The first day of school has always been somewhat of a disaster for me. Correction: The first day of school has been an outright catastrophe, the sort of calamity that echoes of “best laid plans” on the fritz. Where most associate apples and pencils, primary colors and new backpacks, I associate moments of utter disaster.
The Curse began when I missed the bus on my first day of high school. I only lived a few streets over from my middle school, making it easy to walk or bike to each day, but my high school was in another town which meant I had to ride the bus with the rest of the kids from my neighborhood.
It’s daunting being a freshman, much more daunting than we let on. We’re finally able to join the ranks of the high school students we look up to—Zach, Kelly and Screetch, the Breakfast Club and the Power Rangers—all of whom set lofty expectations for what our high school experience would be. I was optimistic I would find my way as well.
For someone who tends to spiral when he’s not in control, being dependent on the bus to get me to school early enough to find my way through the unfamiliar halls was a variable that had me on edge for days. I’d gone over the bus route with my mother many times, leaving nothing to chance, and on that first morning, I left home to walk to the corner a few minutes early. Being early has always been one of my spiritual gifts and I expected to see a small line of teenagers waiting patiently at the stop sign when I arrived. Instead, when I turned the corner all I saw was my bus close its doors and drive away. It had been early or I had somehow been late but either way, as I watched the bus get smaller and smaller, I imploded; a total nuclear meltdown. My nerve endings frayed and my tear ducts expanded as I began running in the silly way we run while wearing a backpack full of fresh notebook paper, color coded folders and unopened mechanical pencils. I repeated aloud for the four blocks to my house, no, no, no, no, no. Twitching, I sat in the front seat and willed my mother’s car to move faster as she had to hastily drive me to the front steps of the school. The clock ticked on and every minute closer to 8:30 felt like another year of my life had whooshed by.
I entered the building as the first class bell rang. Getting out of the car, my mom tried her best to calm me down. “It’s the first day. You aren’t the only one who will need some extra help. You’ll be just fine.” I clung to my printed out class schedule as I wandered the empty halls looking for my hidden, possibly-nonexistent, classroom. With each passing moment, my frazzled mind fell deeper and deeper into panic. I looked up and down the maze of hallways for any sign of life and after what felt like twenty minutes, I finally found someone to flag down—an angel in the form of a wandering teacher—who graciously showed me to my classroom. She even gave me a heads up about the route I should take to get to my second class. It was like Roma Downey from Touched by an Angel was in The Colony High School that morning, sent by God just for me.
Taking a deep breath and swallowing all of my panic, I walked into the computer lab to see the other students listening intently as the teacher give her standard first-day-of-class instructions. Every head turned like syncopated robots to glare at me, the tardy delinquent, and the teacher literally rolled her eyes as she pointed at my assigned computer cubicle. You’d think she would’ve exhibited even a modicum of compassion or at least a feigned understanding, it being the first ten minutes of the first day of high school in a room full of freshmen, but instead she made an example of me. As I took my seat, she told the class she wouldn’t tolerate any tardiness like mine from that point on and if we didn’t show up on time, we might as well not show up at all. I was a scared, shaky fish in a seemingly giant, unfamiliar new pond and she ensured the rest of my day would be as twitchy and clunky as my morning.
Years later, when I walked downstairs from my apartment to drive to my first day of summer classes in college, I was greeted by a flat tire. The only reason I had to take class in the summer was because I, for whatever reason, am incapable of learning the Spanish language. You’d think that by growing up in Texas, or by eating a steady diet of Tex-Mex at least, I’d have picked up some remedial skills. I never did.
I called my mother and she said, “Uh oh, it’s like you’re missing the bus all over again. It’s the First Day of School Curse!” Oh how right she was, as mothers tend to be. After changing the tire, driving to the campus I’d never been to before and finding a parking space that was partially obstructed by a fallen tree, I made it to class just in time. As I took my seat at the desk that was far too small for me, the professora closed the door, said “Hola” and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was relieved I understood the first word out of her mouth, I’ll take the small victories where I can get them, but mostly I was relieved I’d made it on time and I’d bested my First Day of School Curse. I’d won.
I couldn’t wait to tell my mother about my change of fortune, how The Curse was broken and I’d soon be fluent in Spanish, but in the middle of celebrating too soon, I realized something wasn’t right. The profesora’s name wasn’t what I’d written down and though my schedule said I was in the right room, she was talking, in Spanish, about conjugations that were two levels too advanced for me. Unsure of what to do, I froze in my tiny seat for an hour and a half and listened, unable to discern any of the words she spoke after “Hola.” When we were given a break, I ran to the office for clarification. The First Day of School Curse was the monkey’s paw that somehow found a way into all of my backpacks.
My schedule had been printed incorrectly, thus the mix-up, and rather than attending the correct class for the second half of the morning, I decided to call this day a wash and go to Sonic for a limeade. There are very few things in life that can’t be made better by a Sonic limeade. Part of why I think so many New Yorkers are unhappy is the lack of Sonic limeades in the city. Sure, we have the best donuts and coffee and cupcakes and basically everything else, but without Sonic limeades, we’re an impaired culture.
Winter is when people could really use the pick-me-up of a limeade. The compacted, sleety air makes it hard to breathe, as if the icicles from the rooftops wedge their way into our lung cavities. New York is great for a million things, but winter in February is not among them, which is precisely when I moved there from Texas.
Initially, I squatted with one of my friends at her apartment in Brooklyn. Not the trendy, hipster, pizza connoisseur Brooklyn, but the far away Brooklyn, tucked deep in the borough within earshot of the roller coasters at Coney Island. Apart from the nerves of being in a new neighborhood in a new city, over five feet of snow fell during my stay. That meant I now had to trek through the white tundra to get to the first day of my first job out of college.
I should’ve known The Curse had never left me. On my first day of grad school, I hadn’t received the email instructions to read the chapter before class so I started at a deficit. A year later, on the first day of my internship, my boss never showed up, leaving me orphaned in the lobby of the theater. This was a regular routine for me so when the snow started to fall, I should’ve seen the signs.
I love the snow, something I feel is magnified because I’d never really experienced it before. When you live in Texas and the tiniest amount of frozen precipitation wanders out of the sky, school is canceled, bridges are closed, people stock up on firewood like they’re building log cabins and you huddle indoors with coffee and oversized bowls of chili. But that precipitation was mostly in the form of ice, not snow.
During the winter of my senior year of high school, an ice storm rolled in mid-afternoon and school was abruptly closed hours before the final bell rang. As freezing rain fell from the sky, we students ran to our cars only to find them encased in a thick, glossy layer of ice. Using my car keys, I chipped away at the ice that coated the lock and the edges of the door, trying to break into my own vehicle so I could start the engine. In Texas, learning to drive includes learning to let your car regulate its temperature. In the winter, you turn it on and let it set so it can warm up. In the summer, you do the same thing so it can cool down. As my car warmed up, I used the ice scraper I’d never had to use before to clean off the windows and as the freezing rain fell, it turned my long hair into icy dread-sickles.
Ultimately, the ice was welcome as it shut down school for the day. It coated the landscape in a layer of white that’s rare in Texas and made for a nice view that evening while we sat inside the house eating chili. Looking out the window in deep Brooklyn however, I realized there be no snow day and I had to make it the eight blocks to the train station in around five feet of the stuff.
It was my first job out of college, in my dream city, and I’d been mentally preparing for this day for weeks. That morning, my plaid Burberry tie was tied just right and my new shoes were laced up so I wouldn’t trip. When I left the apartment, early of course, I walked carefully along the sidewalk, placing my feet in the footprints of those who’d forged a packed-snow pathway. The borough-dweller trek to Manhattan starts early in the morning and doesn’t ever really stop, so by the time I headed to work, a path had been made that I could walk through. I intentionally steered clear of the mounds of snow that lingered on the sides of the roads and yards, but I took a heavy step and the packed snow under my foot shifted, sending me into the snow bank next to the sidewalk. It wasn’t a graceful slip in which I could catch myself and recover, but a lopsided topple into a five-foot-deep snow cone.
Covered in snow and facing up toward Jesus, I laughed. Of course I was buried in five feet of snow! Of course it happened on my first morning of work! It’s the First Day of School Curse! I laughed because I should’ve seen it coming. Then, I laughed at the fact I couldn’t pull myself out of the snow with any grace. I laughed even louder when I saw I had an audience, none of whom offered me a hand or lifeline to get out of this deep Brooklyn avalanche on the side of the avenue.
Laughter is the angel God sends to us when our spirit needs a steam vent and let me tell you, my angel must’ve been big and muscly because so was my laughter. I imagined this angel was less like Roma Downey and more like Thor. So what if I was covered in fluffy white snow, it could be worse. I could’ve fallen in an open manhole or landed on a dead rat. I’d rebounded from The Curse before and I’d do so again today. I picked myself up, brushed the snow off my coat and dress pants, and forged onward with my head held high.
If you walked on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn that day, you saw the Ryan-shaped hole near the train station. Actually, it’s more likely you saw two Ryan-shaped holes in the snow, because after I awkwardly climbed to my feet and pressed forward in my snowy Zen, I slipped and fell into another snow bank twenty paces later. This time, my muscly Thor-like angel was nowhere to be found so I just looked up to Jesus and flung my arms out as I shouted, “Really?!” Then I cursed The Curse for not leaving me the hell alone, especially after I’d spent all that time a minute earlier being so damn optimistic.
So each year when teachers and students are newly back in class, I’m cosmically reminded that just like the tagline at the end of a Marvel movie: The Curse will (no doubt) return. It’s been dormant for a few years and the first day at my current job went over without a hitch, a fact some might see as a sign The Curse has lifted, but I know better than to be lulled into a false sense of security. That only ends with me in a snow bank. Now, someone please bring me a limeade.
Dedicated to my mother, who has always been there for me when The Curse tried to ruin my days.