How a kid not really called Larry and his Top Secret notebook saved me from sixth grade

@2013 Beret Olsen
@2013 Beret Olsen

I loved school at first, back when it was okay to pay attention and know the answers. My mother worked in the school library, so after dismissal I would stay and help her re-shelve books, repair them, or–best of all–cover the new paperbacks with clear contact paper. If her work kept her later still, I could curl up on the carpet next to the hum of the fish tank, and happily devour any book that caught my eye.

Midway through third grade I got my vision checked. It was bad news—not too surprising for a bookworm.

My first pair of glasses had gold metal frames that were squashed into two little hexagons, and filled with already embarrassingly thick lenses. When I put them on, suddenly everyone else saw me clearly. They began to notice my dated hand-me-downs, my awkwardness, my skinny legs.  I started to hear whispers about birthday parties to which I was not invited, and once-good friends meandered away at recess. Those that didn’t, stole my hat and buried it, or worse, called me “Miss Mature.” My social circle slowly dwindled to one friend who insisted we play Dog, galloping up and down the stairs of her house on all fours. I appreciated her loyalty, but found her game babyish and tiresome.

Meanwhile, I tried to do well academically while flying under the social radar. I just wanted to survive and move on to junior high.

Then, in sixth grade, Mrs. Crouch sat me next to a kid I’ll call Larry.

Larry was on the scrawny side, and pale as a potato chip like me, but there the resemblance ended. As class clown, he had lots of charisma and loads of friends, but no desire to do anything but ‘get by’ academically. Larry had little time for things like geometry and state reports because he was busy with his super top-secret notebook. He carried it everywhere: a tiny red spiral-bound steno, which he filled with juicy details about the girls he liked, and then tucked in his back pocket for safekeeping. At recess, the popular girls would speculate about which of them had made his list, and what he might say about each one.

Clearly, he and I could not have been more different. The bizarre thing was, Larry and I got on spectacularly well.

For one thing, he was damn funny. I recall the giddy joy of watching the faces he made behind Mrs. Crouch’s back, and hearing him parrot her most annoying remonstrations.  I suspect we would not have gotten on so well if we had had a more palatable teacher.

“Who belongs to this ink pen??!!” she barked, waving it in our faces.

“Do not wipe your nose waste under the desk!”

Mrs. Crouch had a very prominent, pointy nose, which went well with her daily barrage of tedious teacher speak. She constantly lamented our lack of respect, and lectured endlessly about how much time we wasted messing about in line. We would all have to miss recess if one person spoke, or burped, or snuck a drink on the way to the music room.

Listening to her drone on and on seemed like the real time-waster to us.

Larry and I began to tune her out and do our own thing; we became allies.

Perhaps because I had no one to tell, Larry showed me his super top-secret notebook of girls, something he hadn’t even shown his closest friends. I found out that he liked Teresa because of her strong legs and perky boobs. He liked Becky for her great dimply smile and her athletic ability. Bethany had a tight little butt and a great sense of humor. Page after page of hormone-dosed, haiku-like lists of infatuation. In all, there were about fifteen girls for whom he pined, but not one would he ask out, not in a million years. I’m still not sure why.

When we would get caught discussing his notes, Mrs. Crouch would say, “What are you doing? Making a date for tomorrow??” And then she would laugh at our discomfort and embarrassment.

Resentment grew.

Larry and I started a new notebook: “The 50 Things We Hate Most about Mrs. Crouch.”

  1. Her sensible shoes.
  2. The way she calls pens “ink pens.” Is there some other kind?
  3. ??

I wish I could remember the rest. All I remember is how great it felt to retaliate with a pencil and paper. We never made it to fifty, of course. She wasn’t that bad.

The last month of school, Larry’s good friend Kenneth was seated in front of us. Sometimes he chatted and goofed around with Larry, but the bulk of his free time was reserved for making my life miserable.

He would poke me with his pencil.

“Miss Mature,” he said repeatedly, trying to get a rise out of me. I would pretend to be engrossed in my work, and then roll my eyes at Larry when he wasn’t looking. He would shrug. I knew where his alliances lay, and I understood.

Eventually Kenneth would tire of that game, though. Turning back around, he would tip his chair slowly, slowly, until his greasy head rested on my desk. I could no longer pretend to do my work.

“Ah! Miss Mature! Your desk is sooooo comfy,” he cooed.

Strangely, Mrs. Crouch never seemed to witness his egregiously annoying behavior; for once I would have appreciated one of her mind-numbing lectures. At least he would have had to sit up.

One day, as Kenneth started to tip back, Larry stared at the back of his head thoughtfully. Suddenly, he grabbed my desk and slid it back just enough so that Kenneth crashed backward onto the floor.

Since he didn’t crack his head open, I can safely call that the best day of fourth, fifth and sixth grade combined. What’s more, Kenneth never rolled his head on my desk again, not even when we had to sit next to each other in junior high.

Eventually Larry gave me his notebooks for safekeeping, and I’ll probably find them when I dig through the closets at my parents’ house. It would be hilarious to re-read them, but I don’t really need them anymore; just reminiscing about them does the job. Thanks Larry, wherever you are.

Why I am not out Shooting Fabulous Photographs

A few years ago, I wrote a list of all the reasons that I was not out taking photographs. Here are fifty-five of them, pretty much intact. Few things have changed, though I did finally graduate and purchase a digital camera. Now technological issues hinder me more than the cost of film, and–since my father stopped driving–I worry about his health instead.

It is terribly disappointing to discover that I still sabotage myself in exactly the same ways. Self-awareness may be the first step, but it’s obviously not the only step necessary to get out of my own way and MAKE STUFF.

I dedicate this list to Larry Sultan, a teacher of such power, insight, and humor that I will be forever grateful for that one short semester I sat in his class.

Roughly Half of the Reasons Why I Am Not Out Shooting Fabulous Photographs Right Now

  1. I was up last night worrying about the shoot.
  2. The light is not right.
  3. I cannot figure out the spot meter.
  4. The camera is wobbly on the tripod.
  5. I do not have a light tight place to load sheet film.
  6. I do not know what to take a picture of.
  7. I suspect that I am not really a photographer.
  8. I need a snack.
  9. If I don’t try too hard, then I have an excuse later if nothing comes out well.
  10. I think I might be getting sick.
  11. I am panicked about finances.
  12. I need to pay the bills.
  13. I was up last night because the cat was making a ruckus.
  14. My professional life is in the toilet.
  15. I still haven’t finished unpacking the boxes from my move four years ago.
  16. I am perplexed that Alan Ernst has not responded to my emails.
  17. I am worried about my father’s driving.
  18. I can’t find my checkbook.
  19. The zone system does not speak to me.
  20. I need a few things from the store.
  21. I should really call my mother.
  22. No matter what I think of, someone has done it well already.
  23. I am not sure what to do about the gophers.
  24. I just thought of a great status update that I don’t want to waste.
  25. I need to read a little theory to situate myself.
  26. I should probably head out early in case traffic is bad on the bridge.
  27. I haven’t finished my homework.
  28. I need to pick a celebrity doppelganger for my facebook profile.
  29. I missed the light for today.
  30. When was my last dental appointment?
  31. I feel a little queasy.
  32. I haven’t finished my thank you notes.
  33. It’s hard to think straight when the place is a mess.
  34. I am afraid of disappointing myself.
  35. I am afraid of disappointing Larry.
  36. I am too wound up to concentrate.
  37. I accidentally unwound too much.
  38. I should really make travel arrangements for the holidays.
  39. I think I forgot my brother’s birthday.
  40. I feel guilty spending so much money on film.
  41. And developing.
  42. And paper.
  43. Maybe I should do a little research on digital cameras.
  44. Was that my phone?
  45. I feel guilty spending time at art school while my kids are off growing up somewhere else.
  46. A little yoga would really clear my head.
  47. I’m almost out of cat litter.
  48. My pants are too snug to be comfortable.
  49. I need to update my resume.
  50. I can’t concentrate with the kids running amok.
  51. Now that they are in bed, I am too tired.
  52. I need to reorganize my negatives.
  53. I am worried that my parents are going to die.
  54. I can’t find all of the equipment I need when I need it.
  55. I probably don’t have enough time now to really get a good start.

Fuzzy Logic

I’ve discovered that I need a lot more structure than I would like to admit.  For a long time, I couldn’t even sit down at the keyboard unless someone told me what to write and when it was due.  That worked well until I graduated; now I have to kick my own ass.  After months of trying to write, and thinking about writing, and wishing I was writing, I publicly pledged to write 1,667 words a day for thirty days straight.  It’s amazing.  As the kind folks from National Novel Writing Month say, “The looming specter of personal humiliation is a very reliable muse.”

It’s working so well, I tried to give myself a daily photo challenge as well.

Unfortunately, I got out there today and had zero inspiration.  The light was all wrong, I didn’t have enough time, and everything around me looked boring.  I couldn’t make myself take a single photograph.  This has happened before, countless times, but today the face of my crazy old drawing teacher appeared.  I remembered him looking at a stack of my lifeless drawings and saying, “I think you’re going to need to take off your glasses.  The way you’re looking at things is interfering with the way you are seeing.”  Say what?

Well, I wasn’t about to take off my glasses today.  I’m blind, blind, blind, and the last thing I wanted to do was run into a tree with my camera or trip over a car.  So, I threw that contraption out of focus instead.  While I’m not completely sold on any of the resulting images, the process was transformed.  The world was boiled down into geometry and light, and suddenly I wanted come out and play.

The NEW and IMPROVED plan

As you may know, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month, which means I have to spew 1,667 words every single day during the month of November.  Also, the words are supposed to relate to each other in a sort of novel-y way.  Not just meaningless blather.  Still, a portion of what is excreted each day is serious crap.  Finding a fresh little nugget to excerpt each day looks to be a bit of a challenge.  Furthermore, I don’t have many words left after all that.  I seem to hit my quota and then HIT THE WALL, so squeezing 400 more words out of me in not a possibility. Consequently, I have a NEW and IMPROVED plan for my daily post challenge.  I will post a photograph.  This makes me happy.  I get to dust off my camera.