Whew! It’s May 22nd, and I feel like I’ve dodged yet another apocalyptic bullet. Actually, I’m very happy to confess that I wasn’t in the least concerned by crazy Mr. Camping’s May 21st Rapture prediction, but I do very seriously wonder how many children out there were frightened by his prophecy. The reason for my speculation is that I was once a completely terrified twelve year-old certain that the world would not last beyond my childhood. There were two extremely valid reasons that my pre-pubescent self was certain that doomsday was drawing near. The first was that my grandmother had ever so lovingly taken me, at least a dozen times, to the Pentecostal church that she attended. One thing I soon found out about Pentecostals, besides the fact they rolled in the aisles and spoke in tongues, was that they talked constantly about “the end times,” and according to them just about everything was a sign that the end times were near. If there was a slight earthquake in California, it was a sign of the end times. If teenaged boys began wearing their hair longer, it was a sign of the end times. If an R-rated movie won an Academy Award, then Armageddon was soon to follow. The other, and perhaps most binding, reason that I feared the end of the world was imminent was that a person that I deemed extremely credible told me that it would be happening. This person was my 7th grade science teacher and at 12, I had no doubt that any grain of knowledge passed down to me by a teacher was absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt the truth.
Mr. Smith was hired to teach 7th grade science a few months after school had actually started. Before him, we had a series of substitute teachers who never seemed to get past the first chapter in the science book. I was tired of learning and relearning about cell functions, so I was pretty psyched when the board of education granted Mr. Smith the position of our science teacher. Mr. Smith was a cool, young, teacher fresh out of college. He energetically pushed us through the rest of cell biology and moved through several more chapters. Everything was going swimmingly until we reached the chapter on astronomy. At first, this unit was rather exciting because Mr. Smith deemed himself an amateur astronomer complete with a very expensive telescope and a notebook brimming with universal theories. Immediately, after he spent some time bragging to us about the size and cost of his device, he began sharing his theories. Most were fairly benign, but the theory that he called “The Big One” was horrific. He claimed that in March of 1982 the planets would align on the same side of the sun causing an event so cataclysmic that we would all be hurled into a black hole where our bodies would implode, leaving nothing but our severed consciousness to float in a sea of nothingness for eternity. This was some pretty deep shit that he was springing on a bunch of naïve 12 year-olds, but he was a teacher; an authority figure, and I felt forced to consider the possibility of his postulations.
Suddenly, my small world began to feel more than a little hopeless. Things at home were already pretty grim. With my mother recovering from a radical mastectomy and my father drinking himself to a raging oblivion on a daily basis, school had been my escape. Now with nothing but additional doomsday theories from Mr. Smith to look forward to during 5th period, school felt sullied and ruined. I began to look for ways to get out of his class. I was far too terrified of the wrath of my father to ditch 5th period, so I attempted to claim illness every day after lunch, in order to be sent home. At first it worked, and my grandmother or a neighbor would pick me up from school. After a week of this, however, my mother grew wise to my ruse and demanded to know why I didn’t want to spend the entire day at school. Was I being picked on? Was I doing poorly in a class? I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what I was trying to avoid. She was battling cancer and I was terrified that if she knew that we were all going to die in 1982 that she would abandon her fight. So I told her everything was fine, that I was feeling better and would no longer call to come home. This left me with finding a way to get through Mr. Smith’s class without listening to his theories or his responses to my classmates constant queries about “The Big One.” Not paying attention in class had always been sort of problem of mine, and I decided to use it to my advantage. So, during Mr. Smith’s class I completely blocked out his lecturing and voraciously wrote in my science notebook. I made sure to periodically look up, make eye contact, and nod in agreement with what he was saying so he would think that I was hungrily writing down his every word. In truth, I was writing my bucket list, and since I knew that most of the goals on my list would never be completed before the planets aligned and we were all screwed, I wrote about how they might have been. I wrote of graduation and college, about my marriage to Donny Osmond and our two kids named Jasmine and Xavier. I wrote about my career as a famous actress who did both dog food commercials and soap operas with Academy Award winning flair.
My plan was working beautifully until report card time rolled around and the square that usually housed an above average science grade held an F. This F brought me much more worry than it would to your average 7th grader, my mother, who had always been very active in my school life, was insistent about attending a parent-teacher conference to discuss my poor mark and lack of progress. Like any kid with an F on her report card, I didn’t want her to attend a meeting with my teacher. This wasn’t because I was afraid of her finding out that I had been slacking in class. It was because she was receiving chemotherapy and I was terrified that she would contract a life-threatening illness at my germy school. This was my tipping point. It was the moment that my fear of losing my mother became greater than my fear of the end of the world and I fessed up. Everything came spilling out. I tearfully showed her my detailed bucket list and begged her to not abandon her fight despite the short time that we all had left on Earth. She circled me in her arms and assured me that for centuries people have foretold the world’s demise without success. She said that I had nothing to worry about, and that’s all it took to make things better. I believed her, because when you’re 12 a mother’s theory trumps all others.
With some work I eventually raised my science grade to a B, although a substitute placed the higher mark on my report card. Mr. Smith wasn’t permitted to finish out the school year, once school officials found out that he had been inviting students to his home to see his “telescope” and discuss his theories. My mother recovered and spent the rest of her life cancer free, and I’ve never worried about the end of the world again.