"You all know that this weekend the planets are going to line up. Do you know what that means?"
Twenty six-year-old heads shake. They barely understand what a planet is. If it lines up, isn't that what it's supposed to do? It's the same thing all the first graders do every day. All day long. Before everything. Line up for school; line up for recess; line up for lunch; line up for afternoon recess; line up for potty break; line up to go home. It's how the world goes 'round. Of course the planets have to do it too.
Twenty six-year-old heads change from shakes to nods as they get that all figured out. Lining up makes sense.
"Some people say," the teacher goes on without any thought to the literal manner in which the brains of her tiny charges work, "that there will be a big disaster when this happens. Can you all say disaster? Good. They say that the planets lining up will interfere with our gravitational pull. Can you all say gravity? Very good. That people will simply fly off the planet and into outer space. Some say the planets will fall onto each other and explode."
Twenty six-year-old-heads stop nodding and freeze, eyes wide like plates.
"But boys and girls, we know that's not true, don't we?"
Twenty six-year-old-heads sit there in mute shock.
"We know that we won't float away or crash or explode. Those are just stories. We'll be fine. Well. Have a nice day."
If a pin dropped you'd hear it in China.
"Run along now," the teacher says, thinking she'll be glad when flu season is over. The kids are so unresponsive this time of year. They just don't appreciate her hard work. She should have gone into Iditarod sled-dog racing like mother said.
The children slowly pack up their things in little 1970's book bags. There are no backpacks for children yet. Those come later. Now it is all book bags. With butterflies and ladybugs di-cut and stitched on. Or race cars. Or robots. Plus matching lunch pails that slide inside. The kids all stare at each other without saying a word, images spinning in their heads of parents and brothers and sisters and favorite stuffed animals and the new shoes they just got at the store floating off into space. Forever. Because that's what happens when you go into space. You float forever. Until you run into something and explode. Like teacher said.
It's going to be a great weekend.
The children all go home. One of them spends her weekend in silent terror. She keeps looking toward the sky, waiting for the triple ball of light that is the aligned planets to come searing out of heaven and destroy her home. Or some other equally dreadful thing, like all the lights going out and the Good Humor man not being able to deliver his Ice Cream because he's floating away.
She waits. And waits. And wonders if the planets will also be like an eclipse and she'll go blind if she looks at them. Fearful little prayers cross her lips. But she doesn't tell anyone, and they don't know anything is wrong. Because she is six. Instead she tries to stiffen her upper lip and soldier on until her lip feels like it's going to fall off.
And then the day of evil arrives. The day the planets will align and all will be lost. The little girl wakes up and goes to church. There people walk and talk and act like nothing end-of-the-world is happening. Which makes things more scary. Laughter sounds hollow. Kind words seem like the last.
Finally the six-year-old's family goes home. And after dinner they all gather at the windows to see what they can see. The drapes are pulled aside and everyone gazes at . . . . clouds. Clouds! Oh no! They can't tell if the planets are standing in line or staying put like good little orbs! They can't tell If Maryland is about to get falled-on by Jupiter! They can't tell if a giant Hoover Vacuum is going to suck them all into space!
"You know," the six-year-old's dad says, "It's a shame we can't see this. It would have been remarkable. It doesn't happen very often."
The little girl gets brave. She needs to know what to prepare for. "What," she says, "would it look like. If we could see it?"
"Well," her dad says, "planets are our stars. So if three of them lined up I would imagine it would look like a great big star. Giant. Bigger than any you've ever seen. I've even heard," he goes on, "that some scientists think that's what made the Star of the East when Jesus was born. Planets lining up. Just like they are tonight. If we could see them."
So. If planets lined up when baby Jesus was born, they probably weren't out to kill the earth. They might not even be out to make things explode. They might just be . . . a Very Cool Thing.
The six-year-old nods. This makes sense. Planets lining up isn't scary. It is . . . peaceful.
So. Maybe next time the sky will be clear and the six-year-old will be able to see the Star of the East and there will be nothing to worry about.
But it might be okay, the six-year-old thinks, if her teacher gets sucked into space. Just this once.
PS -This is how my brain remembers that weekend. Which either means I was a strange child or we don't always understand how kids take things in. The heavenly event my teacher was actually preparing us for was a total eclipse, which was viewable by most of the U.S. in March of 1970. Planetary alignment was discussed somewhere in there and clearly had a big impact, as we were suitably terrified. The Star of the East conversation happened as we gazed out the windows at home. Both phenomenon ended up mushed together in my brain and were portents of doom. I thought the eclipse meant total blackness and blindness, and planetary alignment–which I must not have realized wasn't happening too–meant exploding off the earth. My love of cloudy days began shortly after this experience.
It's a miracle I'm not warped.
Wait . . .