I hated elementary school. There was something about the stickiness of boogers and screeching howl of over-energized, sugar-addicted 7 year olds that caused headaches in even the most patient of people. I hated that we had to walk in a line, hold hands, and slither in a snake like movement as we walked towards the bathroom, pee soaking the floors because the boys in my class were still working on their aim. I despised the way that Mrs. Bardoch would make us sit in a circle as she read to us, and I hated the reading tests that the school would make us take each quarter. I could never catch on to certain words and tones that other kids did when we read out loud, and sometimes words would snag on my tongue and refuse to let go. The class was separated into two reading level groups: the Green Light Club and the Yellow Light Club. The Green Light’s Club superior reading abilities had earned them a spot in something of the bourgeoisie class of reading. All those who weren’t Green were forced into the Yellow Light Club, the peasant class of readers. I was in the Yellow Light Club, and I hated it. I always thought it was ridiculous that the entire intelligence of a 7 year old was determined by a single reading test and a color, but to the other kids, it was an incentive to categorize—a phenomenon that comes very natural to most people I’ve met. Natural to everyone, except for me and the new kid, Adam.
Adam came to my school in second grade. He was born in Toronto, but lived in Augusta, Georgia for most of his childhood. Both of his parents were doctors. His mom was a pediatric surgeon and his dad was a podiatrist. He lived in Glenbrook, a wealthy neighborhood that bordered the Norvelt golf course. Adam had an air about him, a few ticks that kids thought were odd. He never let his shoes get wet when it rained; he would put plastic bags over his feet so the water didn’t soak his feet or splash mud up at his corduroy pants. His lunch always had to be made in such a way that his food didn’t touch, and he was adamant that his mother pack him peanut butter and jelly with the crust cut off and the sandwich sliced in half. In every room, he counted each door and each window, organizing them in his head by size and geometrical shape. Most kids called him weird and neurotic, or attributed his behaviors to the fact that his parents were doctors, and so he was naturally a germaphobe. They thought his particular nature of specificity was due to being an only child, but behind fidgeting hands and shaking legs was a deeper, more complex issue. His mother told me he had OCD.
It’s strange to me that Adam, who by nature and by disorder categorized everything, was impossible to categorize. Alone, him and I weren’t bound to any specific interests or group. We moved fluidly like jelly floating up and down in a lava lamp. We couldn’t be confined to one color like yellow or green.
We were both placed in the Yellow Light Club, and each day we listened to ongoing stutters and mumbles as the other Yellow Lighters tried to read with as much eloquence and grace as the Green Lighters. From across the room, in our own yellow corner, Adam, I, and the other Yellow Lighters could hear the gurgling laughs coming from the Green Lighters as they listened to us trip and fall over every word.
“You can’t even read Dr. Seuss yet,” some of the Green Lighters would say. “We’re already on to reading chapter books, and you babies can’t read a sentence without messing up,”
We sulked for a while after that and went on reading strike. We told our speech teacher, Ms. MacNamara, that we wouldn’t read ever again unless we were allowed to read chapter books like the Green Lighters. She told us we weren’t ready to read chapter books yet, and that the Green Lighters were just simply more advanced.
“Well, how do you know we can’t do it unless we try?” Buddy McFeely asked with a finger stuck up his nose, digging for something.
“Because, Buddy. Your tests scores state that you are not…on par yet. Now we will all go on reading the books the state curriculum has set for us. Am I understood? ”
She was not. And so, with Adam and myself as the leaders, we went on strike. We were elected by the newly formed Council of the Yellow Republic for our outstanding exceptional reading and leadership abilities in the midst of oppressive adversity by the Green Light Club. Really, it was just because we were the only Yellow Lighters who were able to at least read The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar without throwing a frustrated tantrum, but neither of us were going to turn down the offer of leading a rebellion.
Our relationship was symbiotic. The two of us worked as a team to get what we wanted. Adam and I were able to convince the other Yellow Lighters to join the cause, and each day, we purposefully began to read slower and slower, an infuriating slower pace that reflected badly on Ms. MacNamara when the administrators came in to observe our progress. After lunch one day, we sat down at the kidney shaped table that Ms. MacNamara always met us at to begin our lessons, and as she sat down, she asked us to pull out our folders. We all out turned our empty book bags to show her we had no intentions of starting class unless we got what we demanded. She huffed and bit her lip, trying to keep from letting curse words spill from her tongue like molten lava. Without a word, she stood up and left our corner. She came back about five minutes later with arms weighted down by copies of Moby Dick she must have gotten from the Junior High School. She threw them down, panting and gritting her teeth.
“Here kids. You wanna read big kid books so bad? Why don’t you try this novel, then,” she said. Every word that escaped from her mouth tasted like salt.
We did try to read them, and we couldn’t. If we had been stuck before with the simple texts of Shell Silverstein, Herman Melville concreted us in impossibility. But at least for a moment, the Green Lighters gawked at our impressively statured assignment over their copies of Holes. We had broken the system. The once machine like way of categorizing students, manufactured by the administrative robots of the school district, was torn down by the Yellow Light rebels of Ms. MacNamara’s class.
I hated middle school too. I think it’s because apart from a few years and maybe a few scraggly facial hairs, middle school wasn’t too different from elementary school. Pimples replaced boogers, and kids would spend hours standing in front of mirrors trying to squeeze, prod, and poke puss out of the red, irritated pore that jailed it. Kids still held hands when they walked down the hallway, but no longer in a group chain that slinked through the hallway like a snake. Now they walked through the hallways in pairs, typically as one boy and one girl, kissing each other on the cheek before classes and proclaiming their everlasting love for one another in crowded hallways where students scurried like ants. Boys still didn’t know how to aim into the urinals, and my feet got stuck to the ground like walking on syrup when I stepped into the bathrooms. Boys also didn’t know how to put on deodorant, and the schoolyards and locker rooms smelled as if someone sprayed onion-scented Febreeze, or as if the lunch ladies decided to smear the leftovers of Taco Tuesday onto the walls of the school. Girls started covering pimples under foundation that was too orange, and coating their eyelashes in mascara that was too clumpy. When they blinked, it looked like spiders were flailing on their eyelids.
Eventually over the years, the Council of the Yellow Republic was disbanded, following the Moby Dick incident, and the Green Light Club and the Yellow Light Club joined to form one general class of readers. It’s not exactly what Adam, I, and the other Yellow Lighters wanted, but it was the best we could get, so we were content for a while. Every week we were given a new book to read as apart of the new, universal curriculum, and each week I fell behind. My eyes couldn’t trace the more complex words like they were supposed to. Instead, they bounced around, mixing certain letters with other and arranging words into a sort of jigsaw puzzle that I couldn’t seem to put together. All my years through elementary and middle school, I watched the other kids move onto harder lessons, leaving me still stuck on last week’s lesson, and the week before that, and the week before that. Even Adam moved on without me.
My mom snapped, telling me to keep up and blaming my lackluster grades on a lack on ambition, while my 17 year old brother, Ethan, jeered from the sidelines. Ethan had an infuriatingly annoying way of digging under my skin like a tick and picking apart every insecurity that manifested itself into my psyche. He was never fully confrontational about his insults though. They slid off his tongue as backhanded compliments that would make me think for a second that I had gained his approval, but the moment I had realized the stinging reality of his comment, he had already gotten away with pawning off false hope to me. Ethan constantly called me a sissy, and each time my mom heard him say it, she would thwart him off and tell him to just leave me alone, but that didn’t keep him from making sly comments under his breath. I was determined to remove the tag of emasculation that Ethan branded on me.
Adam and I were now in 8th grade. We’d both lost the baby fat that rounded our faces and hair began sprouting like weeds in placed we had always been completely bald. We sat in the cafeteria, monkey-like screams coming from the nearby lunch tables droned out in the background. There was something on my mind that I wanted to tell him, but like reading out loud in 2nd grade, the words snagged on my tongue and refused to let go. I looked at him meticulously chewing his food. He always chewed 30 times before swallowing. He told me that he read in an article once that chewing 30 times makes you burn calories and that he was afraid of getting fat, but I think he really did it because he was afraid of choking. I was afraid of rejection, and I was scared to tell Adam the plan that would change our lives.
“I want to join the boys’ basketball team,”
Adam didn’t respond for at least 15 chews. An awkward silence set in, and fear climbed the walls of my lungs as I waited for him to finish chewing. I took in a sharp inhale, watching the last 15 chews in agony.
“Why would you want to play basketball?” he asked.
“Because, man. Think about it. I’ll get a letterman jacket. I’ll get some cred. Soon enough, I’ll be on prom court or something,” I said.
“Go ahead then. It’s really not my place to tell you what you can and cannot do. Just don’t make a fool out of yourself because then that’ll come back to me,” Adam took a sip of his chocolate milk and swallowed. After that, he took a handful of carrots and tossed them into his mouth one by one. 30 chews for each.
“But, Adam that’s the thing that I wanted to ask you,” Adam was 20 chews into his first carrot, and I could see his jaw working through his thin face, “I don’t know anything about basketball, and I know your dad played a little when he was in high school. Please, man. I just need your help,” Adam was 29 chews in. He swallowed hard and raised his eyebrow at me.
“Say I do help you and get my dad to teach you some basketball basics. What’s in it for me?” he asked.
“I’m not interested in girls. Pitch me something else,”
“Erm, I don’t know. You want money?” I said.
“I have enough money, and you have too little. I don’t want money,”
“Well, I don’t know then, man. What do you want?” I said, half throwing my arms into the air.
“I want you to give me your Gameboy Advanced,” he said.
“But you have a 3DS,”
“I know, but I’ve already played all the games available for the 3DS, and I’m bored now,”
“How about I lend it to you instead, and I’ll throw in a few game cartridges with it. You can have your pick of the games, too,”
“Deal,” he said.
“God, what is with you rich kids and being so easily bored with new stuff and wanting poor kid stuff. You guys are like some sort of privileged neo-hipsters,”
He shrugged his soldiers and threw in another carrot. 30 more chews, and lunch was over.
After school, Adam and I walked over to his place in Glenbrook. His dad’s car was not in his lot, and when we went inside, Adam’s mom told us that he had left for the hospital. Adam’s dad looked at foot fungus and ingrown toenails all day for a living as a podiatrist. With this news, Adam and I went back outside to the empty lot with nothing but a basketball hoop with a torn net and weather stains that aged the backboard. Next to the hoop, was a deflated basketball that sagged and caved in on itself. Adam picked up the ball, and tried to dribble it, forcing it into the ground and expecting it to jump back up at him. But the basketball fell with a thud instead, and Adam, I, and the basketball sighed.
“Hey, I have an idea,” I said.
“Crouch down real quick,” I said.
“No! I’m not just gonna crouch down. Tell me what your idea is,”
“I’m gonna get on your shoulders and throw the basketball into the hoop,” I said.
“How is that gonna help you practice?”
“It’ll give me a feel for the ball at least. Plus, it looks cool. You got any other plans?”
Adam sighed and rolled his eyes, “Fine, but that’s gonna cost you another game.”
“Deal,” I said.
He kneeled down a little, and I stepped one of my feet into the hooks he made with his arms. I let my legs dangle down his shoulders and held onto the short tuft of hair on his head.
“Why are you so much heavier than you look?” he said between grunts and heaves, trying to straighten his legs.
“I don’t know! C’mon, stand up,”
“Use your legs!” I said.
With a sudden jerks of his body, his thighs flexed and I slowly rose from the ground. Adam’s body quaked under my weight, and by the time he had miraculously straightened his legs, his knees shook and he breathed is short, exaggerated pants.
“Alright, that’s good. Now we’re cookin’ with gas. Just gotta move a few steps toward the hoop,”
He moved with shaky movement, each step thundering down and vibrating the pavement. I sat on his shoulders, eyes fixated on the hoop as we came closer to it. Each step was filled with more anticipation and more excitement than the last. We’d come to the threshold of the hoop when Adam’s knees began to buckle, and I could feel myself sinking like I had fallen into quicksand.
“Just throw it, Flynn. For God’s sake, just throw it!”
And so I did. I flung my arms behind my head, and then in a quick motion forced it up and then down towards the pavement, looping it through the hoop like I was threading a needle. Under my feet, I could feel myself falling closer to the ground along with the basketball that fell with a thud, and in a moment’s time, Adam, the basketball, and I were all laying on the ground deflated.
We both laid on our backs, looking up at the sky as our chests rose and fell. From the side, I looked at him. Air was beginning to fill me again, but I could sense that both Adam and the ball were deflated.
“We gotta do that for the tryouts,” I said. “I’ll look so cool out there that they’ll have to let me on the team. C’mon, Adam. Please?” I jostled him. He looked back at me unamused.
“You have to give me your Gameboy, then,” he said. “and seven more games with it.”
“Fine. You can have it. I won’t be needing it soon enough because I’ll be swimming in popularity,”
I was somewhat right with the swimming part. At tryouts, Adam and I performed our trick. I stood on his back and slam-dunked the basketball into the hoop just liked we practiced, but on Adam’s way down when he began to fall under my weight, he tripped over his own feet and left us sailing into the water cooler that was left for the basketball players. Coach Malone gawked at us confused, his face contorted like he had some sort of stomach cramp. He had an ugly way of thinking. He barked at us and told us to leave for wasting his time, but as Adam and I left, still dripping from the cooler water and once again deflated like the basketball back at Adam’s place, Coach Malone called for me to come back. He looked at the sheet and asked if I was related to Zofia Pawlack. I said yes, and he told me that he went to school with my mother.
“Fine girl,” he said, “I went to prom with your mother. We had a little something something goin’ on there for a while.” I would later find this statement to be true, because right there in my mom’s phonebook was a picture of 17 year old Coach Malone. He still had hair back then, and his eyebrows didn’t wrinkle into a unibrow like they do now.
“I’ll be sure to get you a spot,” he winked at me. “Tell your mother that Steve Malone said hi.”
And I did technically get a spot on the team. I was the waterboy.