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By Staff | Aug 14, 2015

Sometimes life-changing news arrives on the backs of three tiny words.

For instance, while playing Monopoly the phrase “go to jail” can radically alter your plans. But that pales in comparison to real life when a person exclaims the Norwegian wedding proposal “you are what?”

This time of year, the three words that are rocking many worlds are “back to school.”

As a youngster, I saw no difference between “back to school” and “go to jail.” Both phrases meant being cooped up with a bunch of strangers, some of whom were awfully strange.

Both phrases involved enduring the cruel heel of authority, adhering to a strict schedule and being forced to dine in large groups like so many shoats. Which wouldn’t be bad, except that there are hogs who have better table manners than some kids.

I attended first grade at Oslo District 95, a one-room country school. The powers that be shuttered District 95 and I was transferred to a school in town.

I went from being one of three first-graders to one of 60 second-graders. It was as if our family had adopted several dozen kids who were all my age.

I soon learned that being one-sixtieth of a group isn’t nearly as special as being one-third. I acquired an instant dislike for town school, but gamely muddled through second grade.

Among the many disappointments of town school was learning that the pencil sharpening skills I had assiduously honed at District 95 were obsolete.

Our new school had a gleaming gizmo that sharpened pencils with the simple twist of a handle. I was also curtly informed that I should leave my jackknife at home. What sort of institution would separate a boy from his knife?

I interpreted this as an allegory for what the system was trying to do, namely, stuff me into their heartless machine and grind me down into conformity. Or at least that’s what I might have thought had I been a more sophisticated 7-year-old.

Third grade began as an academic struggle. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Mortimer, told my parents that she felt that something was amiss. And no, it wasn’t what you’re probably thinking.

One day Mom took me to some sort of high-tech office. A guy in a white coat had me sit in a special chair and asked me to read a chart that was located 50 yards away. I couldn’t see many of the letters – who could? – so I did what I did in school: I punted.

I squinted at the line the white coat had indicated and guessed, “Uppity, downity, inity and outity.” Sensing that this likely wasn’t correct, I added, “Wait, I think the last two are pushium and shoveium.”

A frightening device was placed against my face and I was instructed to peer though the doodad’s tiny holes. I had heard of peepshows and was pleasantly surprised to be given this opportunity.

But I was disappointed to instead see a chart that was somewhat similar to the one I had just read. Hoping to end the ordeal, I quickly rattled off its letters.

The white lab coat then uttered those three life-changing words: “You need glasses.”

The sentence hit me like a runaway cement truck. This was terrible.

I didn’t want to be a four-eyes. Kids with glasses are teased and called names such as, well, four-eyes.

Despite my fervent protestations, a pair of spectacles were issued to me. I felt guilty about my parents spending all that money, so I grudgingly agreed to give the glasses a try.

There were plenty of stares and whispers when I walked into the classroom wearing my new specs. But soon everyone – including me – grew accustomed to my goggles.

By sheer coincidence, the stuff that Mrs. Mortimer wrote on the blackboard began to make more sense. Once things snapped into focus regarding the mysteries of language, I began to actually enjoy reading, especially a publication called Weekly Reader.

In a fiendishly ingenious feat of product placement, Weekly Reader featured a section that enabled kids to order books. Some of these tomes cost 75 cents.

That was too rich for me, so I stuck to selections that were 49 cents or less. Besides, that Dr. Seuss fellow was probably just a flash in the pan.

Order forms and money were turned in to Mrs. Mortimer. One morning, after waiting an eternity that stretched for perhaps two weeks, a mysterious cardboard box appeared at the front of our classroom.

It felt like Christmas when Mrs. Mortimer opened the box, looked inside and beamed those three life-changing words: “Here’s your books.”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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