouchable and unknowable Sonya Rostov.

After about a week of this, Mrs. Shelbourne  sent a kid to my house to bring me back and – I don’t remember the particulars – somehow I managed to graduate, with or without an “F” in chemistry. (Looking back, I'll bet Mrs. Cherry found a loophole. God love her.) 

I remember an evening graduation on Lanier Field -- but others attending swear it was at noon -- with white caps and gowns, and a lot of people appearing awfully happy, the celebratory mood altered a bit by the awkwardly suggestive scent of a nearby flowering hedge permeating the air. We probably abided by tradition and threw our mortarboards in the air, but I was gone by the time they returned to earth. 

High school had mercifully ended. If I could either survive the draft or put it out of my mind, life was going get better now. I could feel it.

Of course, I can't be sure until I read my next post.  

*Not her real name.

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