ifty years ago I reluctantly gave up on building my spacecraft. This wasn’t an easy decision since I’d already made the spindly nose cone from a tin drum and designed a propulsion system involving the wings of several hundred dead insects. The wings were inside the drum and both were in the garage when I decided to shut down the program. The official reason was “unforeseen circumstances,” a phrase I’d picked up from a brochure, but the actual one was a nine-transistor radio.
For all the time I spend venting frustration on a generation wedded to devices, I conveniently forgetting how I behaved after abandoning my space program.
The nine-transistor portable radio, a birthday gift, included an earphone jack that I first understood only as a tiny hole out of which I might hear things if I could just get close enough. So I’d push the radio’s tiny oval port as close as possible to my ear. Nothing came out. Only later did an annoying but useful adult tell me the port, a jack, was actually intended for a small wire that once plugged in would carry from the jack to my ear (who, I wondered, was jack?) I looked for and found this small wire (still in the box), also found jack, and suddenly huge sounds went directly from the radio into my left or right ear (I could even choose the ear).
So it was that I began walking around everywhere with my small radio tuned to a pop music station. I wore it on the bus. I wore it in the garage. I wore it climbing trees. I wore it in bed. In my mind’s eye I was the first chicly tuned in creature on the planet. Who else heard music no one else did? Who else knew the mysteries of jack? And how could a spacecraft compare to silent listening?
I understood that school was a place for listening only to teachers but I nonetheless devised a way to sneak the radio into my pocket and have the wire run up my shirt, behind my neck (scotch tape) and into my ear. I thus became the first boy in human history to listen to The Beatles while pretending to pay attention to geometry problems, which I hated. Like Columbus, I had made a major discovery. I had discovered distraction. And distraction was like nothing else on the planet, not even insect wings. Distraction was a prize possession to which you could surrender your entire thinking being.
My pioneering efforts went ahead unnoticed until one day Mrs. Clarke came up behind me and asked me, “What in ear?” (She was Vietnamese and, beholden to geometry above all else, sneered at verbs). Her question led to my immediate arrest and removal to my school’s Hall of Shame. As a detainee, I was interrogated by someone from the vice squad, the vice principle, later by another exasperating adult, a counselor, and finally my father, who arrived from his office.
All of them had two persistent questions: “Who did I think I was…?” and “What did I think I was doing…?” I explained the radio, the secret port, the earplug, jack, and the need for music. I even explained the scotch tape. But it all fell on — what else? — deaf ear.
I was suspended for the rest of the day for my criminal activities and told I could not learn anything while also paying attention to something else. Moreover, the entire exercise was very rude if not dishonest. I disagreed of course. I’d given up my space program to dedicate myself to the practice of distraction. I’d also failed geometry.
In weeks that followed my father diligently explained the demands of focus, and how I couldn’t possibly listen to the song “She Loves You” while also learning English, or geometry. Nor would he hold my hand if I failed again. I was on my own.
That’s how I reluctantly came to abandon using my nine-transistor radio at school. Not elsewhere, mind you, but at school, in the realm of Mrs. Clarke, whose geometric eloquence always cut to the incorrect quick: “What, you think you in car? You think you not with people? You think you have many heads? You stupid boy.”
Some days — among today’s countless many-headed people — I actually miss her.