School feels like a lifetime ago and yet two different e-mails, from two different parts of the world, prompted me to think about school recently. My godson, to whom I have been a horrible godmother all these years (what are the duties of a godparent anyway??), lives in London and has just moved back home for the Summer. He recently asked me if I ever felt a disconnect with my parents after college had started – I think he is grappling with the diverging path his life is taking and he is befuddled by how different everything seems now that he is away from the protective wings of mother goose and he is flying solo. I haven’t replied yet – I do want to reassure him but I also want to give him an honest answer, just not the one that comes to mind when I think of my college days, a whirlwind of social activity, close encounters with the opposite sex, some drugs and not much time spent to think about my (divorcing) parents who vaguely appear in my recollections – memories of my mother asking me where I spent the night upon furtively returning at 4 am and of my father happily paying my college tuition. As I graduated with excellent grades, all the corollary was swept under the rug of forgetfulness. But maybe they knew that college is the time to test the waters and one’s limits, the time to fall and not be picked up or maybe they were just too busy bickering about alimony to really pay attention to their once obedient daughter cavorting with a group of cohorts in similar circumstances.
How would I go about telling a 19-year-old now that it is ok to look at his mother as if she had just landed from Saturn, that pushing all the boundaries of the familiar is absolutely fine provided he keeps his head somewhat attached to his shoulders, without betraying his mother’s (my friend’s) trust? Her e-mails lament an empty nest and hail her son’s Summer return.
A second e-mail reached me this morning – the only high school friend I am still in touch with (I am firmly against school reunions of any kind because if I wanted to stay friends with those people I would have and I really don’t want to see what they look like now or know what they do or how many children they have gifted the earth with), said friend bumped into our old Economics and Law professor who sent his warm regards and a hug. There are very few teachers who stand out in one’s life and not necessarily in the Mitch Albom’s vein – their contributions are typically smaller and forgotten for decades until a reminder comes along. Mine were a petite woman with a bouffant hairdo and way too much make up who, when I was 13, encouraged me to study Latin, invited me to her house and filled my hands and my head with feminist books and ideas and encouraged me to write. She obviously saw something in the lanky teen-ager I was that I didn’t see for decades afterwards.
The other is the Economics professor, whom I imagine ancient at this point but who probably was younger at the time than I am now. He who was an absolute terror. His first day of class our jaws dropped the moment he walked in: his face was disfigured, partly covered by large dark glasses that gave away his blindness, a leather gloved wooden hand that he pummelled on his desk to great effect when needing to convey his displeasure. After months of digging for information, the class found out that, as a child, our Professor had a close encounter with a mine that exploded in his hand. He carried heavy Braille textbooks, had a booming voice and could detect cheating a mile away. Written tests were obviously out of the question and there was no way to refer to our books or our notes during the oral tests – his questions always strayed from the textbook. His questions were designed to make us think. I never excelled at economics but for three years he managed to nudge me along Keynes’ theories, micro and macro, graphs, charts, consumers’ and markets’ behaviours. If Paul Kruger’s columns are not a complete mystery now, it’s also because of the teacher who used to know us by smell, before we even uttered “Good Morning” along the corridors.
Maybe that is what I should convey to my lost godson – that this is his time to forge memories and bonds that will mold who he will become, that it’s the time to start finding out who he really is and that this can only be done with a healthy detachment from the brave woman who raised him, always remembering the love, the sacrifices and the commitment she had towards him. Not being able to relate at 19 is par for the course – other people will see him through the changes and struggles he is bound to encounter, people he might forget in the long run but who will be part of his personal history. His mother, like my mother, will understand.