Sixth grade math class. Miss Hughes stood at the front of the classroom. She was short, young and powerfully built, with a sarcastic sense of humor that you and most of the class appreciated.
You didn’t much like math, but you hadn’t yet come to loathe it, with “having skipped eighth grade math and therefore lost way too much ground to catch up later” being a synonym for loathing.
The classroom was laid out in straight rows of those desk-chair combinations that you still see in classrooms wherever you go. You sat near the back in one of them, with your friend John in the desk ahead of you. John was tall and lean and blonde. He still is.
Miss Hughes rolled her chalk in her hands and covered the blackboard with numbers. Worksheets were passed around. Math books were opened to designated pages. In memory, it was always fall in math class. Or spring. Sunlight slanting through the big windows on the far side of the room. Green grass beyond.
John propped his math book open vertically on his desk so that his sketchpad was hidden below it. The sketchpad was full of caricatures: people, animals, scenes near and far. He drew with a black pen and he hunched over his desk. From all directions except yours and the others right next to him, he looked deeply studious.
You used to admire his artwork so much, back then when you were eleven years old. How could he draw so effortlessly? All those sketches came directly out of his brain and transferred themselves to paper with a few quick strokes of his hand and that black pen.
From the time you first met him, in sixth grade, which is when three area elementary schools combined into one middle school and then one high school, he was always drawing. When you picture John back then, he is hunched over his desk, tall body crammed into a too-small desk and chair. His blonde hair falls over one eye and the pen is moving over that blank page.
Everything he did with that pen was cool, from his drawings to his handwriting to the way he wrote phone numbers.
His initials: JK. But he used the back of the J to form the spine of the K, so that it was all one cool combo-letter. You admired that endlessly.
Phone numbers: He put dots, or slashes, between the area code and the exchange, e.g., 315/865.4734. That, too, you admired endlessly. In fact, you admired it so much that you stole it, then and there, and that’s how you’ve written down phone numbers ever since.
His drawings: He never stopped. Now he’s a New Yorker cartoonist. You still remember the day you opened up the most recent New Yorker to behold a cartoon that looked strangely familiar in style and substance. And there was his name, right there in the bottom of the panel.
What you learned from him, besides how to write down phone numbers: To prop your math book up on your desk and open a novel beneath it, so that once that math worksheet was filled out, you could read and read and read.
Like him, you were arrowing yourself in a single direction. We do best that which we love to do.