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They herded us into a stark white room -- the monochromy interrupted only by a chalkboard and the door through which I was then passing. The room smelled of erasers and cleaning fluid. The pack of fifth graders to which I unfortunately belonged chatted
“Ben’s cute.” Allie stated.
“O, my g-d, I know.” Sarah confirmed.
“I sat with him on the bus today” Jen bragged.
The cluster of girls sighed in awe and jealousy.
“Well once he was my partner in gym!” Allie said. “And he told me I was good at basketball.”
The girls posited a possible crush Ben might have on Allie.
“Well,” Jen continued, “he said ‘Hi’ to me in the hall the other day. And I said ‘Hi’ back. And we brushed shoulders as we passed each other.”
“He likes me!” Allie shouted
“NO!” Yelled Jen, “He likes me!”
The group of girls stormed across the room over to where Ben was standing. He turned to face them in response to a tap on the shoulder. Jen and Allie straightened their backs and tried to maintain a benevolent countenance.
“Who do you like more, me or Jen”
Ben laughed and returned back to his conversation.
The two girls turned back to the wider group. “Well?” They all inquired.
“He’s so cute.” Jen said. “So cute.” Allie agreed.
This time I laughed.
“What are you laughing at, fat a**?” “Yeah Fatso!” “Yeah! Go eat a cake or something!” The group laughed.
Jen and I had shared a class in Second grade so I sort of knew her. People called her the class slut because she and Andy were always holding hands during recess. All the girls pretended to hate her but really they just wanted to be her. Girls were always vying to play with her hair or to stand in line with her. In all 180 days of school, all she said to me was, "Move it, Twinkie." Albeit a witty way to both move me and call me fat, though completely inappropriate for the context in which it was spoken.
Mrs. Wimberley seated us in a semi-circle on the carpet. A boy whom I had never met before sat down to my left. A scrawny little child, the boy's face seemed stretched across his skull. Thin blonde hair formed a thin coating over his scalp. Turning to face me, the boy stated "My name's Oliver, what's yours?" He smiled – a seemingly impossible feat – seeing as his skin already seemed stretched beyond capacity.
"I'm Max," I replied.
"Nice to meet you, Max!" Oliver was apparently overjoyed at the admission my name. He thrust out a small, chubby hand. His fingers were white and stubby, ending in neatly clipped fingernails.
I gazed down at the hand with mild disgust. The fingers were just so manicured and perfect – so friendly and pointless. Ignoring the hand completely, I turned my head toward Mrs. Wimberley who was then addressing us.
My new teacher had dressed herself, tawdrily, in a bright green coat with padded shoulders and orange polka-dots, ending in a pair of sequined cuffs. Beneath that, she wore a low cut black dress, stopping just above the knees. And – my favorite article of the mismatched outfit – a pair of orange and black striped stockings wrapped tightly
around her jiggling calves.
"Hello class, my name is Mrs. Wimberley. I'm going to be your teacher for the rest of the year. Now here are some things I think you should know about me. I like the color orange – it's my favorite color. Also, I've gone skydiving. That's where they bring you high up on a plane and then drop you and you use a parachute to catch your fall. I also like hamsters. In a couple days I'll bring in my pet hamster – his name is George. So now we know a little bit about each other. I hope we'll be friends. Now here are some rules for us to follow. We must all respect one another. I want you all to learn the golden rule. Does anyone know the golden rule?"
Lucy's hand shot up. Triumphantly, she announced, "I know the golden rule." She smiled sycophantically and straightened her back.
Mrs. Wimberley smiled kindly and inquired, and what is the golden rule, Lucy?"
"The golden rule," answered Lucy, "Is: Treat each other as you would wish to be treated."
"Good . . ." Cooed Mrs. Wimberley. "Very good . . . Now I want everyone to say the golden rule with me. OK? OK. So, repeat after me. The golden Rule says."
"The golden rule says."
"That you should treat others."
"That you should treat others."
"The way you would want to be treated."
"The way you would want to be treated."
Mrs. Wimberley smiled proudly. Her prized students could mimic the noises she had made.
Following our exposure to the golden rule, we were instructed to make name tags for ourselves. Mrs. Wimberley retrieved a clear plastic crate filled with index cards, markers and safety pins. "Now I want all of you to pick a card, write your name and decorate the border. You're going to have these cards for the rest of the year and it's
important that they look nice." G-d forbid she be forced to read our names without our poorly draw designs in the background.
Once more, she herded the pack of fresh fifth graders over to the crate. Jen stood squarely in front of the opening. "Could you please move?" I asked.
"I would but your fat butt's in the way."
Several children laughed.
Eventually I got hold of the necessary equipment and began drawing, making sure to leave a small space in the corner for my name. Beside me sat a nicely proportioned Jewish girl with flowing brown hair. Her eyes were deep and brown. Needless to say, this
nine-year-old had not yet gone through puberty. However, she somehow managed to pull off sexy. I glanced down at her nametag. She had bordered the card with the standard of hearts and flowers. The letters in her name – Rachel – ended in little loops and curves. On whole it was like every other fifth grade girl's nametag. I complimented her on its originality.
"Thanks!" She said, cheerily.
I stared at her blankly – eventually concluding that sarcasm was beyond her mental capacity.
"Yours is pretty too." Rachel commented, glancing down at the pair of legs on my index card.
"It's the result of a Hemicorporectomy."
I explained that it was the medical procedure where a surgeon removes the lower half of someone's body.
"Cool!" Rachel exclaimed with wide-eyes.
Though impressed with her deviation from the girly girl persona the nametag had suggested, I had to disagree with her. The procedure actually sounded horrible. I imagined a man with no legs, defecating into a colostomy bag and walking around on his blistered hands. I expressed my disapproval, "On the contrary I imagine it would be miserable having your legs and penis removed. You can still function – for the most part, but you're missing a whole part of yourself.
Rachel chuckled. I asked her what was so funny, to which she answered. "Penis…" As if that explained everything.
"It's an organ," I stated. "There's nothing funny about it. The word 'penis' is no funnier than the word 'vagina."
Rachel laughed again. "Vagina . . ." she said.
I told her I was finished. I rose, and returned my markers to Mrs. Wimberley.
"Ok, little ducklings. Now we're going to do a reading exercise. You'll need to be paired up for this worksheet. Now, you're all nice little children, and you've been in school for a week I think you can make your own partners." The students cheered in unison. Immediately the frenzied paring began. "Jen! Over here!" Claire shouted.
"Lucy, be my partner!" Rebecca commanded. The girls quickly found a counterpart, while the boys ambled around, grunting in request and affirmation. I remained in my seat.
"Who doesn't have a partner?" Mrs. Wimberley asked.
"I don't!" Oliver shouted, raising his pale chubby hand.
My hand rose slowly.
"Oh! Max! We can be partners!"
"Super!" I exclaimed, jumping from my chair. We seated ourselves on the carpet in the sea of smiling couples, poring over their respective worksheets.
I instructed Oliver to do the worksheet and ask me if he had any questions – that way, we wouldn't crowd each other but both of us could contribute. For the half hour that ensued, Oliver slaved over the sheet, occasionally asking for advice on the spelling of words like "apple" and "table." He insisted that the spellings I supplied were in fact wrong because, "The word is 'table,' tay-bul, not tab-leh, table." Meanwhile, I looked around the room and thought about lunch.
The previously white walls now played host to Mrs. Wimberley's collection of posters, which featured mantras like, "There's no 'I' in team." In addition, Mrs. Wimberley had displayed her personal collection of student made artwork, most of which were crayon drawings of Mrs. Wimberley with her name misspelled on the bottom. Rachel sat in the corner doing her worksheet with Sharon. Above the two hung my favorite adornment, a gigantic framed photograph of Mrs. Wimberley's puppy – a cute, fluffy golden retriever.
Following Oliver's and my completion of the worksheet, the class broke for recess. Our playground was situated in back of the school building. The main structure was a veritable wooden metropolis wherein one could slide, swing, climb, monkey, balance, hang, or anything else one so chose. Beyond stretched verdant field upon which stood two soccer nets. And finally, off to one side, there was rooted a tall oak, under whose shade I spent every recess doing challenge worksheets.
Today, the children chose freeze tag for the recess game. I watched in mild amusement. The players had formed two teams so to speak and the ensuing mayhem resembled a Jets vs. Sharks chase. Allie and Jen had appointed themselves leaders and organizers of each respective team.
Through the field of frozen, almost statuesque bodies and scurrying fifth graders, Rachel approached, taking a seat against the oak trunk beside me. "Hi, max." She said, in her casually cheerful way.
"What's that?" She asked, gesturing to the worksheet in my hand.
I explained that the sum of the squares of the legs of an isosceles triangle was equal to the triangle's hypotenuse.
"Oh. Sounds fun."
I agreed that in fact it was a blast.
"Listen," she implored. "Sorry I wasn't partners with you today. I wanted to be but then Sharon asked me and I couldn't say 'no."
I began to sob, wailing, "Is Sharon more important than I? Is that it? I don't even want to be partners with you anymore." I balled my fists and let loose the river inside me.
"Oh no! Don't cry!" She exclaimed.
My hands dropped from my tearless face. "It's fine, I really didn't care who my partner was."
We sat in silence for several minutes, watching the melee below. From the chaos emerged a bobbing blonde head. Oliver stood before Rachel and me smiling grotesquely. "Hi, Max!" He exclaimed. "Thanks for helping me on the worksheet, I couldn't have done it without you."
"Well, maybe if you weren't such a moron . . ."
"What's a moron?"
I explained that a moron was someone with an excess of moronic qualities. Oliver's smile slackened slightly. "What are those?" He asked.
"They're the things that you have which prevent you from understanding what they are!"
Oliver's face finally relaxed into an almost worried frown. His eyes acquired an almost panicked look to them. "Huh?" He said.
"It means that you are stupid! It means that every word you say intensifies my desire to drive a pike through your head. It means that you have no friends, and no one likes you."
Oliver's frown and panic turned to utter shock.
"And you might as well go into a corner and satisfy your own narcissism because nobody but yourself is going to mirror the affection you show."
Oliver turned, and walked from the tree.
Rachel faced me. "Why did you do that?"
"He didn't know what moron meant." I explained
Rachel paused, then informed me. "You have a Hemicorporectomy."
"Like you said, you can function, but you're missing a whole part of yourself.
The wind rustled the leaves above us. Rachel and I continued our silent observation of the game. Allie's regime had frozen almost all of Jen's players and, of course, internal conflict arose. Nicole had begun ordering children around, in effect
usurping Allie's position as ruler. Nicole, though lacking in Allie's leadership skills was herself a paragon player in the sport of freeze tag and thus a more suitable ruler. In one monumental move, Nicole froze Allie. The traditionalistic Allie-supporters turned toward
Nicole in a fit of rage, determining to freeze her before recess ended. Meanwhile the radicalist Nicole supporters began a campaign to freeze Allie's supporters before they could freeze Nicole. Alas, Nicole was frozen. And finally – stripped of their organization – the fifth graders were reduced to just that: Fifth graders playing a little game during recess.
Mrs. Wimberley called out from outside the school building, "Ok, little Ducklings, time to come inside!" A collective sigh rang out among the children. I folded my worksheet and placed it in my pocket. Rachel took me by the hand and led me from the Oak tree.
"It's from 'Nam." I told her.
She gazed back at me, serenely. "Oh. My Uncle's named 'Nam. He's fat."
"Yeah." I agreed.
Oliver walked by rather downcast.
"Hi, Oliver!" Rachel exclaimed.
"Hi." He replied.
"Why don't you come and walk with us?" Rachel nudged me slightly in his direction. Oliver looked at me inquisitively. "Hello." He said. His chubby, white, little hand extended.
"Hey," I replied, and took his hand in mine.