Checking In

Like clockwork, every April my mom calls me with the same advice that we both know I’ll ignore. “Start packing ...

Like clockwork, every April my mom calls me with the same advice that we both know I’ll ignore. “Start packing up now,” she’ll say, “and do a little bit every day, and you’ll be done before you know it!” Thanks, Mom, but it really doesn’t take two months to throw my crap in boxes and lug it down to the basement. And the two days in May when I do empty out my room are always so awful I would never want to ruin all of spring with that feeling. Just like writing a paper, it’s best to leave it to the last minute in order to minimize the pain of actually doing it.

The one fun thing about packing to go home is finding the stuff at the bottom of my drawer that I haven’t seen since I unpacked and moved in during the fall. Why exactly did I think I needed this framed photograph of my T-ball team? Couldn’t I have left one of my many plush lamb toys at home? What did I plan to do with a bike helmet without a bike? Buried under all that junk is one of my favorite things that I only think about a few times a year: my checkbook.

The only times I write a check now are to pay for  obscure bills like library fines and parking tickets or to pay back debts to friends because I know they’ll forget to cash it. (Thanks for those tickets, Charles!) But when I was younger, a checkbook was, in my eyes, the ultimate symbol of adulthood. Bizarre as it may sound, and lame as my older sister told me it was, writing checks was the thing I looked forward to most about being a grown-up. More fun than driving, sexier than alcohol, more mysterious than late-night television—I thought checks were the coolest toy I would get to play with one day.

From the time I could count to 100 until I was 12, at church every Sunday I slipped out during the pastor’s sermon to help count that week’s offering; it was always my job to separate the checks out from the cash. Cash was boring. Every bill is the exact same wrinkled old piece of green paper with the same tired photograph of an old white man. But a check! Each one is a unique work of art.

You can tell a lot about a person from the style of checks they choose: the cheesy floral prints (mom with bigger things to worry about), the all-business blue or maroon (just plain boring), the Garfield comics (not as funny as he thinks he is). One otherwise normal old lady used checks with Aaliyah’s face on them. Then there’s the handwriting, and, of course, the most important part: the signature. That personalized sequence of squiggles and loops is the authority on which the entire promise of the check rests.

It was fascinating to think that one day my name would be important enough to be accepted in exchange for goods and services. Finally, in high school, the time came for me to get my first Student No-Fee Checking Account. I got the checks one day—geometric shapes, by the way—and a short while and three overdrafts later, I didn’t feel nearly as powerful as I thought I would. Somewhere between age eight and age 17 the debit card had taken over, and I never got more than a handful of opportunities to write any personal checks.

Right around the time the magic of writing checks wore off, the magic of being an adult wore off too. I finally realized what everyone else already knew: checks are stupid. They’re for birthday cards from grandma. (Still waiting on 18-21 actually, Gran.) They’re for paying bills or taxes or rent. And the closer I get to having to do those things on a regular basis, the farther I get from looking at each check I write or receive as a symbol of anything but an annoying trip to the bank.

I outgrew my affinity for checks the last time I let myself take any pleasure in writing one. As part of my duties as publisher of The Harvard Advocate, I was sitting in an office next to Dana, at that time the president of the magazine. We had just finished dealing with a minor plumbing emergency, and as I looked down to pay the bill, I noticed I was writing on check number 666.

“Oh! This is a spooooooky check!” I said wafting the piece of paper in front of the plumber’s face.

“Just give him the stupid thing!” Dana said sharply to me. (She probably didn’t say “stupid.”)

Yeah, it was pretty dumb. But for just one instant, I was a little kid again, pretending to be responsible like a grown-up. And really what’s more grown-up than calling a plumber?

“Packing up your room sooner than the day before you come home would be very responsible and grown-up!” says Mom.

Thanks, Mom, but now I’m thinking that not having to listen to my mother is probably the new coolest symbol of adulthood.

—Charleton A. Lamb '11, a former Crimson Magazine Editor, is a Literature concentrator in Kirkland House.  Babies love him.