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Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

My granddaughter Riley graduated from Colorado Rocky Mountain School this weekend, winning Best in Show for academic achievement. It seemed more like four months than four years ago that she graduated from eighth grade at the Aspen Community School, so there’s always the time element at play.

My first 18 years snailed by like molasses in January, while Riley, my little dumpling, turned from a fat-cheeked baby into a woman in an eye-blink.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t time speed up to get through your early miseries and the tedium of education and adolescence as quickly as possible, then slow down when you’re older, wiser, less intense and want that time to watch your grandbabies grow up?

But there’s that, too. At both of these graduations, my overwhelming thought was, “What would my life have been like if I had gone to schools like these?” I cannot imagine Riley being so bored that she’d take a full minute to write, “Twenty minutes to go,” then, “Nineteen minutes to go,” though that is my strongest memory of the Boonton, N.J., public school system.

Sometimes when I feel that we haven’t advanced very much as a species, I remember Riley’s final eighth grade presentation to a room full of faculty, family and observers, basically summarizing What She Learned in those eight years at the Community School and I know that I would never have had the nerve to get up and do that and, if I had been so bold, would have had absolutely nothing positive to say. “I didn’t learn squat in your schools. You wasted a quarter of my lifetime.”

Riley spread out her notebooks and could have gone into overtime talking about all that she had learned, which summed up as, “I learned how to think. I learned how to question. I learned how to find out.”

It was a different era when I was growing up 50 years earlier. There was a war on, nobody we knew had any money, dads worked, mothers didn’t, we listened to what now seem like absolutely juvenile radio programs (not that some TV shows are evidence of evolution), went to the movies but otherwise stuck close to home.

I was 11 when I ate my first meal in a restaurant, a hot dog and a peppermint ice cream cone at a Howard Johnson’s. The hot dogs buns were buttered and toasted, a refinement that so impressed me that I continue it to this day. I was 24 before I ventured west of the Mississippi River!

I look at Riley who, at age 18, has amassed more adventures than I, now in my dotage, have in my lifetime.

She spent three weeks living with a family in India, two in Costa Rica, two in Japan, three at NPR as an intern in Washington, D.C. She spent a semester at a uniformed Catholic girls’ school in Ireland, living with a family from Argentina, speaking only Spanish. She writes and produces her own songs, has soloed twice at the Wheeler (first time, age six), has taken long, hairy rock-climbing and rafting wilderness trips, learned to ride a unicycle, has traveled to Europe, Alaska, has taken innumerable road trips in the States, worked in soup kitchens in San Francisco, replaced roofs in the Hopi Nation, has a soft spot in her heart for Disney Land and Disney World and plays a helluva good game of bridge. When I was her age, I hadn’t done anything, didn’t know anything.

After the graduation event Riley sits curled in a chair at home singing, by popular demand, the song she wrote to my daughter Skye about leaving the nest, and I can’t stop looking at her toes: grown up toes, which were tiny baby “This little piggy” toes just yesterday.


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