Day 15. Back-to-School Night

The duck-rabbit found itself beginning to sweat and seethe with misanthropy mere minutes after arriving in the Cafetorium for back-to-school night. It was about mid-way through the parade of perky women with bouncy hair explaining why Carnival! or RunFest! Or Science Club! was super-fun! that I started to feel my will to live slipping away. It’s not that the duck-rabbit hates running or science (although I do despise the annual school Carnival with a pure and flinty hatred). The duck-rabbit likes running. The duck-rabbit likes science. But, curiously, when these activities the duck-rabbit actually enjoys are described as “super-fun” ways of becoming a part of the school “family” all the joy just drains out of them. The duck-rabbit is not good at having fun in groups of strangers. The duck-rabbit feels an urge to start backing away slowly.

Perhaps you’re tsk-tsking at the duck-rabbit. Perhaps you’re thinking, “who is against the science club, for Pete’s sake?” Well, hear me out. There was just something about the moment when the (perky, bouncy-haired) Chair of the Science Club, who has run this club for a few years now, announced blithely to the assembled parents, “I know nothing about science! That’s why I love running this club!” that made the duck-rabbit let out an involuntary snort. What the nice lady meant was that she wanted to run the club so that she’d have the opportunity to learn about science along with her daughter, and that’s really great, really it is, except for when you’re trapped in the Cafetorium for one of these allegedly scientifically educational events, as the duck-rabbit was last year, and you start thinking to yourself, “I think this event may have been organized by someone who knows fuck-all about science.

The duck-rabbit was acutely aware that it might see or perhaps even, gods willing, meet the lovely Sophisticate on this evening. And the duck-rabbit felt conscious that it was not attired in vestments worthy of that belle of the Schoolyard. No, the duck-rabbit was dressed in what I will generously call its “summer wardrobe.” At this juncture, I want all of you who have seen the duck-rabbit at any time in the past two months to conjure it up in your mind’s eye because, odds are, I was wearing precisely this ensemble when I saw you, rendering any description unnecessary. You see, I’ve been wearing this same combination of clothing, ooh, probably 3-5 days a week since July.

For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the duck-rabbit lately, will you local friends all help me describe the outfit? Great, thanks. Yup, Em, you’re right, it’s my trusty Old Navy blue-and-white striped T-shirt (I’ve got 3 of ‘em!). Then, yes Laura, it’s the A-line black-linen skirt with the drawstring waist and, you’re so right, the skirt you’re making me (what a lucky duck-rabbit I am!) will be so much more stylish than this old piece of sackcloth (in fact, now I think of it, that’s probably why you’re making me a skirt, isn’t it? Because you’re so bloody tired of seeing me in this one!). Adorning the duck-rabbit’s feet, in what was, frankly, the only stylish touch, was, you’ve guessed it Natalie, those little green ballet pumps that were cast-offs from you, and which are very, very lovingly worn-in at this point. My hair was pulled into a scruffy ponytail.

But I would like to draw to your attention an important grooming adjustment that the duck-rabbit chose to make before going to back-to-school night.

It chose to remove the underpants from its head.

Now, wait. Now, hold on. Please just withhold your judgment and let me explain because it’s all going to become perfectly clear when I do. Here’s the thing. The duck-rabbit has shoulder-length hair and, in the summer months generally finds it most comfortable to wear its hair up, held up on top of its head with a large hair-clip or else pulled into a ponytail or knot of some kind secured with a hair elastic.

Now, sometimes, especially after transatlantic trips, the duck-rabbit’s supply of hair elastics and clips will go mysteriously missing, and there’ll be a drastic shortage with only a couple of hair elastics in circulation, and those two are themselves always being mislaid due to being taken off and shoved in various pockets and wrapped around the duck-rabbit’s wrist and then removed and fiddled with during an uncomfortable therapy session. Anyway, the point is, yesterday morning, it was warm and there were no elastics to be found, and the duck-rabbit just wanted to get its hair off its neck already, so it resorted to a tried and trusted method that it has employed ever since it was a teenager, which is to use a clean, and I want to emphasize this, clean pair of knickers (underwear to you my American friends; actually, it suddenly strikes me that I am actually not sure what American women call their underwear; you don’t really call them panties do you? Please tell me that you don’t. The word panties is just wrong.) to tie up my hair.

Whenever I do this, and I’ve done this on many, many occasions over the past 25 years or so, I am struck by how effectively the knickers perform this task. They’re soft, but also hold the hair really securely. (For those who want instructions, simply push your hair through the waist and one of the leg-holes and then loop the knickers around and around the ponytail/topknot as many times as necessary to secure it tightly. Honestly? There’s really no fixed technique: be creative!)

No, there’s only one rule you need to remember when utilizing the knickers-as-ponytail-holder solution, and that’s to remove the knickers from one’s hair before going out in public. The duck-rabbit always makes a concerted effort, when securing its hair in this, uh, fashion, to mentally note, “Remember this moment. I have just tied my hair up with a pair of knickers. I must certainly remember to replace said knickers with a respectable ponytail holder before venturing out in public.” There have been a goodly number of occasions in the duck-rabbit’s life when it has been, say, on the tube in London, and has reached up a hand to adjust its ponytail only to feel the soft fabric and immediately think, “Fuck! Left knickers in hair!” This is usually followed by the comforting thought, “Yeah, but nobody can really tell, can they?”

Now, as you read this I suspect that you may be thinking one of two things. Either, you may be thinking, “Yup, tried and true technique, one I’ve used myself on many an occasion.” Or you may be thinking, “I suspect she’s never done this before. Tying her hair up with knickers was just some silly stunt she pulled because she’s clearly casting about desperately for something to write about.”

Oh ye doubters! I could call several witnesses here, most important of whom would be my Mum. I suspect there may also be a couple of readers of this blog (Liz? SJ?) who have witnessed this behavior. I know for a fact that the conversation I had with He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved when I came down to have something to eat before going to back-to-school night, was an exchange that I have had several times in my life. It always goes the same way, which is the way it went here:

He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved: (Doing double take) Do you have underwear in your hair?”

Duck-rabbit: (Testily) Might do.

(Pause.)

He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved: Are they … are they clean?

Duck-rabbit: Yes they’re clean! Jesus! Why does everyone always ask that? (Shakes head, muttering, while hastily replacing the offending knickers with an elastic that it has just spotted and congratulating itself on the fact that, not only will it be attending back-to-school-night in the manner of a responsible parent, but it will also be attending said event without underwear in its hair.)[1]

So there I was, seething with misanthropy in the Cafetorium without underwear in my hair. When they finally released us from our pen and let us shuffle over to the classrooms to meet our children’s teachers, I was rather over-excited to discover that the lovely Sophisticate was seated just two uncomfortably small chairs down from me. I will admit to surreptitiously checking my hair once more just to make doubly-sure that I truly had removed the knickers from my hair, which indeed I had. We did not get a chance to speak or to be introduced, but I was able to observe that the lovely Sophisticate’s hair was now cropped short with a rakish quiff at the front. It was a kind of Eurythmics-era-Annie Lennox-meets-Elvis hairstyle, but she still wore the same Catherine-Deneuve-in-Belle-de-Jour clothes: a tweed pencil skirt and patent leather ankle-strap stilettos with four-inch heels. Simply marvelous.

The duck-rabbit enjoyed getting to see the elder flopsy-duckit’s classroom. Mounted on the wall were some short stories that the children had written and illustrated. Alongside another parent that I knew slightly, I scrutinized the wall searching for the elder flopsy-duckit’s story. The other parent found her son’s first.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed in horror. “Look at it!” Turning to me, she went on, “You’re a Professor. What do you teach again?”

“Literature, English literature,” I replied.

“All right, well doesn’t this [pointing at her son’s story] look to you like the work of someone who is going to grow up to be schizophrenic?” she enquired.

I laughed a little nervously, uncertain whether or not she was joking, and proceeded to peer at the page in question, with its messy handwriting and inventive, busy drawings adorning the margins.

“No! I mean, I just think it’s very creative,” I pronounced authoritatively, speaking as the expert-on-handwriting-as-a-predictor-of-future-mental-health that I am, indeed, as all Professors are, regardless of whether their discipline has anything to do with child psychology. I continued, encouragingly, “I think it looks like the work of someone who is going to grow up to be an artist!”

The mom looked at me in horror. “Oh God. Don’t even say that.”

I was genuinely confused. I was trying to compliment her son but apparently I had said something very bad. This is what happens when you come from a family filled with artists.

I wandered out of the classroom, dazed and bewildered.

[1] I can’t help but wonder; have I here hit upon the one situation in which is important to remove one’s underpants before venturing out in order to avoid a breach of social decorum?

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