Out of the Blue

Back to the School of Life

Where we’re all graded on the curve

 

By Deborah Salomon

Back to school is one calendar event that justifies commercialization. Makes sense that over the summer kids grow out of clothes and shoes. They need notebooks and backpacks and haircuts. But the very phrase provokes mixed memories: being the “new girl” from Mars in a class where the other kids’ mothers had been BFFs . . . not good. Freshman year at Duke, getting lost first day of classes . . . terrifying. Next three years . . . glorious. It also reminds me of what I did and didn’t learn beyond the three R’s and other “core curriculum” requirements, now gone with the wind.

Then, my practical side conjures ways to incorporate life skills into a syllabus. Sociology, for example. This people science would benefit from a segment on obituaries. Fascinating, how people’s lives progress, how names modernized (Ida’s granddaughters Skye and Madison), then returned to Emma and Sarah, Dorothy and Frances. Obits bid farewell to the last generation of “homemakers” who knitted and gardened and taught Sunday School; wording finally recognizes domestic and/or same-sex partnerships. Obits prove pets’ importance for the isolated and lonely. Also how death has become a social event, with jokes, casual descriptions of the deceased, and receptions at the golf club or restaurant occasionally replacing a funeral.

Death rituals are vital to studying society. Reference the ancient Egyptians.

If I taught history or economics I might require students to Google their previous homes. Shocker alert! If the property has been recently on the market, the Realtor might post a virtual tour. The tiny two-bedroom New York City apartment in a then-nice neighborhood where I grew up became junkie junction before the tide turned. Our rent in the 1940s was about $50; now, the apartment rents for nearly $3K. Or, buy it for $400K.

Anyway, seeing empty rooms with gleaming floors where once you played can be an unsettling experience.

Phys. Ed. majors (previously known as jocks) need a course in athletic attire, especially footwear, which may cost more than Italian leather loafers. Brands speak allegiance. Mustn’t wear shoes endorsed by your fave’s arch rival.

Seems like medical/dental students already take advanced placement courses in office décor. I am all too familiar with reception and treatment rooms of local dentists, oral surgeons, endodontists and prosthodontists. No periodonture yet but the night is young. My dentist’s office is a happy place staffed by happy people who could not possibly inflict pain. It keeps the latest issues of the best magazines. Sometimes I arrive early, just to read them. Another provider has water babbling into a rocky pond — which sends me straight to the restroom. My latest specialist offers a glass- front mini-fridge stocked with bottled water, also a Keurig machine, as well as tufted leather sofas and landscapes by a prominent local artist. The common feature: birdfeeders, sometimes formal gardens, placed in view of treatment chaise lounges. Very soothing, as is the music, either classical or Billy Joel-style soft rock. Makes you almost look forward to a root canal.

The providers’ subliminal message: I am good. I am successful. I can afford the niceties.

Agreed. I will gladly put my money where my mouth is. Nobody wants a dentist with frayed upholstery and 6-month-old Field & Streams.

Wall-mounted TVs remain problematic. CNN or Fox? Don’t want to frighten the horses, let alone fuel controversy among patients.

Physics is the science of matter, its motion and behavior. Parking qualifies. I am a champion parallel parker, having learned The Trick as a teenager. Since men still claim mastery of this maneuver, I suggest every girl learn it before heading out into the real world. Unfortunately, The Trick is best demonstrated, not explained, even with diagrams. You don’t learn to swim on dry land. Physics 101 will now adjourn to the parking lot.

Any modern English course should include interpreting TV advertising prose. Concentrate on medications, cars, financial services (unless already covered in mathematics). Most ads belong to theater of the absurd. A cancer or cardiac patient is seen enjoying “longer life,” preferably with an attractive and loving family (dog, always) at their lakeside retreat. Across the bottom scrolls, in tiny letters. “Actor portrayal. Do not expect these results,” while the voice-over warns of dire complications, including death.

Likewise, car ads are just too ridiculous. No, Subaru doesn’t mean love. It’s simply urabus spelled backward. Once ads are mastered, English students might decipher political speeches, which dance around the subject like witches around a bonfire. Absent from political discourse will be the words YES and NO because why answer a question monosyllabically when you can prevaricate an entire paragraph?

Then, I have sensual memories of school — the woodsy aroma of a full pencil sharpener, the feel of those spongy erasers, the sight of a colored pencil rainbow in a stand-up box. The sound of an empty Thermos rattling around a metal lunch pail. The squeak of chalk against the blackboard.

Too bad an iPad provides neither smell nor squeak. Calculators obviate flash cards and Google combines dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia. Siri, did Mommy put a Devil Dog in my lunch box? Those organic oat and cranberry power bars stick in my teeth.

Whatever, I’d still like a mulligan. Because students outgrow sneakers and jeans, state capitals and geometry theorems, but we never outgrow school.  b

Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for Salt’s sister publication PineStraw.

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