I Want to be when I Grow Up: and/or How I Spent My Summer Vacation
By Gloria Nagy
essays. Mrs. Murphy's sixth grade English class, Hawthorne elementary
school, the un-slums of Beverly Hills, l955-ish. The zenith of my
personal essay period.
Mrs. Murphy, the Mount Rushmore wanna be. A thick, heavy, bovine
person. A Newtonian proof; too much gravity in her gene pool, pulling
everything downward. Her head seemed weighted by southward bound
creases, crevices actually; as if the physical act of smiling had
somehow escaped her developmental process. A heavy footed, sluggish
slag clunking down the aisles; her melancholic, monotonal voice
whining instructions as if the very act of having to deal with us
required every ounce of her remaining life force.
Mrs. Murphy loved essays; also sentence diagramming. She didn't
have to talk. Clunking up and down the aisles checking for cheaters,
or sighing at her grey metal desk in that cavernous classroom with
the too high ceilings and the too high windows, allowing the prisoners
slaving away below only a glimpse of tree tops and cumulus clouds
and the possibility of freedom. Freedom being up, the apple before
the drop, up somewhere other than here bent over our stiff little
desks trying to look forward to a life beyond Mrs. Murphy and her
Her ilk included Mrs. Pearl, the homeroom teacher and frustrated,
failed "Star of Light Opera" as she called it; was that
opera without all those fat people? Mrs. Pearl with her black Clara
Bow bob and her huge, purple lipsticked mouth, which when closed
looked like an eggplant, though I don't think I'd ever seen one
Mrs. Pearl and her tiny purple smeared teeth, sitting at the battered
old piano (prisoners, we were-captives, an audience without the
possibility of exit).
"Don't throw bouquets at me, don't hold my hand too much."
No problem there. Mrs. Pearl catching me in the middle of what I
still think was a pretty passable imitation of her, as I mouthed
the words, "People will say we're in love," and dragging
me out of the class, slamming me up against the lockers, her face,
the opposite of Mrs. Murphy's, vibrating with energy, rage, mania.
"You, you spoiled brats!! You have everything!! Everything!!!
And you don't appreciate it!!!"
Was I? Did I?
"How I spent my Summer Vacation": Alone, mainly. Did a
lot of running around in the backyard, jumping in and out of the
sprinklers. This kept me cool and busy and pretty well blotted out
the scary sounds coming from the house. My father screaming and
yelling. My mother also screaming but with the highly unnerving
add-on of hysterical sobbing at no extra charge.
and out, back and forth. No friends over; too risky, too hard to
predict the eruptions or count on the sprinklers drowning it all.
No biking around, don't want to go too far, just in case, she "Did
something to herself." I wasn't sure what that meant, but it
certainly didn't sound good. Doors slamming. Despair. That heaviness
again. Fucking Mrs. Murphy following me home.
"What do I want to be When I grow up? Anybody but my mother.
"When I grow up I want to be a writer and live in New York
City and New England." Oh, okay. Not that I knew anyone who
had done any of that. Also, I would like a dog and to never have
to diagram a sentence ever again in my life or write another personal
essay or at least not until I am really a person and know what to
When I grow up I will no longer be a prisoner of the Beverly Hills
penal, or school system; no longer required to attend Mr. Green's
math classes nor look at his bulgy, hairy, flexor muscles (can't
he roll those sleeves down? Long division is hard enough without
all these distractions): I won't flinch when he slams the plastic
ruler into his palm while pacing the aisles (cheaters again), or
have to avoid his hard, glittery eyes darting behind those rimless
glasses (way before fashionable), so angry in that scary way my
father was, just looking for an excuse to attack.
72 goes into 3,450 just enough times to get out of here.
"What I did on My Summer Vacation: Part Two." Somewhere
in the middle of the screams and sprinklers, it was decided that
my brother and I should go away to Camp for a month. This was quite
a shock. We knew nothing about "Camp." My father was not
a camp kind of dad. Money was to be spent making money not on providing
indulgences for seven and almost eleven year olds with a perfectly
good sprinkler system and the Good Humor truck tinkling through
the neighborhood twice a day.
My parents were members of the first generation born in America
of refugees; the children of Jewish escapees from the Russian Pogroms.
People like my parents were the "filler" between the movie
people and celebrities in Beverly Hills. Not rich, but "well-to-do."
Lawyers, doctors, widget manufacturers, real estate developers,
who aspired and worked hard. Seriously hard. White knuckled and
humorlessly hard; trying to move up block by block; the B.H. status
climb. The further from Santa Monica Boulevard, the closer to Sunset,
the more successful.
We were then at about the 600 block-a long way to go. So Camp?
What did I know? I knew nothing of bird watching, canoeing, white
toast, "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall," marshmallow
roasts or sleeping in a room with lots of other female people. Even
at ten, when I thought "Camp," I saw barbed wire, arm
numerals, and for sure, no Bazooka Double Bubble or Hershey Kisses.
This was not a choice we were given and I still have no idea where
the hell it was. Camp Kiawa, somewhere on a lake. Arrowhead? Big
Bear? Maybe just a reservoir in the Valley. Off we went. I was numb.
My brother was terrified.
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