You hold on to the pencil from your 6th grade teacher, the one she gave to everyone as a memento of your year in homeroom 6A where she hung curtains on the bookshelves to make the cinderblock room look more homey. “I DID A GREAT JOB IN MISS SCHLOSSER’S CLASS” it reads in gold letters on one thin panel of this wooden implement painted red. Because she loved you all so much, because she told you all how she prayed for each of you three minutes a piece one night, you all sort of believed it. You did a great job. Why would she have given you all this pencil if it had not been so? She lost her mother that year. You broke the obelisk on her desk that year. She prayed for you and hung curtains and gave you a pencil. You hold on to the pencil and decide not to sharpen it right away because it’s a bit of a novelty item and there are plenty of other pedestrian pencils and erasable pens to jot down your rising 7th grade thoughts about sleepovers and boys whose voices jump whole octaves overnight. The eraser you use; it’s a decent eraser and you make a lot of mistakes over the next few years, trusting too much in the correctness and permanence of the story you are writing. You pack the pencil from your 6th grade teacher into a wad of other writing instruments, rubberbanded and ported from dorm to apartment to condo to house, and every so often you consider how long that pencil has held up. Like so few other things that shine with their original glory, the message is unmarred and unmistakable. It is only once you become a teacher that you understand the point of view of that message in gold letters. The pencil is not, as it appears to an egoistic middle schooler, a brag flag to wave. No one cares whether one did a great or superlatively poor job in sixth grade, it turns out. Pencils, after all, are chosen by the user. Pencils are the tool of the essay writer, the math test-taker, the form filler-outer. The pencil does not guide you; you guide the pencil. More and more and more and more, the pencil obeys. As you file bills or rifle through a drawer of receipts, you look up to see a streak of red peaking from the back of your desk, and occasionally it touches you but sometimes it floods you–that you were loved enough and affirmed in gold letters once upon a time. You did a great job. In a room where books were hemmed in by curtains. By a teacher whose name you will not forget.
I’m not a flowers-phile like some folks who know all the pretty ones that grow in shade and bloom hard in direct sunlight. I do know crepe myrtles, though. They are the only thing in Tennessee that stands outside looking pretty in July and August. The rest of us are all drippy faint and upping our deodorant game.
In 2011, crepe myrtles greeted us as we drove up our long serpentine driveway when we first arrived to our rental home in Tennessee. They looked as though they’d been waiting just for us, practicing their pageant wave. Park here, they said. We’ve spruced up this place just for you.
The crepe myrtles remind me now that we are still here. We’ve lapped the sun four times and we know when to anticipate the chorus of cicadas, the halo of autumn leaves, the brisk mornings and the humid incubator that is crepe myrtle season.
I spend most of July and August in a state of homesickness, grieving a home and a people that are contained in one big amoeba of pain that globs around inside of me, never allowing me to feel perfectly at ease wherever I live. WAHHHH MEEEE. I’m a pilgrim from a lot of places and I ache privately because I think I’m alone in this. My country ’tis of thee, you confuse the heyyy y’all out of me, of thee I sing.
The beautiful crepe myrtles earmark another season of being here and being a misfit. They also usher in another school year. I’ve been so excited about sending both of the punks back to their school work-a-day routines that I practically forgot to mourn their own growth, to feel the full freight of their being a whole school year more advanced than the people they were last year when the crepe myrtles were in full glory.
Kids are only capable of two kinds of good-byes, it seems. The unceremonious “Bye Felicia”-esque dismissal, or the neck-wringing ugly cry adieu. How long, or should I say, how many crepe myrtle seasons until they realize their parents are all Bye Felicia on the outside but on the inside?
Prologue: That headline was a complete misnomer. It was only one member of the cast of “Orange is the New Black.” Clickbait much? Also, Everyone I went to high school with who reads this will say, Kendra, please to get over yourself. To which I will respond, It’s nice when some things never change, isn’t it?
In 1998, I was a freshman in college. It is well-documented that the internet was brand new [to mine eyes]. I had also spent the prior four years in an all-girls Catholic high school run by nuns. It was everything you’ve read: strict, overprivileged, competitive, and raucous fun. But I was much too busy overachieving for the fun part, for which I was rewarded by a local civic organization with a sizable scholarship.
Pro-tip: don’t ever give a 17 year-old a scholarship in the form of a check made out directly to her. She might use it for another kind of education.
Like she might teach herself how to use the internet. And buy a flight to New York City.
The plan for the weekend that I told my mom: I was staying with my high school gal pal at Fordham.
The plan for the weekend that I didn’t tell my mom: I was staying with Greg at NYU and would place a call on his landline to my gal pal at Fordham to say hello for two minutes.
In the weeks leading up to my maiden voyage to NYC, I realized I had no clothes that were not ill-fitting because for the 12 years prior I had worn a polyester uniform that resembled the upholstery of chairs found in nursing home lobbies. That scholarship once again came in handy when I received the most cliched of clothing catalogues in the college mail: Delia*s. I called 1-800-DELIA*s with debit card at the ready and proceeded to buy a full outfit that I deemed suitable for NYC hijinks. Per the custom of tele-service, the operator noted that because I had spent $50, I was eligible to receive the free Cosmic Kitty tote. Cosmic Kitty was not my style per se, which, we had established was Catholic tartan chic, but a girl needs a catch-all for NYC, surely.
Full disclosure: I no longer lie to my mom. I no longer use civic scholarships for weekend rendezvous. Or to buy clothes from Delia*s.
Fast forward to my arrival in NYC. It is hard to imagine but none of us had cellphones, so when I asked Greg to meet me at LaGuardia, the only thing he knew was approximately when my flight was arriving and that I would be wearing blue glitter headboppers. Somehow we found one another, like two star-crossed loves in a Rumi poem.
NYC was a drug to my system. I was so electrified by the Big Apple. The Drifters were right–the neon lights ARE bright on Broadway!! There really is always magic in the air….
During my last full day in NYC, we went to see the debut of “Ragtime.” On our way, we stopped at Greg’s friend’s apartment. His friend was named Chernus and all I knew was that Chernus went to Juilliard. Remember that I had spent four years besting other girls on geometric theorems and not watching “Party of Five.” I didn’t have ticket stubs from Barenaked Ladies Concerts. I didn’t have an ex-boyfriend with a pager. I didn’t (gasp) know what Juilliard was.
I stood awkwardly in the doorway of Chernus’ apartment. It had exposed brick. The walls were covered in posters of cultural things. The posters were in frames. Chernus was, like, a grown-up. Who went to Juilliard. Whatever that was. Greg and Chernus joked and traded notes about Broadway shows. I stood frozen in the doorway, clutching my black tote, the embarrassing Cosmic Kitty reversed to my side so no one could see.
I bawled in the balcony at “Ragtime,” all over my Delia*s cardigan sweater. I hadn’t packed any tissues in my Cosmic Kitty tote because I didn’t know that a live performance could wreck a person like that.
After the show, we met Chernus by the back door to the theater. And we met Audra McDonald and took a picture with her. We wouldn’t realize that you could only see my forehead in the picture until we developed the camera film. So meta.
As we were walking back to the subway, Chernus said he had to go. Greg said, “Kendra, show Chernus how you do the reindeer dance from ‘Waiting for Guffmann.'”
Hah. That’s okay, I said.
“She has to protect her Cosmic Kitty,” Chernus laughed.
And that is the story of the time I hung out with Michael Chernus, aka Cal Chapman from “Orange is the New Black.”