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Relabeling:On Meeting Yourself Coming Back

by Joan Shaddox Isom

I’m at a community meeting and some young person presents a brilliant idea that is supposed to solve all our problems. I think of Professor Rubin. "Paint the truth,” he would beseech his graduate art students. But we, basking in the radiance of successful student shows of dried cow pies and crushed beer cans, wanted to tell him about art and life. He would listen patiently until we had finished, then remark, "That's nothing new. I experienced that thirty years ago. We called it “Barnyard Barbizon.”

Naturally, we scoffed at poor Prof. Rubin who had no inkling what we were talking about. But these days I’m reminded of his words when
in some conference or workshop or some such thing, I’m asked, one more time, to write my own obituary. What quasars should I choose to highlight? “She passed freshman algebra due to the teacher's pity.” Or, Her pie crust had the consistency of an asteroid.” Or my favorite, “ She once beaned her brother with a rock and felt good about it.” (In high
school, Miss Rowe had us do the same thing. She called it writing a paragraph for posterity.

You’ve surely been caught in the 'Trust' exercises, whereby you stand in a circle and fall backwards into the arms of a group of people thirty years my junior who are looking good in spandex biking shorts and acting smart about it. My brothers arranged something similar for me when I was six. They called it “the one-shot swimming lesson” when they threw me into Mulberry Creek and then pretended to ignore me as I threshed to the bank.

Some people get irate when they see things being re-labeled. Like Aunt Mildred and yogurt. “What’s so great about that stuff?” she asks. “We had too much of it when I was a young’un. We called it clabbered milk!”
E.B. White, in his classic essay, Once More to the Lake, toys with the idea of change and immutability when he tells of taking his son fishing at the same resort where White, as a boy, had fished with his own father. “We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and went. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, then came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one — the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of.”

And once, a few years ago, I didn’t know at which end of the classroom I stood. I’m at the podium. It’s spring. Warm air blows through the open window. I’m lecturing to my freshman on the documentation of a research paper. A student is gazing out the open window, and her longing to be elsewhere is so intense that I almost lose my perspective for a moment and become that student. No doubt she’s wondering why she has to be in that seat listening to a lecture on something she’s ninety-five percent positive she’ll never use when she could be out in the sunshine, maybe biking to the river, or sitting on the grassy slope by Beta Pond. Or, maybe she’s wanting to change the world.

In the past it was common to read about students taking over the
administration building on one campus or another. It’s called a “political difference issue” now. In the mid-sixties, it was know as “causing a disruption on campus.” (I should explain that trends starting on the East and West coasts crept slowly into the Midwest and South, so we in Oklahoma City and the nearby college town of Edmond were always a few years behind the trends.) On our campus, suspecting that a student who happened to be African American was not asked to join an academic organization because of her ethnicity, although she had the grades to meet the requirement, I was among those asking questions. Rumors flew that some of the art and English majors were going to riot.

The dean called some of us in. He looked over his glasses at me and said, “Now, Joan, someday, you may be sitting in my chair, and it’s important you make the right decision.” As it turned out, the racial issue did not exist, in this case, and the student was invited to join the organization. But I’ve often wondered whether that stuffy old dean was looking at me and seeing himself thirty years younger, just as I looked at that student in my class and felt her unrest, heard her question, “What am I doing here when the world is out there?”

Nothing ever disappears completely. Isn’t that some kind of scientific truth? I can’t taste root beer without remembering the summer of my junior year in high school when I worked as a car hop at the Jack and Jill Grill. 'Car hop,' then, was a rather glamorous job. We knew no Hollywood talent scouts would ever drop by our little town and order a burger basket with curly-que fries and a frosted root beer, but still, when that jukebox blared and Tony Bennett’s sang Because of You, we felt a connection to something more grand than a town whose homecoming queen wore a home made crown, and the senior banquet (we couldn’t call it a prom) was eaten from plastic trays in the school cafeteria.

Last week, when I took some children to the Sonic Drive-in for a root beer float, our hop seemed world-weary. He didn’t take any guff off anyone, and I don’t see any stars in his eyes as he took our order, hitched up his twill trousers and strode off to the beat of a rap song. But who knows what dreams spun inside his head.

Today, some adults dream about rediscovering old friends and lovers via the Internet. Saves the time and worry of attending a real class reunion. But my high school friends with whom I've kept in touch keep telling how I made them chip in to gas up my old car when we’d go dragging Main. They remind me how many times I skipped school, hid
out in the high backed booths at Frenns and practiced holding a cigarette in a sophisticated manner. They point out how skinny I was then. True, I had Twiggy’s legs and hair cut before her style ever came into vogue. But stick-model figures were not revered in the fifties. I was labeled 'Birdlegs.' Now, of course, girls with such legs are 'Hotties.'

If you live long enough, everything becomes new again, even lime green pedal pushers/Capri pants/clam diggers, and sooner or later, this will happen: You’re eating out and you see two people twenty or thirty years your junior. You say hello and walk on by. Then you hear them whispering. “Good grief! Is she still alive? I thought she died a long time ago!” When this happens, it’s time to find another label for what you are.

Gustave Courbet might not approve, but how about Triumph of the Realists?


Joan Shaddox Isom is the author of The First Starry Night (Charlesbridge) and coeditor of The Leap Years: Women Reflect on Change, Loss and Love (Beacon Press). Isom's fiction, poetry and plays have won awards, and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including anthologies. Of Cherokee descent, Isom lives near Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

©Joan Shaddox Isom
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