The Schoolhouse Self

Reach down for your earliest memories, and it’s like grasping for the colored stones you see underwater when wading in the ocean– you kick up a bunch of dust doing it, and when you finally recover something and bring it into the dry air, its color seems rather more worn and pale than it did in the water. Did I remember that, or was it just a photograph or a family story or (worse yet), a TV character that I confused with my own self? Undoubtedly, some people are born, like Proust or Nabokov, with the ability to pull out the elaborate shells of the undersea world with their intricate spirals still intact, the iridescent pink of the shell’s interior just as luminous in the daylight air. But for the rest, vagueness rules the day, and where clarity emerges, it is as often as not the memory of brands and mass entertainment than any private, unshared world: I can remember watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theatre (or rather, can remember being terrified of the snakes); I can remember the cafeteria where we would occasionally go for weekend breakfasts when I was three (or rather, I can remember the small boxes of Frosted Flakes one could get there), I can remember “We gonna go down to/ Electric Avenue,” sung constantly by my older brother and sister. But not much else, at least not much personal to me rather than collective to the culture at the time (I remember the Empire Strikes Back pop-up book much better than the house we lived in when I read it), at least until I was six or seven or eight.

I wonder how much of our sense of an individual, interior life is due to school, the constant experience of measuring ourselves against others our same age, the narcissism of small differences exaggerated by many kids in a narrow space.

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