The year was 1985. Ronald Reagan was sworn in for a second term as President of the United States, while Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union. Symbolics, Inc. registered the first internet domain name. Windows 1.0 debuted in the US, while Super Mario Bros. was released in Japan. Coca-Cola changed its formula and quickly changed it back. Scientists discovered the wreck of the Titanic, as well as the wrecked ozone layer. And moviegoers experienced Back to the Future, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV, The Goonies, Spies Like Us, The Breakfast Club, Brazil, and many other soon-to-be classics.
Being only seven years old at the time, I don’t remember any of that. What I do remember is sitting in a second-grade classroom performing repetitive reading and writing exercises. When our literacy textbook showed an illustration of a 1930s-era black electric desk fan, I had to write the word “fan” on a sheet of paper multiple times. The rhyming words “can”, “man”, “pan”, “van”, etc. invariably followed. For the word “ran”, the textbook used a picture of a runner in midstride, which was annoying because it expressed the wrong tense. But the worst was what it did for the word “tan”. This is tan:
It’s a pale brown whose name comes from leather manufacturing. The textbook conveyed “tan” with a similar rectangle. Only it didn’t. Today, everything’s in color. But back then, color was prohibitively expensive. The entire textbook was in black-and-white. So, for “tan”, it showed a gray rectangle:
Only it didn’t. The textbook was literally in black-and-white. It used halftone to simulate shades of grays. But I remember the halftone dots were exceptionally large:
Perhaps if you viewed the textbook from across the room, those dots would blur into a shade of gray. But no amount of distance was going to make it tan.
To this day, whenever I hear the word “tan”, I don’t think color. I think dots. And whenever I see a bunch of dots on something, my brain automatically manifests into my consciousness the word “tan”. The pedagogical approach of reinforcing skills through repetition in combination with cheap printing scarred me for life.
That textbook had twenty-six chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each presented vocabulary that either started with or emphasized the corresponding letter.
When we completed chapter W, I got excited. X was next, a mysterious letter consisting of two diagonal crossing lines. I snuck a peek at words like “xylophone”, “x-ray”, and “xenolith”, each more fascinating than the last. The chapter was like a doorway to uncharted linguistic territory, a glimpse into the exotic and the extraordinary. It was a portal to a world waiting to be explored, a reminder that language, like life itself, held surprises and adventures beyond our imagination.
But to my disappointment, we weren't going to learn about X that day. The teacher announced the workbooks finally arrived after months of delay. When she passed them out, the first thing I did was check on “tan”. The dots were even larger. It was like staring at coarse sandpaper:
More importantly, the workbook was supposed to be homework that supplemented the daily lessons. But that was no longer feasible since the curriculum was out of alignment. So, the teacher decided we were going to do the workbook in class, starting all over again with chapter A.
A few weeks later, we finally finished chapter W. We were back in sync. And I was ready to finally uncover the mystery of letter X. Unfortunately, it was the last day of the school year. The teacher announced we can keep the workbooks, and because we didn’t get a chance to cover X, Y, and Z in class, we could study them over the summer.
Well, that didn't happen. I went on to enjoy the summer, relishing the carefree days and the adventures they brought. But as the years passed, a nagging thought crept into my mind. I began to regret not finishing XYZ. It's always felt like something I left incomplete in my life, a task left undone that I had to go back and do, a sort of hole I needed to fill. The weight of that incompleteness has grown over time, like a missing puzzle piece in the grand scheme of things. And now, as I reflect on it, I find myself yearning to return to that unfinished journey, to finally bring it to its rightful conclusion, and fill the void that has lingered for so long.
Let me try something:
No, that won’t help. I've experienced similar emotions with books, movies, TV series, video games, and projects that I set aside. Recently, I've been revisiting them and finding satisfaction in completing them. But repetitive writing exercises won't fill the XYZ void. I think the reason is because of what XYZ represents: graduating from second grade. I feel like I was robbed of the full second grade experience. And there’s no way to be a second grader again.
I’ll carry XYZ with me for the rest of my life. But I refuse to view it as a burden. I now see it as a source of motivation, a reminder to finish what I started. It’s a beacon guiding me towards completion of past, present, and future goals. Whenever I face a moment of doubt or the urge to give up, I simply think, “XYZ”, and it keeps me going.
Now, I just need to remember, “tan is not dots”, “tan is not dots”, “tan is not dots”...
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