Saturday, April 5, 2008

It's the Romantic in Me

I’ve been reading a Nancy Mitford novel in which an older woman character assures a young woman that young people always imagine their lives’ youthful pattern will never alter. Little do you guess, the elder lady intones, what twists your personal plot will take. Maybe so, but Nancy was the daughter of an earl and wrote novels and rode horses. We are very ordinary people, not the children of earls but private citizens who work very hard and are very nice but to whom, thank God, nothing happens much. It would be as if Nancy wrote novels, not about the de Valhuberts, but about Andre the chef. It would be as if all those light humorists "mildly infected by genius" wrote about the parlormaids instead of their eccentric and interesting ma’ams. I myself, for example, have not even been to so humble and universal an occasion as a wedding in nine years. Things just don’t seem to happen.

Yesterday I helped chaperone a school end-of-the-year picnic at a local park. The day was a breathtaking early summer day, sky so blue as to seem almost black, strong but not oppressive summer winds, vivid green trees, burning healthy sun. When kids and teachers alike were exhausted with play and thirst, we formed lines and headed north back to the school. From a short distance the principal of the school suddenly came striding slowly up the park toward us, his white shirt-sleeves flapping, his tie whipping attractively behind him in the wind. I wonder what his life’s pattern is like.

That’s all. He is a tall, tanned, thin-faced, nice-looking man of fifty, of whom I know nothing. Yet look how decent he is. He certainly was not required to step out of his cool office on this ninety-two-degree day and show himself in his tie and creased trousers at a picnic for his school’s first-graders and their broiling, endlessly patient (like God) women teachers. Yet there he was, unheralded, and he walked, too, trudged behind us the five blocks back to school. What principals do, I am not sure. His job seems to be to serve as the only grown man amid tribal hordes of women and children on the school premises from August through June, and he does it in a state of unobtrusive calm. When he turned fifty in May, every class made him a birthday card. (Do you suppose the school secretary is in love with him, and this was her idea?) Once when half the school’s bathrooms weren’t working, he announced over the PA system that "circumstances would necessitate" everyone using the fourth-grade bathrooms. One of the veteran kindergarten teachers stood transfixed and then when he finished, turned pop-eyed to her class and exclaimed, "Golly! Mr. Robbins talked to us like we were in college, didn’t he boys and girls?" He signs every report card himself. There must be at least five hundred every June.

Of his life’s pattern, and whether it has enjoyed any Mitfordian changes, I know nothing. When he walked through the park he bent his head against the wind in such a way that caused me to wonder how happy he is as the principal of an elementary school. Perhaps with his education and his vocabulary, he would have preferred to be a history professor at a fine university. Perhaps he thought he would at least be superintendent at county level, somewhere, by this time. He showed up at the park, in the heat, out of nowhere yesterday, just like a lion suddenly protecting the pride. Perhaps he might have a secret gentleman’s crush on one of the mother-chaperones working the picnic, and checked the telephone list of "helper moms" in his cool office and then walked to that park on the chance of seeing her.

We are rather in the position of Claude Rains’ Louis in Casablanca, when he muses on Humphrey Bogart’s Rick’s past. Did you abscond with the church funds, he inquires, or run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. Of course, Mr. Robbins isn’t a self-exile in a gin joint in some wartime colonial desert port, so the work of spinning stories is that much more difficult. I like to think that he is like me, musing perhaps only on how the swift eruption of summer can seem, in adulthood, surprisingly melancholy. The day of the picnic marked twenty-four years to the day that I graduated grammar school myself. If the principal is not unhappy or nursing a frustrated love affair, then we will have to pretend something else, something that is believable in the context of nice people’s lives in a nice place where, thank God, noting much happens. I read newspapers and books so I know there are exceptions to this rule. The papers are full of suffering and the discount book catalogues are full of authors writing about what it’s like to read Proust. Novels are full of people having beautiful intercalated conversations. (Not like Louis and Rick. They talk past each other, too.)

A plausible tack might be that one of Mr. Robbins’ parents has recently died, old and full of years. That might account for his slow deliberate walk, and the way he bent his head against the whipping summer wind. Perhaps he was thinking how odd it feels to help his father sell the old house. Perhaps he marvels at the emotional power of his parents’ things. Dad can’t possibly find room in his new apartment for all the family glassware, the china and silver, not to mention the knickknacks, the little jugs and afghan racks that older women especially collect (after a life of Mitfordian variety, or did the presents themselves constitute variety?) in a steady stream from their new daughters-in-law.

Let us presume it was an unusually melancholy week for him. His own two children flew along unthinkingly into their summer vacation, scarcely guessing how precious the memory of a bit of wallpaper or a bowl, or the exact trees in a local park, would be in thirty years. He looked at all these laughing children, for whom the terrors and victories of first grade would never come again. He had the ridiculous desire, not to be a child again himself, but to give his father back his youth and at the same time to impress upon his own children, and these, an appreciation of what had once been his father’s vigor. And maybe their own. All mixed up with a ridiculous desire to reassure his parents that he, and everything, would be all right.

Mr. Robbins was not normally a morbid man. His reflections today might, truth to tell, only result from annoyance that his older sister had already taken – absconded with – several of his parents’ things that his father swore he had no use for and that he himself had most wanted. The antique typewriter, the family Bible.

He raised his head against the whipping summer wind and looked about him at the students lining up in the sun. These are all mine, he thought, as if he were a lion observing the pride. This is what I do. I got myself educated, I worked hard, I taught every subject, every grade, I earned promotion to this level. In twelve weeks I’ll be back yelling at frightened boys in the office again. (It was true. I’ve heard him laying into miscreants with real old-fashioned force. "Do you mean to tell me you didn’t realize that was wrong?" I have heard him say.)

So he is doing all right. He is just what Rick would have been, if he had stayed home in New Jersey, taught school, and never met Ilsa, but also never shot anyone and been far better looking. We walked back to school. While I was there I ran into a friend who told me that Mr. Robbins had just bought a house on her street. So you see, he fascinates everybody. That’s something.

The End

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