Continuing education

by Debbie Carini

September is traditionally the month to return to learning. Of course, some schools are now on year-round systems, but for many students. September signals the purchase of new school shoes, stacks of supplies and the perfume of sharpened pencils (I’m showing my age—maybe there’s an odor associated with cracking open a new laptop).

For me, September marked the opportunity to experience the unforgettable aroma of a freshly-printed page of ditto paper, just off the rotary printing drum, purple and imbued with a chemical fragrance that was somehow both pungent and comforting.

My desk also had a distinct aroma—a combination of pencil lead and heavy-duty disinfectant (no doubt some product that was not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because that wasn’t founded until 1970). Especially in fourth grade, when every day after lunch, our teacher, Mrs. Lottie Lute, would ask us to put our heads down on crossed arms on our desks and listen to her read from the classics of children’s literature like A Wrinkle in Time, The Boxcar Children or Island of the Blue Dolphins.

I was probably one of the few children who wished for the lunch recess bell to ring so we could get back to the classroom and hear the continuing tale of Karana, trapped on the island of the blue dolphins because she jumped ship to rescue her little brother who was lollygagging and left behind as the boat sailed away from the shore. Would she survive? How would she learn to hunt? Could I, if left to my own devices, build a shelter out of whale bones? And the brother, for whom she made this huge sacrifice—spoiler alert—ends up getting eaten by wolves! You could almost hear a collective sigh in the classroom…“little brothers!”

Nowadays, my continuing education consists mostly of doing puzzles—crosswords and sudokus. By completing the daily USA Today crossword, I’ve learned that the Dinka are the major ethnic group of South Sudan, that Orono is a city in Maine and Minnesota, that agar is a stabilizer and thickener in food products.

Every Sunday, our family gets The New York Times, which includes The New York Times Magazine crossword, virtually an icon in American culture. My husband and I established a system when we first started dating whereby I got first crack at the puzzle and he finished it. In the beginning, I was very bad, often only getting clues related to Gilligan’s Island and People Magazine-related knowledge. But over the years, I have developed a mystical ability to complete even the most daunting challenges.

How do I know that a “facial feature of the Bond villain Ernst Blofeld” is the answer scar? Or that the “home to the National Border Patrol Museum” is El Paso, Texas?

Three-quarters of the time I don’t even know where my car is parked, but after years of doing puzzles I know that a symbol on the flags of both Argentina and Uruguay is the sun. I’ve become a savant of sorts, and look forward to the day when all those years of inhaling the salty-sweetness of a laminated desktop culminates in a Sunday crossword clue—perhaps “tesseract,” the fifth dimension described in A Wrinkle in Time…Mrs. Lute would be proud.


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