As a young girl coming of age in a small Southern town, I faced the end of my fifteenth summer with youthful optimism.
The feeling began long before back-to-school ads appeared with their focus on corduroy and lean yellow pencils. It was a feeling that stirred within me even before the lifeguard had packed away his striped umbrella, even before the trees along the ancient New River first revealed separate, shuddering leaves where once had been masses of green summer foliage.
So palpable was the change-and so sudden-that a young girl could almost name the hour at which late summer became early autumn, the time when the halter tops on sale lost their allure to the polished Weejuns in the window of the local department store.
I now turned my attention from Coppertone to Chemistry. In that pivotal moment, getting a tan seemed suddenly inferior to such pursuits as ironing my round-collar Villager blouses and deciding what to wear for the first day of school.
Such a decision could change young lives on that day when my friends and I, after a summer of togetherness, would look at each other as if for the first time. On that day, boys could be won. Teachers impressed. Classmates made envious, or so we imagined.
In our small town the signs of autumn appeared in predictable sequence: wool replaced seersucker in the downtown display windows even as homeroom assignments for the new school year were published in the local newspaper.
The closing of the pool signaled yet another change, as the golden-haired lifeguard (a new-boy-in-town known to us as Richie) completed his metamorphosis from King of the Local Waters to ordinary mortal sophomore.
On my way home from cheerleading practice on the last day of summer, I paused to observe this same mortal sophomore punishing his bronzed body on the football field of our town's only high school-a cherished high school, a school where "Halls of Ivy" was sung regularly at graduation without a trace of hypocrisy. After all, it was 1965; we were still mourning JFK, hating Communism, and being true to our respective schools throughout the land.
As I watched Richie's struggle with an imaginary gridiron foe there on the 50-yard line, I recalled days at the pool, now lost forever, when I had gathered all my resources for a solitary stroll past his lifeguard stand-my hair smoothed back with a wide turquoise headband, "Peachy-Keen" lipstick applied with voluptuous thickness and blotted lovingly, my tummy tucked in.
He had never seemed to notice me on my brave forays, except for the time that I'd offered him a stick of Juicy Fruit and he'd accepted. His sunglasses seemed to mirror instead the images of other girls, shapely girls who could lie on their sides on a beach towel and produce an image worthy of the Perfect Girl who captures the heart of Elvis in one of his movies.
As I assessed my own figure day after summer day, I wished that such a boy as Richie could learn to love me for my mind.
In my self-conscious naiveté, it did not once occur to me to consider what insecurities this new boy in town might be nurturing behind his mirrored glasses. The melancholy of youth dictated that I, alone in all the world, was plagued with shyness and self-doubt.
And so, I had given up my handsome lifeguard-had bravely given him over (in my mind) to girls more deserving than I, who could do justice to a cashmere sweater. It was the last summer in my life that would find me giving up so easily.
Standing there at the practice field on that last day of summer, I briefly entertained the hope that my being a cheerleader might help. In a recurring fantasy, Richie would drape his varsity jacket over my shoulders at the end of a hardearned victory, and, giving me a chaste kiss, would murmur, "Your school spirit means more to me than I can say."
But when he did not once look up from the practice field that summer day, the sophomore in me knew that only Perfection gets her man.
I grimly resolved to be an honor student, if not an internationally acclaimed scholar. Accordingly, I decided that it was time for some regimen and a moderate portion of agony. That agony included my confinement in the sterile classroom where, on the first day of school, I looked out on a green landscape that had been mine for the taking only the day before.
My attention was divided between that faraway world and the fair-haired Richie, who now occupied a desk not far from mine. I found that the outside world had acquired an alien appeal, like that of a jilted lover suddenly unwilling to reconcile. I knew that I should have loved summer better.
As for Richie, he seemed smaller now and more human, his biceps discreetly covered by the sleeves of a tasteful oxford cloth button-down shirt. They had taken away his whistle now that summer was over, and I found that I liked him better sitting two rows away, having trouble with his equations instead of yelling at kids to stop the horseplay on the diving board.
They had taken away his sunglasses, too, and I was startled to realize that he had the pale eyes of a dreamer.
This realization was to be the first of many in the autumn days to follow. Not the least of my lessons was that difficulties in mathematics can provide a sound basis for friendship, and that friendship (which does not ask Perfection) is a very nice starting point, indeed.
As I walked home after the first day of school, I heard the familiar silence that tells of Nature's gathering up of itself in preparation for autumn's display of crazed brilliance.
In the space of that silence, I felt a sense of peace, a sense of something good waiting to happen.
After all, I was young, school had begun, and the New Year was as yet untarnished.
I could still make all A's. I could be voted most popular.
I could even go undefeated.