Walking to School

A remembrance, as another academic year draws to a close


Through an unmarked tunneled path between the green yards of neighbors who don’t like each other much and so only trim the hedges and wild bushes and eager scraggly maples along their fence lines every couple of years, so that the path is a narrow alley through dense hedge and bush and scraggle, some of the latter leaning over the path to meet with scraggle on the other side, so that above you as you walk is a braided canopy of wooden fingers. When the wind is up, the canopy is alive, and when the sun is high, the canopy scatters the light along the path. When we were very young, we would chase the darts of light, and gape as they moved around and over the path and up against the trunks of the trees.

Then out briefly onto a thin street, indifferently paved, where you looked both ways for cars, because mom says all drivers are arrogant and distracted, and addled by speed and locomotion, and driving faster than they should legally or morally, and they will not see you, even if they think they are being cautious, which they are not, so you will Stop and Look and Listen, and then sprint across that damned street, especially as it is a sort of crossroads—why any transportation engineer in his right mind would allow such a traffic muddle is beyond my comprehension, the chances being excellent that bribery and corruption and collusion were involved—but be that as it may you will exercise High Caution at that damned street, and then cut through the woods to school.

A small woods, to say the least; more of a copse, a mere troop of trees, by no means a forest; and none of those trees huge and ancient, but old only by benign neglect. I suppose the woods was no more than a large vacant lot, in the eyes of planners and developers and zoning professionals, though to us it was thick and mysterious, with delicious hints of danger. Once we found a rusted rifle there, and once the terrifying naked carcass of an animal that had been roughly skinned, and occasionally we would be shouted at by someone stealing firewood or a seasonal spruce; and there were sudden owls, and grim dogs no one knew, and spots rumored to be quicksand.

Out of the woods into the lot behind the firehouse, where the firemen played basketball and grilled steaks on sunny afternoons; across the main avenue to school, but only where the crossing guard held court, always a teacher or a mother with the magic badge and sash; and then up the walk through the roses past the Madonna through the stone lintels into school, the sounds of shoes scuffling on the worn linoleum, the burble of children, the clacking of the tremendous wooden rosaries the nuns wore at their waists; and finally to your classroom, your row, your desk, your temporary home, your brief campsite, your ship on the sea of the day. This morning, children, we will begin with literature, it being Friday, and literature our reward for the work of a week; and today we will look at the literature of journeys and voyages, of odysseys and explorations, of expeditions from home into the wild of the world.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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