Vital Signs

School Days

No one could see where the floor began and the rubbish ended. A window down the hall shattered. and I could hear the tinkle and clatter as the last broken pieces hit the ones that had preceded them.

May 21, 1981, was already hot in the Clear Lake suburb of Houston, Texas, an astronaut/engineer-dominated middleclass community adjacent to NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. The main highway into Clear Lake, NASA Road-1, boasted a Texas-sized billboard that proclaimed: "CLEAR LAKE: A GREAT PLACE FOR A KID TO GROW UP."

The double doors were ajar outside the Clear Creek High classroom where I had taught for two years. A dusty wind funneled down the hallway, rustling layers of torn notebooks, crumpled papers, pop bottles, bars of soap, and tattered clothing. Lockers, colorful and spotless at the beginning of the school year, now gawked from lopsided hinges, their doors covered with obscenities. The bathrooms trickled water under silent doorways.

The school bell squalled like a spoiled brat, and the empty ritual known as "final examinations" began. For it was also Exemption Day—the last day of school, when "qualifying" pupils were free, or not, to take their final exams. The policy, set out in a handbook nobody read, stated that only students who had been absent fewer than three times during the term and who were not failing any subject were exempt from the last day's exams.


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