the challenge of tomorrow

Childhood is cruel. I don’t mean all the usual ways, although those are cruel too. I mean how everyone tells you that you can do anything you want, and even worse, how you have all this potential — this newly born, unrealized promise of youth. The cruelty is that you grow up, and you don’t grow up into the all-dreams-attained superhuman you’d been given cause to believe you would become. But into someone who’s human: imperfect, unsure, and quite often a mess.

I’m organizing my home office right now, and I came across a box of my childhood. You know this box. It’s musty and stale and full of construction paper drawings and report cards and school pictures. And potential. The once shiny ideals of what you might have been.

In my box:

  • A number of report cards, all with one thing in common — none of them report for an entire year. My second grade report card, for instance, has the following note from the teacher: “progressing nicely.” However, if you look at the actual grades, only the first of four quarters is filled in. I’m not quite sure how she knew how I was progressing when she knew me for an entire quarter of one school year. For that quarter, I needed improvement in the following areas: “does neat work” and “talks at the proper time”. I’m not sure if that latter meant that I didn’t talk at all or too much. However, I did get a satisfactory rating for “is usually cheerful.” Fortunately, the second grade report from the next school gave me all excellents, including for “work is neat”, as well as “sits and stands erect”. So, you can see that I greatly improved. On my sixth grade report card, they rudely wrote “NOT ENROLLED!” over the first three quarters, but seemed to like me anyway.
  • A picture (on orange construction paper) with two sides. One side features a girl saying “goodby”. Flip the paper over to find a door and the girl walking away. The quality of the picture would lead one to believe I drew it at around age four, but honestly, if I drew that right now, it would likely look exactly the same. Except I’ve become a better speller.
  • A letter from Stuart Hall that accompanied the year’s supply of paper products that I won for writing an essay, apparently on the topic of “the challenge of tomorrow.” And here’s one of those cruel statements I was talking about: “I can tell that you have a bright future ahead of you,” wrote the form letter composer for Charles G Hanson, chairman of Stuart Hall Company, Inc. How could he tell, really? Because had I known what the challenge of tomorrow truly was, well, my essay may have been a little different. Not that I have any idea what my essay was about, but I assume it wasn’t about saying fuck it and running off to the ocean.
  • The index cards holding the speech I gave at my eighth grade graduation, which oh goody! Is about being “faced with the future” and our “search for tomorrow.” Well, at least I know about that second part. Tomorrow shows up whether you search for it or not. (In my defense, the entire graduation apparently had a soap opera theme. What were they thinking?)
  • Lots and lots of certificates for things like reading a bunch of books and being a good citizen and student of the month and perfect attendance and honor roll and unimportant stuff like that, but also a very important certificate from 1978 for PROFICIENCY IN ROLLER SKATING!

The point is that I remember being in school and scoring in the 99th percentile in standardized tests and thinking that it meant something. That life was a road paved with yellow bricks and had milestones and checkpoints and all you had to do was head in the right direction and you’d reach the goal of happiness and happy ever after and as it turns out, there isn’t even a grown-over walking path, much less a road.

I don’t know how far I’ve traveled from that girl in the picture I’m looking at now — curled up reading a book, holding a stuffed Snoopy. It’s interesting how even though you grow up, some things never change. In a school assignment from second grade titled “Introducing Me” with a fill in the blank essay, I wrote:

I like to eat potatoes. I don’t like to eat corn. I like to read because it is fun.

Well, at least being grown up lets me do some things I like. Which isn’t the same as fulfilling potential and living happily ever after, but I’ll take what I can get.

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