My Fall Illness

By Jeffrey Page

Another September, and I am afflicted with my annual autumn ailment. I have written about this unhappy topic before; there is no cure and it never goes away.

The other day I found myself in back of a school bus. It stopped and off stepped a boy I guessed to be in second grade. He trudged across to the other side of the road, where his dad awaited.

I felt bad for him. The poor kid, already enslaved by the requirement that he be educated. I cheered up a little when he reached his father, who gave him one of those hair tousles as they walked to the house.

I acknowledge the importance of school. I understand the need to know how to read and to do subtraction. I accept the fact that little children turn into better citizens when they have an idea of where this nation came from. It is important for them to know about the Bill of Rights.

Yet there is this gloom – this utter despair – that overtakes me every September. Actually it begins late in July when I see the first hints of the expression “back to school sales” in newspaper advertising. If I were a newspaper publisher, I’d encourage the stores to wait a while on early sales of rulers, calculators, pencils, loose leaf paper and all the rest. Let the kids enjoy the rest of summer, I would say. And I’d probably go right out of business.

Most of July, being the first days after the end of the old school year, is good. July is blessed. It’s a time of baseball, a time of friends, a time of adventure. It’s a time to do nothing if you feel like doing nothing. Most of all, it’s a time when you never have to worry on Sunday night about not having done the homework that was due on Monday morning.

Oh glorious summer, I have loved you.

Dylan Thomas said it best: “… In the sun that is young once only, Time let me play and be golden in the mercy of his means.”

And then August, and the dreaded understanding that in just one turn of the calendar, it would be a return to the classroom and to the monumental boredom that made me want to put my head down on my desk and sleep until June.

And finally, of course, came September in all its summerlike self. September, the great pretender.

School had its maddening rules. We could not talk among ourselves. We had to curtail our exuberance; we had to raise a hand, wait to be called on, and then – only then – could we speak. Yes, it is different now, but now is not when I am pinned into a classroom like a butterfly pinned on a black display board. We could not read what we wanted to read. And we had to learn a refined, albeit fraudulent, manner of speech if we were to make our teacher, Mrs. Jewel H. Denelfo, happy. She would not consider the request “Can I go to the bathroom?” If we had to go, we were required to recite, “May I please be excused, Mrs. Denelfo.” No one in my house ever said “May I please be excused.” In my house what you usually heard was, “Hey, hurry up for God’s sake! OK?”

Another of Mrs. Denelfo’s rules was that when she called on you, you were not allowed to start your response with “well”:

Mrs. D: “Jeffrey, what did you do on your summer vacation?”

(No one called me “Jeffrey” but Jewel H. Denelfo was a stickler for formality. I was “Jeff” to family and friends.)

Me: “Well, in July we went to see my grandmother.”

Mrs. D: “If you begin your answer to my question with ‘well’ you may jump down your well.”

Well, hang in there, kids. There are just 11 weeks to go until the long Thanksgiving weekend and then, come to think of it, seven months until the summer break of 2014.

4 Responses to “My Fall Illness”

  1. Tom Degan Says:

    My favorite time of the year. There’s nothing that can make me as nostalgic as a crisp and cool Autumn morning. It takes me right back to the third grade.

    Tom Degan

  2. Michael Kaufman Says:

    Well, Jeff, you had Mrs. Denelfo and I had Mrs. Lynch, who never ceased to remind us that “kids are baby goats.” We too could not ask to go to the bathroom: We had to request to be excused to “use the lavatory.” And to this day I get that queasy feeling on Sunday originating from the undone homework of yesteryear.

  3. Jeffrey Page Says:

    Tom, Thanks for your note. I agree with your fondness for autumn, but I have to tell you that if you had a certain Mrs. Viola Lang for third grade at PS 33 in Queens, the very mention of autumn might make you squirm. She had what the girls in her class called “the Lang Look.” The boys just called it the death ray.

    And Mike, thanks too. Now that you mention it, I recall that business about not referring to children as kids, but I forget the specifics. As far as Mrs. Denelfo was concerned, I don’t think she required the use of “lavatory.” Maybe she could tell why we were asking to be excused by the looks on our faces.


  4. carrie Says:

    Well, the other side of the coin! Love it. And the Dylan quote – as well as the whole piece – makes me wonder if I am misremembering my own self… I did – and do – love summer! And I did – and do – hate the rules, the curtailing of exuberance, the raising of the hands… I guess I just really liked learning stuff.

    What a nice piece this is, especially the image of the kid trudging off the bus and being met by his dad, who tousled the kid’s hair.


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