You walk downstairs and call people you don’t know well enough to confide in until one of them answers the phone. No one talks on the phone anymore. It takes seven sets of seven numbers before a woman’s voice settles to the task of conversation. “Hello?” This person’s name is Sara. Or perhaps it’s Angie. You could pause to check the number at which this person picked up, match the number to a name, but you don’t. “Listen,” you say softly to the person you can’t identify. “Listen.”
“When I was a kid … let me think … third grade … when I was in third grade, there was this big box of color-coded stories that sat on the teacher’s desk. Thick glossy cardboard pages … maybe twenty to a color … you had to read all the stories and answer all the questions that went with each story before you could move up to the next color, and …”
“SRA,” Sara/Angie says knowingly over the sound of coffee being poured.
“It was called SRA … I remember those stories.”
“OK, yes … it was called SRA.” You pause, because you’re pretty sure SRA as it existed in its glossy cardboard form hasn’t been a classroom activity for a very long time, and you’re also pretty sure Sara and Angie are both much younger than you are. Aren’t they? You think … you’re not sure … you have no idea to whom you are speaking. You run a finger down the list of names and numbers on the flimsy printed directory given to you when you first moved into this subdivision — what was it, three years ago — trying to figure out who you have dialed. Did you dial seven numbers? Or eight? Which column? Margery? Mary Alice? Zora? Who are these people, anyway? It’s too late to ask now. You consider, and then ask instead, “What did SRA stand for?”
“Science Research Associates.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.”
You hear the shower running upstairs, and you relax into the telling, “OK, so one time there were ten of us who were all on the yellow level … I think it was yellow. The color doesn’t matter, except usually everyone got to work at their own pace through the stories, but this time, the teacher made the ten of us read the same story at the same time. It was a story about a kingdom, a kingdom in which the king had the utmost confidence in the guards posted at the castle gates. The king had so much confidence that he issued a challenge to the people of his kingdom: he offered a great prize … I forget what the prize was, but it was a valuable prize … he offered a prize to whomever could sneak something out of the castle past the guards. And so every day, people tried to sneak things past the guards and out of the castle using all kinds of tricks, but the guards spotted every attempt.”
“Can I interrupt?”
“No, listen … every day, a small boy would appear at the gate before the guards with a wagonful of dirt. Every day, the guards would sift through the dirt and find nothing and allow him to go on his way.”
“Just listen … so at the end of a month, the king stood before the people, triumphant that no one had managed to remove anything unnoticed from within the castle walls, and the little boy raised his hand and said, ‘Oh, but I have! Every day for the past month, I have traveled from this castle with an item I did not bring in with me.’”
“OK, there was a bit more to the story, but I’ll move along to the questions; one of the story’s questions asked what it was that the little boy had managed to take from the castle. I was confident in my answer until the other students started taking their pages up to the teacher to have her check their answers; they were all getting that question wrong. I knew they were getting that particular question wrong, because I kept hearing the teacher say, ‘Read carefully and really think about what he’s moving past the castle guards.’ Student after student went up to the teacher, and they were all getting that question wrong. I began to doubt my own certainty, and I reread the entire story, looking for what I might have missed, but no … my answer was correct.” The person on the other end of the line says nothing, and you are suddenly certain you are talking to no one. “Are you still there?”
“OK, the thing was, I knew my answer was correct, but I was just as terrified that it was wrong. I couldn’t stop thinking that I had missed something. I read the story a third time, as the last of the other students went to the teacher and was chided for poor reading comprehension, and then I stared at the story blindly as several students went up a second time, with new and still incorrect answers. The teacher grew frustrated and her voice grew testy, and she summoned me to her desk. By this time, I was in an absolute panic; I no longer wanted to know the answer; I no longer wanted to know if I was correct; I didn’t want to be correct; I only wanted to disappear.”
“But your answer was correct.”
“Yes. How did you know? Yes, it was the wagons the boy had been stealing from within the castle walls. I was correct, but my stomach hurt and I felt like I was going to throw up and I couldn’t breathe. I felt as though I was going to die, all over knowing the truth.”
“Knowing can be painful. You should know, though … you’ve mis-remembered the story …”
She says, “The contest wasn’t over who could get something out of the castle walls, but who could sneak something in. Every day, the boy showed up at the gates with a wagonful of dirt or straw or rocks or sand, and every day the guards sifted through the contents of the wagon, suspicious some other item was being concealed within. Every day, they found nothing, and so every day, the guards noted in their records … dirt, straw, rocks, sand … and stowed each wagonful along with all of the other confiscated items people had tried to sneak in. The guards never focused on the wagons or the fact that every day, the boy returned with a new wagon filled with dirt or sand or straw or rocks.”
You don’t say anything, because she is correct, of course she is, and you cannot believe you got it ass-backward when the entire point of your own story is how terrifying it had been to have gotten it right.
She continues, “It was never about what was being taken away, but what was being brought in. Your version makes no sense; why would the castle have thirty wagons, and even if thirty wagons were available, why would no one notice their gradual disappearance?”
You don’t say anything. Damn him, anyway.
There is a pause, and then she says, “Not that it matters, but it was green.”
“What was green?”
“The SRA reading level that contained that story — it was green. Not yellow.”
“Was it? How do you remember that?”
“I just do.”
You hang up the phone without explanation as he walks into the kitchen.
You say nothing, watching as he pours coffee, eats a muffin, pets the dog. He gathers his keys and his coffee cup, and then he pauses at the door, his left hand trailing behind as he turns slightly to say goodbye. You don’t meet his eyes; you stare instead at the curve of the fingers on his empty left hand, imagining a wagon handle within his grip. “Have a good day,” he says, and then he’s gone.
You wonder what her name is.
12 thoughts on “Confidence of pain”
I remember the SRA boxes! The stories weren’t that great, but I had an odd sense of satisfaction moving through the levels.
I will take that.
I have no memory of this SRA thing. Probably wasn’t a thing that long ago.
Was the story Mis-remembered? Or rewritten to current affairs? Hmmmm.
Does it matter? I think it does not.
I must be the only person to DESPISE the SRA and its stupid stories. It must have been 4th grade. I hated that they took the M*A*G*I*C of READING and turned it into another damn find the hidden object quiz. I just wanted to READ damnit! I wanted to float away on biplanes, hide in treehouses, cross oceans and the oregon trail. And some jackass at the Ohio State University (I grew up in Ohio. We were stuck with the damn boxes before anyone else.) decided that the way for kids to gain reading comprehension was to stress them out over picky, picky details of short stories. Argh.
Anyway, I love your story. It brought the whole experience back. I mean that in a good way. Well done.
Honestly, it was 4th grade for me as well, back in Michigan. As for the stories being stupid and lame, the questions nit-picky? Agreed, but I took the whole thing very seriously, because that’s the sort of kid I was.
More honesty? I don’t remember reading ANYTHING for school before about 8th grade that I enjoyed merely for the sake of reading.
I read voraciously out of school, and to me, that was the real reading.
That was masterful! Not only the absurdity of so much of modern conversation in which we talk past each other, but also our absolute certainty about what is true, when, in fact, that “truth” depends on assumptions that may not be true themselves. Wow! Your next assignment is an allegory that combines #Brexit and #Trump. I have no idea what color the book is in this case.
If you are trying to endear yourself to me, it’s working.
LOL. In my own strange way I managed to tie together Brexit and the Internet of Things (i.e., it could be a win-win solution IF it benefitted EVERYONE, not just the elites. It got more immediate response than anything I’ve ever written. Now what the heck does that have to do with your writings? Dunno!
How quickly you reveal your own self-interests.
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