It was shortly after high school when I first felt replaceable.
I went to a small and fancy boarding school in Western Massachusetts, nestled between mountains and corn fields on the bank of a river that twisted through a valley filled with farms and maple sugar buckets. It was the kind of place that made you feel special.
They had a thing they called "In Loco Parentis," Latin for, "in place of parents." That's what the teachers were supposed to be for us. You had class with them, ate meals with them, played sports with them, said goodnight to them, and after four years you were pretty sure they loved you like they loved their kids — and that they'd be despondent once you left for college.
You never thought there might have been others before you, or that there might be others after you, but once you were out of there you realized there were and there will be, and then you didn't feel so special — just replaceable and lonely.
Now I feel this way every time I see kids. The younger they are, the more I feel it, and the more I ask myself what have I made of my life and what kind of man have I become, now that I've had all this time. I see kids and I think how much more time they have than I do, and I think about all they can do with that time, and how soon they'll sweep me away. Then I shake it off by sneering at how little they know, and I go away walking faster, leaning into the wind and dreaming about what I'll do next.
My math teacher in high school used to say that every great teacher should hope that her best students will one day destroy her, but I guess I never wanted to be that kind of teacher, or at least not yet.
I remember one time when I was a boy I asked my Mom what clouds were made of. She said she didn't know, exactly, and how that would be a good question for my science teacher. I remember being astonished then that anyone could grow up to be as old and wise as my Mom (who was then about as old and wise as I am now) without knowing exactly what a cloud was. Surely life would teach you this and so many other similar things!
Now that I am more or less the age my Mom was then, I understand there are many things you never end up learning, just because your own particular life doesn't end up flowing that particular way. It's not that you're stupid; it's just the way things go.
In eighth grade I had a class called General Knowledge, and it was the best class I ever had anywhere at any age. It was basically a grab bag of things that people should know, but things that people often never end up learning — like what to call a group of crows (a murder), how to remember the difference between principles and principals (principals are your pals), and what, exactly, clouds are made of (water vapor).
The class was a crash course in things that are usually picked up slowly and by accident, like lost coins, over the course of your life. This class was so memorable because it was so little like school, and so much like life. School is basically a way of keeping people occupied — a theatrical set piece designed to take up time and spit out consenting consumers.
Any adult knows that what he really knows he did not learn in school. The gradual accumulation of experience is really how we learn. But unlike school, life is unpredictable, so it would be dangerous to leave the teaching of life to life. Just think how much would get left out of the curriculum, and how hard it would be to standardize tests!
When you're walking the streets looking for coins, you never know what you're going to find, and it is the same with us. We each stumble into different situations, and this blundering serendipity is really what shapes us. Some of us stumble into understanding map projections, others into how to drive a stick-shift car, others into clouds, but you can never pick up all the coins.
An old girlfriend of mine said she knew our relationship would never last once she saw my obsession with understanding things instead of chilling out and accepting things or, as she put it — "surrendering to the emptiness of life."
I am constantly torn between the heroes of the east — who are heroes for their ability to see things as they really are — and the heroes of the west — who are heroes for their ability to see things that are not but that should be, and then to build them. One is mainly about accepting, the other is mainly about rejecting and creating. Being from the U.S., it is natural for me to have the second kind of heroes, even as I see the wisdom of the first. But whenever I try to behave like an eastern hero, it always feels like posing, wasting time, or giving up.
Maybe giving up the struggle and learning to float along is the only wise thing. But at my age I can't quite accept that, because I am too busy picking up coins and staring into clouds to see what I can make of them.