You have nightmares about lockers. Narrow gray sheets of metal from ceiling to floor, endless rows line the halls. You circle the maze of corridors. You’re turned around, pressured, panicked, late. You can’t find it at first, the one that belongs to you. You pause at one, then the other: all wrong, all empty.
Others watch you, they laugh. Or, worse yet, they ignore you. You’re insignificant. If you finally find what you’re looking for, it’s shut, impenetrable. You spin the lock to the right, to the left, to the right again. The white notches of the knob blur and you realize your numbers are wrong, it’s all wrong.
Something’s off, you can’t remember. You missed whole assignments, entire courses, a full year of your life passed by all wrong; you forgot to pay attention. You rush for help, but it’s no use. You can’t recall time and now it’s too late. You won’t resign yourself to fate, so instead you struggle. You keep spinning the lock back and forth, back and forth until it clicks open. But it doesn’t matter now. Instead of relief you feel grave, an ominous weight when you unlock what you’re looking for. The moment, the urgency, the purpose, it’s passed you by.
In high school I used to work backwards. The answers to the odd questions were always in the back of the book. If I was stuck I’d flip to the last pages of my paper covered textbook, look up the answer and work my way back to how it came to be. Usually this helped me figure out the way forward on the even problems, the assigned homework. Sometimes I’d have to get help from my parents; my mom I went to for social studies or English, my dad for geometry or chemistry. But usually I’d keep it to myself, struggle through concepts I didn’t quite grasp. Maybe it was grit. Or maybe it was shame; the beginnings of an imposter syndrome already taking hold in my adolescent self.
I remember sitting at our dining room table, the brown protective cover shielding the glossy wood beneath. On Sundays I’d trudge through my Chinese homework worksheets, everything was right to left instead of left to right. My characters were lopsided, like a kindergartener’s first words spelled out, the letters mirror images of their true selves, looking as if about to topple over, bent in the wrong place. Repetition, repetition. My hand cramped with the recurrent motion of my pencil. I remember sitting in Saturday school class in the dusty church basement, surrounded by black haired children who knew what they were saying, understood what the teacher asked of us. I stared down at my pencil case, chosen carefully from Uwajimaya, the local Japanese superstore. My classmates were comfortable in this parallel universe, the weekend school environment. They played together loudly, boisterous and free, hanging from the monkey bars at the truncated recess. I couldn’t understand. I was the outsider, unfamiliar with the language, with the culture, like I’d been transplanted as an immigrant into a foreign land just for that sliver of a weekend morning.
It was my favorite class, the teacher who lived on an island and woke at 4 a.m. to take the ferry and drive 45 minutes to teach middle school English. I always did the extra credit homework, not because I wanted the points but because I loved the work: creative writing, poetry, reading novels about complicated characters making their way through a simpler time. I labored over a book of poetry and prose all year, the culmination of a year’s diligence of writing and art. That teacher gave us grades, no one else did in middle school. I think she got in trouble for this. She thought highly of us. Maybe it was considered too much to expect greatness out of such awkwardness. The writing assignments gave me a thrill, a satisfaction I hadn’t yet experienced. I should’ve known then, recognized a calling, but I foolishly was lured by so many other distractions. Writing was the work that wasn’t work; it reflected backward, propelled me forward, it whispered to me an understanding of self and of the world that I’m still learning to claim.