“Lake Shore Drive: Lower school” is the first installment in a series on the myth of coming of age.
A quick back-of-envelope calculation implies that I traversed Lake Shore Drive at least 6,000 times over the course of this life, perhaps more, all in the name of K-12 education. Encoded in the ridges and potholes of Chicagoan asphalt is some percentage of my life. And certainly, there are tales from before I entered junior kindergarten, as I often headed to the school with my parents to pick up my older sister. Then, the eventual first day of school came: Sept. 8, 2006. Step into a world of possibilities at Francis W. Parker School, where we do “everything to help” and “nothing to hinder.” After a literal step into Ms. Judd’s classroom, I found two strangers named Thomas and Etienne near the southeast window. There I stayed for hours, quietly playing Barrel of Monkeys with them, far too afraid to approach anyone else.
That first image signifies the beginning of my process growing up, and now I find myself as a college student, dangerously close to considering where I will take my life next. Adolescence is prolonged in modern civilization, and in some cultures, it’s very possible that I could be living on my own with a wife and children. But instead, I’ve curbed my biological imperative to study computer science and develop a lifelong network of contacts and experiences. Later this year, I will complete my 20th year of life, and it astonishes me. Sure, the arrow of time proceeds, but am I growing up? What does that mean? Is “growing up” simply an innuendo for getting mature and hardened by the world? Hardened to stoically proceed through the “hardships” of First World life, to propagate the human species and contribute talents to society before keeling over and kicking the bucket?
Now and then, I study that picture of me and my sister smiling on the front steps outside the house before getting ready to climb into the massive, titanium gray Volvo XC60 to drive down Lake Shore Drive on the first day of school. Sept. 8, 2006. In that memory, with my baby-blue plaid shirt, darkish cargo pants and a tiny “Transformers” backpack that was probably empty if not stuffed with Hot Wheels cars, it looked as though the soles of my shoes could barely grip the concrete and as if I were seconds away from levitating off the ground. And that’s what haunts me — the levity of childhood and the rawness that has faded away over the years. It doesn’t matter if a person initially wants to be a NASCAR driver, astronaut or actor — seemingly — because those aspirations get replaced by a pragmatic and pressured outlook that is dictated by schoolwork whose immediate significance is distant and whose labor is of use to no one. Just because this pattern is so widespread, though, does not mean that any of us need to accept it if there’s a legitimate reason for taking another road.
Now in my first year as a college student, it’s become more evident that I’m leaving behind who I was, and I am not sure who I am. Not that I can recognize my past self either: a normal child who endlessly dreamt of watching “SpongeBob,” playing on the Wii and discovering new Christmas music on 93.3 FM every holiday season. Now, I’m a curmudgeon who merely dreams, on occasion, of the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the Riemann hypothesis and that girl I never asked to prom.
It pains me to wonder if there was ever anything that could have been done to save that boy from being ruined by the world. But at least there was that time to savor before I was socialized to repress my dreams and act and speak according to how I am supposed to be rather than the person I want to be. Each tiny divet in Lake Shore Drive provides a snapshot of how I came apart at the seams, a play-by-play of how a cocksure kid lost all of his perceptions of humankind and the universe that was shattered over a long series of reckonings. Some people call it growing up. Where did it all go? My analytical mind considers the laws of conservation. My childhood has to be somewhere, right? There must exist the very atoms responsible for my childhood. Where are they?
Eventually, I grew old enough to recognize the irony that Chicagoans occasionally abbreviate Lake Shore Drive to the acronym that it shares with acid, a hallucinogenic drug, because it’s a trip you need to be sober for. You have a straightaway with a lengthy inward curve that we had better bought an all-wheel-drive car for, followed by another straightaway that leads into the streets to Circle Drive right outside the school’s entrance. Of course, the theory is always easier than the practice. No one taught me how to navigate the slick black ice or how to repaint the car after it’s been pelted by municipal rock salt.
Sometimes all we could do was stay at home to stay safe — like on Jan. 31, 2011. My family was lucky to get back to the neighborhood before the blizzard threw the uppercut. Local television was littered with “Day After Tomorrow”-like footage of Lake Shore Drive’s disarray: abandoned cars trapped under towering snowbanks and unlucky Chicagoans beginning to shovel-walk their way to safety after 12 hours of toiling with rear-wheel drive and “all-season” tires. They thought they’d seen the worst, but they hadn’t. Forty degrees below with windchill was just the warm-up. When it seemed that visibility couldn’t have gotten worse, the moon changed its mind and forsook the city to rise at first light instead. Class was canceled, day after day, and each time my mother received another voicemail from Associate Principal Jones, my sister and I knew.
Of course, with the adaptations we’ve made to remote learning, we couldn’t get away with that today. There was beauty in the snow day — a day relinquished of all the obligations it began with. So often we have to impose periods of rest on ourselves to stay healthy, but when some other force imposes it, that feels more liberating. It reminds me of the feeling of watching waves crash against the coast of Lake Michigan. Well, on second thought, those waves were once beautiful, sure, but I’m afraid the mundanity of thousands of trips has taken the majesty even out of nature. Sometimes I wonder if growing up is exactly that: experiencing a period of fascination that eventually loses its novelty before all that’s left is a person who has to give in to the itinerary that society gives them.