Illustration by Jack Unruh

Cracked open on a desk, it was a door that led to endless possibilities. Its emptiness begged to be filled with words and dreams and promise. It held nothing. It held everything.

The long hallways—math to this side, science to the other, social studies down the way—were of ancient, gleaming wood, and always smelled of fresh wax and old misery. How many D minuses had fluttered down to those dark boards? How many "trues" that should have been "falses"? How many multiple choices that left no choice at all?

It was around 1966 or 1967, but September for sure, because September meant that summer was well and truly dead. It was still hot as seven hells outside, but with one halting step into the gloom of that hall you entered a whole other realm, where coaches and even math teachers kept order with long wooden paddles, and a second-grade teacher once kicked my cowboy boot clear off my foot, then, with a running second kick, knocked it clear into the hall. All this, because I left one leg sprawled out in the aisle during her elocution. Still, it was a fine kick for an old woman.

I should have hated that school, Roy Webb School, in Calhoun County, Alabama. I would have, maybe, if not for that notebook.

As much as I hated the end of those hot, free days of summer, I loved that notebook, loved the clean, unmarred lines. Every year I got a new one, divided by subject, and it was always somehow just enough to get me through the year, perhaps because math was completely blank. Except for pictures of hot rods. I used a quarter to get the wheels right.

Mostly, I loved the smell of it. It smelled like... well, I couldn't put words to it, then. Now I know it was the smell of a fresh start, the smell of possibility. I could learn something, if at the end of the year the pages were filled with ideas, maybe even answers. I would start writing on the third or fourth page, because surely there was some finer idea that needed to go first.

I wrote Mark Twain's thoughts here, about how work is a thing a body is obliged to do, while play is a thing one is not obliged to do. I wrote every line to "Big Rock Candy Mountain," about how the hens laid soft-boiled eggs.

My books were wrapped in brown paper bags from the Piggly Wiggly, and on those rare occasions I got a new one, the spine would make a cracking sound, like snapping an ice-cream stick, when I first opened it. My desk was always carved at least once with the name of a long-lost third grader, always daubed at least five times with a petrified wad of Juicy Fruit. I puzzled at that. How did he expect to get away with defacing school property when he signed his work? And how did a school that had banned the chewing of gum since the first Roosevelt administration have desks in such a state? Come to think of it, they had banned pocket knives too.

But this was the key to my castle. I learned here.

I walk through stores and pick up notebooks and smell them, and I am sure more than one person has shaken their head at the odd man trying to snort up a stationery aisle. It does not smell the same. I think it is because my chance is used up, and the great possibility with it. Maybe only the young can sense it, the ones at the beautiful, unmarred beginning of things.