Back to School and “Wonderful Messes”

September 6, 2011

I have been waiting almost a year to share this wonderful “Back to School” story with you. I am an enormous fan of the charming Stuart McLean’s writing and storytelling. Stuart is our Canadian treasure and can be heard on CBC radio as well as on itunes. Any family road trip of ours is prepared for by loading up on (downloading?) his Vinyl Cafe stories in podcast form; we all enjoy them. Of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of stories Stuart has told, this one, “Pink Eraser”, is one of my favourites. This first day of school seemed the best day of the year to share it with you. May you enjoy your day and make some “wonderful messes”!

Pink Eraser by Stuart McLean

by Vinyl Cafe on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 7:39am

I have a letter here I wrote to a young friend of mine on the weekend. I don’t think he would mind if I read it to you today…well I know he wouldn’t – I asked him if I could share it. I could just as well have written it to someone heading to university … or for that matter … starting a new job. 

Dear Sam,

We are celebrating the beginning of school on the Vinyl Cafe today … and knowing that we would be doing this, I have been thinking about you … and wondering what I could give you this year to mark this moment. These annual autumn bells: the shuffle of feet on stairs, the rattle of lockers opening and closing. The echoes we all hear when September rolls in. The echoes of the schoolyards and the school days that are both here and not here. 

I have been thinking of these things and wondering if there was some token I could wrap and give you, some little thing that would ring bells as you head off once again with your brave little bag of books. 

Some perfect little thing that tells you I understand the complexity of this week. That I know that though the first day of school is a grand day, the grandest day of all in many ways, that even in its grandeur, in the grandeur of new shoes and shirts, new friends and old ones, new teachers and new classes … that it is a grand bag of tricks too … it comes with the bag of exams and papers and other things that can go all too wrong. 

Everyone says this is the week that marks the real new year . And why not? What could be more full of possibility than the first day of school. As full of potential as a toboggan at the top of a hill, of a pencil hovering over a blank page, of the smile of that girl with the golden hair sitting in the front row. 

But sometimes the snow melts, and you are standing there with your toboggan, feeling a fool … the only one who didn’t hear the weather forecast. 

It is a complicated thing this business of school. And it is in the complexity of it that the sorrow and the sadness comes. The heavy burden of books that pile up, and the numbers that don’t … the big numbers that won’t add, the equations that won’t equate. The metaphors that lie there on their backs with their feet wiggling in the air. 

Time tables and exams, projects and essays … all that stuff that can build up and cause problems and I was hoping this thing I would give you could acknowledge that stuff too.

My first idea was a dictionary. A blue cloth-covered Oxford Canadian with the title stamped in gold letters. If I gave you a dictionary, you would have all the words in the world and you could look them up and write them down in any way you wanted and the wind would blow and the bells would ring and the lockers would slam and teachers would be bewitched by your way with words … and that girl with the golden hair too. 

I thought maybe a dictionary with gold letters on the cover would be just the thing.

Then I thought, maybe a new pair of shoes. 

A brand new pair of sneakers … sneakers as heady as dandelion wine …a pair of “royal crown, cream –sponge, light-foot tennis shoes, and when you put them on, you bounce, and when you run you run like a gazelle.” Is it a pair of sneakers you need as you run to school?

Or what about lunch? What about lunch every day for a year. If I packed you a lunch of carrot sticks and raisins, and peanut butter sandwiches on soft white bread with jelly the way you like it, the bread so fresh you dent it with your fingers just in the unwrapping. I thought if I wrapped your sandwich in wax paper and wrote little notes on the paper with a black felt pen and slipped in some chocolate from time to time that might do the trick.

I thought and thought… and I thought I could be your wordsmith, your shoemaker or your chef. 

But none of them seemed right. The shoes didn’t fit … you forgot the lunch bag in the bus. And who needs more words anyway. There are words enough to go around. 

And that is when I decided to give you this eraser. 
An original Pink Pearl. 
This little plug of pink rubber 
with a point at both the ends and this broad side too 
the perfect size for mistakes … big or small 
an eraser that will fit in your hand whatever size your hands are 
four or forty 
five or fifty 
something that will work today and work tomorrow 
that has 
deep in its rubbery little heart 
memories of a rubber tree 
in some thick forest. 

A gash in the bark 
the drip drip of sap 

but more than that, 
the worried frown of a chemist too 
because your eraser has been vulcanized my friend 
and even though I don’t have the slightest idea what that means 
I do have the deep conviction that if we all carried some small vulcanized thing with us at all times 
we would have an easier go of it 
and be less prone to explosive anger 
road rage 
and the gnawing anxiety of our fears. 

This is for you. 
I wrapped it in this brown paper to give to you this morning, 
this first day of school, 
and I hope you will understand when you unwrap it 
that life’s greatest treasures are the simple ones. Take its measure, 
roll it between your fingers, 
put it in your pocket.  It is all you will need 
to get through the year safely. 

It will give itself up 
to correct your mistakes. 
Its sharp edges slowly rounding 
like a piece of glass rolled in the sea 
until all that’s left of it 
are little pink smears on the pages of your life. 
What more could you ask of anything than that? 

If I am right about this, 
with this eraser 
in your bag 
you can risk it all. 
Exams will mean nothing to you, 
they can roll out the big numbers 
and all the arrhythmic poems and you will knock them clean out of the park. 

This year you get the pink eraser 
from the deep thick forest. 
I give it to you with my love 
and these instructions: 

Take it with you everywhere. 
You never know when you are going to make a mess 
or where,  
just that you are bound to mess things up. And don’t worry about that. 
I give you my permission. 
Make many messes. 
Make wonderful messes 
The harder you try, 
the bigger they’ll be. 

Don’t mind mistakes, 
the mistakes are how you learn. 
You have an eraser so 
go ahead, make the messes. 
Then … clean them up. 
Try again.

One Response to “Back to School and “Wonderful Messes””

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