Since I wanted to catch hypothermia, I drew the bathwater as cold as I could. I didn’t want to go to school. The romantic term hypothermia promised at least one day of sticking close to the paradise called home.
My second-grade school nurse, a pinched woman who had the qualities of a prune, thought I was faking sick. Occasionally, she was right. “Louise,” she said over the phone to my mother. “Chelsea’s digging her heels in again.”
Mom always drove the 20 dusty miles from work in the unglamorous family car to retrieve me. “Next time that nurse doesn’t listen to you,” she’d say, “Just cry a little bit. Whatever it takes to get me on the phone.”
I had deft reasoning for a 7-year-old. Not even the pinched nurse could disbelieve hypothermia. Unfortunately, I never could manage to contract it. But later I did manage to get sick enough (tonsillitis, three times) to almost fail the fourth grade because of my poor attendance record.
My mother, of course, is the heroine of this story, both because she drove the dusty miles and because she allied with me against the nurse. Further, she allowed me to sprawl in front of the fireplace with a bag of oranges and a yard sale copy of Roots, which I read so long I almost got to America.
The writer Graham Greene shared my enjoyment of sickness. He wrote in his autobiography A Sort of Life:
“Of my other ailments I retain only a sense of peaceful darkness, of endless time, of privacy, a night light burning, and of books bought by my mother for me to read …”
I felt bad about staying home and failing to do the going-to-school duty. In that way, I was a very good girl. But someone recently asked me what the longest distance I’d ever walked was. I had this impulse to say that I’d once walked a very long time across the African desert behind my father while wearing no shoes. But I haven’t done that, even though I feel like I have. I read it in Roots.
Now I relish the thought that despite my good-girl regret about not going to school, I was actually educating myself at home. All I needed was the fireplace, a good mother, a bag of oranges, and a fat book, and I could say for the rest of my life that I’d walked across the African desert. Beats elementary school for education that sticks.
Even these days I dream of getting sick. I wish for pneumonia and endless ice cream to push my final exams off indefinitely. I want to curl up in a small corner of the world and learn things I love, with a bag of oranges. That’s the thing about formal education and deadlines. I just hope that after I cross the line I won’t be dead. Hope I can wriggle my way out of college—a hearty experience of many, many books —and go back to learning the renegade way.