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nonfiction sam pickering The Last Exam I’ve spent sixty-five years in school starting at four when I entered kindergarten . The time has come for me to leave the classroom. I’m living on the hallelujah side of life, as the gospel song puts it. When I wake early in the morning , my hands are dank and feel like cold sheets. My neck aches, and I perch for a minute or two on the side of the bed trying to master the pain before I put my feet on the floor. I am still an adequate teacher, “the best in the university,” a student said recently. The old are suckers for superlatives, and I appreciated the exaggeration. My aggies haven’t rolled out the door, and my sentences still spiral and corkscrew with color. But I worry that my cat’s-eyes have begun to blink. Twice during the past month after I boiled water in order to make tea I forgot to turn off the burner. Too many academic careers drift into the smudge of soft lead and softer thought. Better it is to seize an eraser and rub one’s presence away before blots mar the cursive running of days. For one thing, time has affected my appreciation of books. Once upon a time the subtle attracted me, stories and poems that demanded explicators, that is, teachers. Nowadays simplicity appeals more to me, writing that any reader can enjoy and which instead of being the catalyst for understanding makes a person smile and perhaps if he is feeling lively leads him to mouth “Gee.” At the Mansfield Library book sale in October, I bought a ratty copy of Thornton Burgess’s The Adventures of Old Mr. Toad. I purchased the book because the beginning of the first chapter , “Jimmy Skunk Is Puzzled,” made me happy. “Old Mother West Wind,” Burgess wrote, had just come down from the Purple Hills and turned loose her children, the Merry Little Breezes, from the big bag in which| 167 168 | ecotone she had been carrying them. They were very lively and very merry as they danced and raced across the Green Meadows in all directions, for it was good to be back there once more. Old Mother West Wind almost sighed as she watched them for a few minutes . She felt that she would like to join them. Always the springtime made her feel this way—young, mad, carefree, and happy. But she had work to do. She had to turn the windmill to pump water for Farmer Brown’s cows, and this was only one of many mills standing idle as they waited for her. So she puffed her cheeks out and started about her business. I have long liked John Masefield’s tales of adventure, and at the sale when I saw a copy of Sard Harker, I picked it up as well, paying a dollar, twice what I paid for Old Mr. Toad. In contrast to lives not crinkled by age, old books and old people often surprise. The Mansfield Center Library Association purchased Sard Harker in 1924. Pasted inside the back cover of the book was a card measuring two by three and a half inches. Printed on the card were the library hours, three to five Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Saturday in the evening from seven thirty to nine. Also on the card were rules for borrowing. For the most part the rules were conventional . Unless stamped one week book, books could be borrowed for a fortnight, the fine levied for returning a book late being one cent a day. The last rule on the card, however, surprised me. “In case of contagious disease in family of book-taker, notify librarian before book is returned.” The rule was preventative. The influ­ enza epidemic at the end of the First World War and diseases like measles and polio were probably its source, vaccinations for them not yet having been created . Rarely do statements that surprise me smack of forgotten realities. Instead they are lesser remarks, startling and delighting but then quickly dropping from mind, aphorisms such as “The early worm gets the beak” and “Writers begin...


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