My father takes me down to the arroyo when I am so small that I do not yet reach his waist. My feet fumble across flaking desert skin and he pulls me along gently by my hand and tells me to be careful of small cacti and the bones of dead jack rabbits. He does not let me straddle the rift where the earth divides into repelling mounds of sand. Instead, he slips his hands beneath my arms and swings me around in a half circle, his red face wrinkling into a smile.
That morning, my father had crept into my room with the sun and shaken me into consciousness. “Get your sneakers,” he had whispered. “We’re going on a treasure hunt.”
It is minutes later now and we are trudging down an overgrown trail, tactfully descending the deep slopes of New Mexican land. Everything smells strongly of mud and salt and soaked manure from the horse barn down the road. I almost trip over a weed, but my father steadies me and says, “Almost there, baby.”
The arroyo is different than I have ever seen it. It is scattered with long, silver puddles. In the pink glow of the rising sun, the sand looks shiny and slippery. Around us, green tufts of vegetation burst from the earth in unpredictable patterns and yellow wildflowers with thin stems knock softly against each other in the wind.
My father tells me to wait and he steps down into the wet sand. I watch as his sandals sink deep into the ground and leave long footsteps. He crouches suddenly, and digs into the earth with a discarded stick. Then he stands, approaches me, and places in my hand something slimy and smooth.
“A pottery shard,” he says, in explanation. “From the Native Americans, who lived right here a thousand years ago. The rain washes them up. If we’re lucky, we’ll find all the pieces of an entire pot.”
I look down at the strange triangular stone and wipe the sand from its surface. He lifts me up in his arms, carries me back toward the house.
My father gives me a book about Georgia O’Keeffe for my fifth birthday. We read it together and he bounces me on his knee and licks his fingertips before turning the pages. He points at a landscape that looks like a rumpled tablecloth and tells me, “This is why we’re here.” I steal a flashlight and flip through the book under my covers at night. I touch the same glossy picture and whisper, “This is why we’re here.”
When I am 6 years old, the Sunday school teacher asks me what my father does for a living. I tell her he is an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe. I do not know that I am lying. I do not know that he hasn’t sold a piece in months. I do not know that my mother sits at the kitchen table after I go to sleep and cries because the mortgage is past due and she can’t figure out a way to tell me that this year, Santa Claus just might not make it.
For Christmas, my father gives me a sparkling blue stone he found in the arroyo. I say thank you and pretend I mean it. Later, I stand on the edge of our brick patio and wind up my arm and throw the rock as far as it will go. It disappears inside the bristles of a pine tree.
I do not say goodbye to the arroyo before shutting the car door and stretching the seatbelt across my chest. I do not say goodbye because I think that I won’t miss it. We are leaving New Mexico. We are going to New York where my father will get a real job and we will become a real family. We drive alongside a cliff, the rock rough and jagged and sprinkled with a thousand tiny diamonds. I press my finger against the glass. This is why we’re here.
When I am 16 years old, my father takes me back to New Mexico and we go once more to the arroyo. The neglected trail is long gone now and we stumble in our tennis shoes over dried up cacti and colorless desert flowers. I am too old now to hold my father’s hand. He walks a few steps ahead of me and I do not see his face.
The arroyo is bone-dry, littered with dented soda cans, beaten strips of tire and mud-stained garbage bags. Many monsoon seasons have left the sides of the arroyo tall and smooth, except for the dried roots of long-dead plants, still lodged in the dirt, which reach out toward us like skeleton hands.
My father crouches over and his shirt draws taut across his back. He delicately parts the earth with his fingers and searches for something that he will never find again.
“No more pottery,” he says. He looks at me and squints his eyes against the sun. “It must have washed far away by now.”
Suddenly comes to me the vague image of my father in ripped jeans, pressing a pottery shard into my palm.
I wonder if he, too, has washed far away.
While looking through my stacks of pictures, I realize how important the memories in my all-school photos are to me. One particular picture, from ninth grade, is especially significant not because I like to look at what my classmates or teachers looked like, but because it reminds me of how much my life has changed since the beginning of high school. For years, school has been a part of almost everything I do and, except perhaps for my parents, has shaped my future more than anything else. High school has not been the only cause of change for me in the last three years, but it played a pivotal role. Not only did school teach me math, English, and lots of other subjects, but it also changed my outlook on life in ways I now realize aren’t immediately obvious, even to me.
When this picture was taken, the only real activity I did after school, other than homework and my own projects, was tutoring other students once a week. As with almost everything at my school at that time, the tutoring program was disorganized (the school was new then), but that didn’t matter, and I found it particularly enjoyable to know that I was helping other people. While I’ve never had problems with classes, it frustrates me to see others fail, and I like to help them whenever possible. To this day I still tutor students after school, and not only is the tutoring program better than it once was, but my tutoring skills have improved as well.
While I’ve continued with student tutoring, since my ninth grade picture was taken I’ve also expanded my horizons by starting an Electronics Club. For several years now I’ve wanted to start such a club because of my own interest in building gadgets, and because I thought other students might be interested too. My club has only had a few meetings, and only has a few members, but people are coming back for more, even though I don’t think I’ve been making the meetings as interesting as I could have. My hope is that I’ll not only be able to teach club members the basic theories behind electronic design, but also introduce them to my own interests, so that they’ll consider electronics not only as a hobby, but also as a possible career.
Of course, school is only part of life. While I may not immediately associate a school picture with what I’ve done outside of school, especially with my own interests, the principle of looking back to see what has changed still applies. For years, I’ve focused some of my own time on designing and building electronic devices. In ninth grade, I was still finishing what was, at the time, the most complex project I’d done, an odd radio-controlled device designed to fill the neighborhood water tank, which is useful at my house because I live beyond the reaches of the city water system. I personally never thought that the device worked too well, though the neighbors were impressed. Now, while I’m still working on plans for a better version, and while I realize that I have more experience now, I still look back and wonder, “Why did I do it that way?”
At the time the picture was taken, although I did projects for the neighborhood, I was not very involved with the greater community. Since then, I’ve realized that helping the community can be much more than simply fulfilling a school requirement. So, while history has never been my favorite subject, I decided to assist the docents at the local history museum both because I knew the museum needed help and because I really did want to know more about the history of where I live—an area on the central coast of California once dominated by loggers and short-lived boom towns. While working at a museum is not always entertaining, it is both fascinating to see the old photographs and rewarding to know that the history of the area will not be lost. Looking back through the binders of old photos is especially interesting because the pictures show how much has changed since the days of horses and buggies, just as my school picture shows how much has changed for me since the beginning of high school.
A picture is simply a snapshot of one instant, but a stack of pictures can, like a movie, describe the progression of my life. And, as I said before, I mainly look at these pictures not because I want to see what my friends or my teachers looked like then, but for the memories of what has happened and changed in my life since. When I consider the array of pictures as a whole, it becomes even clearer how much I’ve learned and changed, and on closer inspection, how much of this was because, directly or indirectly, of my generally excellent school experience.
Anonymous Student. "Memories: from Then to Now" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 06 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/stanford/memories-from-then-to-now/>.