Nothing is Terrible: A Back to School Reminder

Right about now, as educators around the nation get busy dusting and disinfecting surfaces, and parents write checks and buy white-out and pointy compasses that nobody will probably ever use except to torment each other.
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Right about now, as educators around the nation get busy dusting and disinfecting surfaces, and parents write checks and buy white-out and pointy compasses that nobody will probably ever use except to torment each other - right now, as the wheels and belts of academia lurch momentously back to life, so retailers are reflexively stocking their picture book sections with stories about how school is nothing to be scared of - no, really! Some of these are thoughtful and panoramic, some a real solace, and some are like that soothing voice that makes you wonder if there isn't actually more to be worried about than you ever imagined.

When my own first child packed off for school, I don't think any of us had a very clear picture of what perils awaited. "It takes up too much of the day," he drolly objected, which I'm sure we'd still be laughing about today if our precocious little kindergartner had not also proven so thumpingly prophetic.

So here we are eleven years later, another September, and me on the lookout for any book about school that doesn't look like it was sprayed out of a can. Maybe I'm in the minority here. Maybe you live in a district where the scariest thing about education is not the sheer relentlessness of it, from admissions to "assessments" to crossroads resembling career decisions as early as seventh grade. Too much of the day? Hell, how about too much of a life? Maybe you do not share these concerns.

But a couple of people might, and toward the proposition that there are children for whom the first day of school, as well as the thousandth, might not prove the stimulating extravaganza which is everywhere advertised, Roz Chast reanimates the wide-eyed parakeet Marco who was formerly Too Busy dreaming of underwater painting and stilt cars and invisibility gum and championship bowling and trampoline records and Everest and space monkeys to stop, please stop, and go to bed.

School really doesn't stand a chance. Sitting in the back seat with Marco, his head bursting with questions - "How much does the moon weigh? Do trees think? Will I ever ride a giraffe? Why do I like marshmallows so, so much?" - is like bringing a fire hose to a water balloon fight. Sure enough, Marco spots a toy astronaut sitting high on top of a book shelf while the teacher is delivering her lesson, and pretty soon he's imagining a block pile to outer space. "Monday Tuesday Chewsday Chumday Humday Doo-Dah Day," continues the unstoppable Mrs. Peachtree - or at least that is how she sounds to poor Marco, and we haven't even made it to nap time yet.

The book jacket copy describes this as being about the friends we meet along the way - the usual marketing baloney as Marco is almost certainly never coming back and his classmates look worrisomely old enough they're probably never moving on. Which isn't to argue the benefits of truancy, still here is conceivably a welcoming rest stop on our highway of super achievement.

Chris Barton's and Tony Persiani's The Day-Glo Brothers offers very different diversions, but I found it hugely reassuring all the same. Though it may not look like much on the cover, this tells the true and surprisingly tortuous story of Bob and Joe Switzer's contribution to the worlds of emergency rescue equipment and contemporary ladies' jogging wear. It took them years of experimenting, and falling down on their heads, sometimes literally - Bob, the aspiring doctor, was injured inspecting railroad cars at a pickle and ketchup factory, and needed to spend several months recuperating in a darkened basement. So long medical school.

Meanwhile Joe was a struggling magician, yet by the end of this book the brothers are both fantastically successful entrepreneurs, war heroes (day-glo panels and ultraviolet lamps enabled allied operations in the Pacific), and inventors of colors, for heaven sakes, where Mayans, Egyptians and Michelangelo had failed. They roamed. Took wrong turns. Lived in Cleveland. Time forgives. "If just one experiment out of a thousand succeeds," proposed Joe, "then you're ahead of the game."


A Back to School Reminder