We come into this world utterly dependent, and (if we are fortunate enough to grow up in a stable home), the attention we get makes us the center of the universe. As toddlers, we are taught the proper ways to interact with the other humans, but to us, they exist mostly as extensions of ourselves; we don’t conceptualize their separate lives much. How old are we when we start understanding that there’s a world full of people with their own lives and their own concerns, same as us? When do we realize that while the vast majority of that world has nothing to do with us personally, we are part of it nevertheless?
A few years ago, I was back in my hometown, in the neighborhood around the church we attended while I was growing up. As I walked outside and all around the hulking brick structure, built in 1916, I felt a connection to something essential, foundational, something that went back to the earliest time, time I cannot actually remember. The church was the first public place I ever went to, as a baby. Other than maybe Grandma’s house, it was the first place other than my own home that I could recognize by sight. I was not able to get inside that day, but it didn’t matter. I remember it, dark wood, creaking floors, narrow stairwells.
My first elementary school is just down the street from the church. I say “is,” even though it was badly damaged in a 1973 fire and razed not long after. I still see it there, and same as the church, I can still walk it. (I once wrote, “[I]n my memory, perspective is distorted—ceilings are a mile high, hallways are yards wide, and I’m a tiny creature looking up from very close to the floor. Which, in fact, I was.”) I attended kindergarten, first grade, and half of second grade there, September 1965 through December 1967. And it was there that the realization of being part of a wider world began to begin.
I remember not really realizing it. One day in kindergarten, I got on the wrong bus after class because a teacher told me to. I knew it was the wrong bus, but I didn’t say anything, because to the extent that I understood my relationship to the wider world on that day, I knew this: it is a teacher’s function to tell you what to do, so you do it, and you don’t question it. There must have been a reason, I thought. That she might just be wrong did not compute.
(I think I’ve told the story before, but if not, it had a happy ending: after a long journey far into the unfamiliar wilds of Green County, I was the last kid left on the bus. As I recall it, the driver knew Mother and Dad and where I lived, and he was able to deliver me home.)
Not long ago, I playlisted the Hot 100 from the first week of February, 1967, and I went around with those songs in my head for a few days. At the same time, I looked through some old newspapers from the spring of that year. And I think it was probably then—the winter and early spring of 1967—that I started realizing the size and complexity of the world beyond our house, the farm, Grandma’s house, Immanuel EUB Church, and Lincoln School. The Monroe Evening Times itself, which arrived in the mail at our house every day but Sunday, would have told me so. (I became a reader because Mother and Dad were readers, so I would have seen them with the newspaper and wanted to read it myself.)
I was also beginning to absorb songs of the moment, involuntarily but surely enough for them to bring back that time today: “Georgy Girl” and “Nashville Cats” and “Music to Watch Girls By” and “Winchester Cathedral” and “My Cup Runneth Over,” from Mother and Dad’s radios, on the kitchen counter and in the barn. It’s been too long to say how, or whether, I assimilated the songs into the wider world I was building myself into at that moment. Listening to them today, they feel more like evidence of a process than part of that process, but I don’t know. If, in the winter and early spring of 1967, the radio was helping make me into who I would become, it wouldn’t be the last time.