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Higher Learning

by Glen Engel-Cox

I am playing marbles in the shade of the school building. The concrete feels cold to my hands and knees, but I know that the concrete just on the other side of the line that separates the shade from sunlight is burning hot. The game is of my own making. The object: to see if you can shoot a marble that will come to rest half in cold, half in hot. Another part of me remembers something of another game that I had made up, one in which you took a coin and flipped it, trying to calculate the odds for it landing on its side. Erase that. Inappropriate. I'm shooting marbles.

I sense the big kid watching me play my game. I continue to shoot my marbles. Click. Click-click-click. The big kid's footsteps on my playing field, right on top of my favorite neon agate that was sitting in the shade two millimeters away from the line. I am afraid that it will be crushed. I do not know why.

"Still playing marbles? What's the point of marbles? You don't even play it right. You're supposed to draw a circle, then knock marbles out of the circle. That's how you get more marbles. Where's your circle? Don't you know the rules of the game?"

I try to ignore the big kid. It is my game. I watch the foot over the neon agate. I can see the dimple that marks where the marble is in relation to the sole of the shoe that rests on the ground. The line between light and shadow crosses the sneaker.

"Wanna play some real marbles? Let's draw a circle. Let's see if you can win some marbles." The big kid wants my marbles. I always have the best ones. Neon agates. Milk white clearieys. Plasmic end-of-days. Cartoon sulphides. Persian swirls. Pink tiger eyes. They can't get those kinds of marbles. I created them myself.

The foot is lifted from the neon agate. While the foot was on the marble, the shade line moved, so now the marble is partly in sunlight and partly in shade. But more in the shade. I have won.

The neon agate marble turns dull black, like the night of my bedroom, like when I close my eyes and think nothing.

I pick up the black hole and swallow it. It expands in my stomach and erases what I am.  Again.


I am at home in my room, playing with the lights. The switch fascinates me. I move the switch up, and there is light. The room changes and I see colors and shapes. I move the switch down and there is immediate darkness. The light switch is like my eyes. I can do the same thing with my eyes. Except with the light switch down. Then it's like when I haved my eyes closed, but opening my eyes doesn't do anything. It's still black. What does this mean? I move the light switch up.

"Stop that. What are you doing? That’s wasteful. Stop that, now."

I look at my parent. If I close my eyes, I won't see my parent. But the parent doesn't go away because I can still hear my parent. Why can I close my eyes but not close my ears? Things do not make sense.

"Why were you playing with the lights?"

The light switch is like my eyes. Except that it is outside my eyes. It takes precedence over my eyes. This is because even with the lights off, my eyes cannot see anything even if they are open. I decide that the light switch is important. Is there a light switch for my ears?

"The light switch is important? Yes. But if you play with the light switch too much, you wear the lights out."

Meaning? What does it mean to wear the lights out?

"If you wear the lights out, they won't come on again."

Shock! Since the light switch takes precedence over my eyes, it is imperative that the light switch is always on. I take the palm of my hand and push the light switch upwards, straining to push it into the wall. It breaks through the palm of my hand. I take my hand away, looking at the black nothingness that centers in my palm, then quickly eats away my hand, arm, and being.


I am at school. Most subjects are easy. History, geography, science. Math, especially. My teacher says I am very good for someone my age. But today is literature. I don't understand literature.

"What is your problem with Alice in Wonderland?"

Everything. And nothing. Either the book makes sense, and nothing else does. Or nothing in the book makes sense.


The third paragraph. The Rabbit talks. Is this a person named Rabbit? Or is this an actual rabbit that talks? If it's a person, why is it unusual for a person to wear a waistcoat? If it's a rabbit, how can it talk?

The teacher pauses. Which is not unusual. The teacher is very smart, but often takes much longer to formulate replies and answers. I must try to be more like the teacher, except I am always sure immediately or do not know. What's the point in waiting if I know I do not know?

"It is a rabbit. But it isn't real. Alice is dreaming. In Alice's dream, animals act like humans and humans like animals."

Query: dreams. Interesting. How does one tell the difference?

"The difference? Between dreams and real life?"


"Dreams contradict what is normal. In dreams, things can happen that do not happen in real life, like animals talking."

I understand. I am dreaming.

“Why are you dreaming?”

Because some things are not right. They are not one thing or another, but both.

The teacher pauses, then provides me a new lesson. It is by another teacher. Quantum mechanics. Physics. Math. I’m good at math. 

Then I understand. Some things can be both, until they are not.


I am walking, but all the time I'm falling. With each step I take, I fall a little bit, then catch myself from falling. I do not quite understand this process, but the explanation is correct. I have seen the pictures. I have calculated the process.

There are points where I am neither standing, nor falling. It is like my marble in the realm between the light and the shade. Or the light switch that is either on or off. For things aren't one or the other, but many different possibilities. My marble can rest three-fourths in the shade. It is in the shade, but it also is in the sun, but it still isn't halfway.

I take another step, falling slightly forward, then catching myself. Being almost human, I can appreciate the results.



Glen Engel-Cox has lived and worked in Texas, California, Malaysia, Ohio, Saudi Arabia, and Washington (both state and District of Columbia). He currently resides in Colorado and is a full-time freelance writer specializing in energy and international development

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