I was at work the other day when I was suddenly struck by a shift in conversation between two of my colleagues. One of them had recently moved house, and was saying how she had boxes upon boxes of old schoolbooks that she had to find a place for. The other then told her how he and his brothers gathered all of their schoolbooks one day, and threw them out. He knew it would be a tough proposition, but felt strongly that they’d all feel better upon getting rid of them.
“Let’s just do it and not think about it,” is how he told them. “On the count of three.”
I found this anecdote particularly affecting, so that day, when my shift was over, I set about unearthing all of my schoolbooks and looking through them. I was searching, I suppose, for some reason why one ought to keep a hold of them. I hadn’t given a thought to these books since my school days, but now all of a sudden they were important.
I knew that my friend’s decision to vanquish his schoolbooks was guided by a no-nonsense pragmatism. I thought about this as I lifted my own academic legacy out of the chest in my room; if these old books contributed nothing to my current life, then why keep them? They had only become important to me now, when I had been struck by the image of them being pulled irretrievably by the deathly gravity of a black hole. Surely I was governed by illogical sentiment. What could be more psychotic than keeping something solely for the reason that I didn’t want to throw it away?
I’ve been seeing a few posts on social media over the past year or so about people eschewing surplus material possessions from their homes. It seemed like a kind of movement, like these people were subscribing to a mysterious international cult devoted to domestic minimalism. From what I can remember, the main idea seemed to be that creating a neater home- and parting with unused belongings- would then lead to a more contented state of mind. I have to admit, I found this intriguing. A couple months ago I was shocked to see a friend of mine from Texas had decided to get rid of all the books she’d already read. The purge seemed to be hard for her, but there was a promise of enlightenment on the other side. This made me think of yogic detoxifying practices, like the one where they thread a string down their throat as far as it will go, making them barf everywhere. Unpleasant, but supposedly cleansing.
I for one have always been something of a hoarder. Anytime my friends are throwing something out, I ask if I can have it. I have a bag in my room that’s filled with receipts from my travels in the USA. I’m not doing an audit or anything- I just like holding onto the past for as long as I can. My room is filled with junk I’ve been collecting since my youth. As a child, I had a fascination with wine corks. I just liked the shape and texture of them, the smell. I wasn’t planning on doing anything with them- some kind of art project for instance- I just had this vague, unexplainable impulse to hold on to them.
And beneath the heavy barrel in which I’ve stored all these corks sits the long chest in which all my school and university papers are kept. I kept thinking about my friend throwing his past into the abyss and hoped that once I uncovered these schoolbooks, I’d find some value in preserving them. My hope was, I suppose, that they’d allow me to travel back in time.
At the bottom of the chest, buried beneath dozens of other folders and books and belongings, I spot an old shoebox. With my floor now covered in all the junk I had to unearth in order to retrieve it, I hold the shoebox up to my eyes like I’ve found the Holy freaking Grail. I place the box down on my bed, remove the lid. And what should be staring up at me?
A chubby little hairless cock, as wide as it is long. I can’t remember who drew it, but it occurred to me that whoever did had a vision in mind. If it were anything else it might be considered cute, being so squat in shape, so simple in its design, so pleasingly symmetrical across the scrotum. These lines were handled with such care that I can’t help but think that the artist must have taken a real satisfaction at seeing the finished product, briefly considering whether to add the urethra before rejecting realism in favor of his ideal.
In a way it was fitting that this was the first thing I saw upon opening the shoebox. The drawing of cocks on other people’s exercise books is about as iconic to the school experience as “the dog ate my homework”. You accepted it as a natural hazard of the classroom environment, much as you did a spitball to the eye or aggressive flatulence. So without so much as touching these old books, I was already being transported back in time. I found myself sitting once again in lawless classrooms whose teachers had long since lost control, shrinking at their desks in an island of pride, denial, and self-pity, as though trying to convince themselves that if they couldn’t hear the chaos, then the chaos wasn’t happening. For them, it was all about maintaining composure until the bell rang, and for the little shits they had to hopelessly educate, it was about eroding that composure as much as possible until they snapped.
We had different exercise books for each subject; purple books of lined, A4 paper for English, small yellow books of ugly, unfriendly 10mm squares for Math, et cetera. The covers of these schoolbooks proved more interesting than the actual contents. Obviously there were the obligatory cocks drawn by my comrades, but there were other mementos too. I’d forgotten the trend signing your name- be it on your own books, on your friends, or on your pencil case. My Math book is covered in random signatures. Such-and-Such “waz ere ‘08” and all that. On one book I wrote my own name, to which someone added “is cool” underneath, and to which someone else cheekily changed to “isn’t”. Then there are scribbled notes like “Exam at 2pm next Wednesday- bring scientific calculator”, followed by helpful footnotes that Such-and-Such “loves cock” or Such-and-Such “has ginger pubes”.
As crude and childish as these scribblings may seem, I can’t help but feel like they have more value than the actual work I did. They capture the spirit of what school was like, they are a record of mid-2000s male teenage sense of humor, they are an insight into that strange dark age where we felt the pull of fear and curiosity, our disappearing innocence and our inevitable growing pains. They conjure up memories, which the pages of fractions and long division do not. When I look at the work, I understand why my friend decided to throw out his schoolbooks. I had no desire to learn these things, I chose always the path of least resistance, doing just enough to pass, and dispensing with the knowledge thereafter. I hated having to be made to do anything. I only wanted to do things that I personally found interesting and exciting. I had no patience, no time for anything that did not yield an immediate benefit. I was full of resentment for the whole system of learning. And it didn’t help that I had the retention skills of a gnat.
So what did I invest my energy in, if not schoolwork? Popularity and girls? Ha. I was even more of a failure in the social sphere than the academic one. Again, I was of this lethargic teenage mindset where I wanted good things to fall into my lap instead of working toward them. Sure, I wanted to be an A-grade student and to have a girlfriend with eyes so striking they could melt your kneecaps, but I was never prepared to put in the effort to working toward those things. I agonized over them, wished I could have them, I was jealous and sulky and desperate, but I figured that good things simply happened to certain kinds of people, and were denied to others. I never once thought that I could have these things for myself, if I put in the work.
The one thing I did spend my energy on- perhaps all of my energy, now that I think about it- was drawing dragons. Boy did I love me a good dragon. At the start of every school year we were given plain red exercise books called “rough books” which were meant for keeping notes. I was always excited when the teacher handed these out, and straight away I wrote “Book of Dragons” or something on the front. Of all the books in the shoebox, the Dragon Books have the most value to me. I’d spend almost every lesson working on drawing these dragons, sometimes hiding the rough book underneath my other schoolbooks. Looking back, I’m amazed I had the nerve to put as much effort into them as I did. Not only did I not seem to care about detention- or worse, getting set upon by bullies- I seemed quite happy to tune out of the world around me and escape to the realms of fantasy. I think that’s what strikes me the most about looking through the rough books- they’re a testament to the disdain I felt for the real world. The pictures of dragons, robots, and demons, the made-up fantasy languages, the power rankings of my favorite Star Wars characters, the football lineups, the maps of fictional worlds, were all an attempt on my part to check out from reality.
I wasn’t a particularly talented artist, but what I lacked in finesse I made up for in enthusiasm. My art teachers hated me, saying I was at best “an imaginative artist” but with no appreciation for technique. It’s true. I never did the work my teachers set us. I spent the entire lesson doodling in my rough book. Around the age of 13 or so I still had a vague ambition to become a video game concept artist, because at the time nothing pleased me so much as creating fantastical environments. My doodles weren’t a secret either, and I’m surprised I was comfortable being “that weird kid who draws dragons”. Given how insecure I was, and how terrified I was of getting bullied, you’d think I’d hide my love of dragons and all that. Even now, I can’t get over how open I was about the whole thing.
One day I came across a couple friends sat either side of a kid I didn’t know, watching him sketch something. I said “Hey guys” and my friends said “This kid is way better at drawing than you. He draws castles and stuff,” and I noticed the kid knew how to add depth and shading and all that stuff to his drawings. I think I gave up on being a concept artist that day, because looking at the boy’s castles made me realize that drawing was a craft, and I just didn’t have it in me to learn a craft. I remember being slightly depressed, because when other people did things with skill- be it talking to girls, solving mathematic equations, or drawing castles- they made it look so easy, and therefore I attributed it to them being special in some way. Chosen. I couldn’t commit to anything that required effort, and I didn’t believe that effort would change anything. All I wanted to do was draw the same cartoons I always did, and pretend that what was real wasn’t real, and vice versa.
But to bring this post full circle, I found something in one of my rough books that has more long-lasting value than any fire drake (or veiny cock). It seemed I was as concerned with saving things being lost to time then as I am now, because there are several pages in one of my rough books entirely dedicated to keeping a written record of memories. I knew that we’d forget the past, so I wrote down every event, every joke, every quote, and every fight that ever happened. I won’t list them here for privacy reasons, but just imagine a page full of things like “The time Such-and-Such slid down the hill” or “The time Such-and-Such confronted Such-and-Such about the you-know-what”.
In a way, there are times when I feel like this website is like one big rough book that I can share with other people, and I hope to one day use it to travel back in time.