My friend Derek May recently sent a picture from our year in nursery school.
Derek is the blond boy in the middle row, his head turned slightly right. This was 1973, I think. Probably it was mid-fall, judging by the turkey on the tack-board and the long sleeves and sweaters. And is that a second cardboard turkey, or maybe a pilgrim, pinned on top of an Indian teepee? Thanksgiving must have been near.
On the left, there’s a picture of a tree and a stone wall, a New England fall scene, I think. Can anyone make sense of the poster behind the girl in pig tails?
School was held in a Congregational church. Derek’s family had a farm across the street. My mom worked into the afternoon, so Derek and I regularly spent a few hours together after school, watched by his mother. Memory is so strange: I don’t recall a single moment of those afternoons or even anything definite from nursery school. Yet I can clearly see myself in the church parking lot one bright morning, just when my mother told me that she would begin working again, that after school I would stay with a boy named Derek May. That’s how we met. And four decades later, that scrap of memory survives. Why does an instant in the parking lot remain, when everything around it is blank? Did this news frighten me? Somewhere in my psyche, was this a milestone of separation, or a harbinger of loss in life? Maybe it’s just random. I don’t know.
I feel connected to childhood, but this nursery school picture is different. It belongs to an older era, somehow unmoored from the life that followed. I recognize myself and some friends, yet the overall image seems closer to the 1950s than the 2010s. Chronologically, of course, this is true. Yet how strange that as one reaches middle age, his childhood more closely resembles the world a generation before his birth.
There are interesting small details. Look at the shoes:
Three or four of the boys in the front row wear leather shoes. Do little boys today still wear leather shoes to school? Mostly today kids have sneakers, some with flashing lights hidden in the heel. Look at the clothes:
We see turtlenecks everywhere, big stripes and plaids, wallpaper patterns, and collars that nearly qualify as epaulets. The wardrobe, at least, belongs unmistakably to the 1970s. There’s not a single sports logo, cartoon character, or movie tie-in. Is this simply because our parents selected special “class picture” outfits? I doubt it. The clothes retain an element of the rustic. There is a jumbled plainness, a last lazy season before Disney and Baby Gap reached lovingly into the cradle.
In the front row, on the far left, you see me, the downcast boy slumping like a little sack of grain:
On the far right, one of my classmates smiles and leans into a sociable pose. It’s all lonely detachment at my end, all boyish cheer at his. And between us, there’s almost a smooth flowing sequence of expression. Follow the faces and posture from left to right, then right to left. It’s like adjusting a dimmer switch from one boy to the next.
What was I thinking as we posed for this picture? Was something wrong or confusing that would explain my lonely look? Did my stomach hurt? Maybe I was just the kind of kid who lingers on the outskirts, looking a little lost. What was the joke at the other end that keeps that corner of the photograph in such good spirits? Derek’s sitting over there; maybe he knows. What were any of us thinking, nineteen little kids, thrown together so long ago?