K – 4
Mrs. Carson was tall and broad-shouldered and kind. She could’ve been a frontier schoolteacher.
All the girls in my class had a crush on Dustin Joiner. They called him Dusty. A bumper sticker on his Trapper-Keeper said ASK ME ABOUT MY EX-WIFE, I swear, and he had lipstick stains on his face every morning from where his mother had kissed him. Candace had a crush on Dusty too, but she was my best friend.
Early in the semester, Candace and I bonded over our love of Charlotte's Web. The movie not the book. On the playground, Candace pretended to be Fern, the human girl, and I was Wilbur, the pig. No one was Charlotte.
I’d crawl on all fours across this row of tires half-buried in the sand, oinking and grunting, and Candace would walk behind me, whipping me, petting me, etc.
I remember being embarrassed every time we played Charlotte’s Web, but I also remember how much I loved it, and how happy it made me that Candace loved it too. I remember every day walking out to the playground, feeling shy, overcoming it, asking her if she wanted to play Charlotte’s Web, and she always did, and it always surprised me that she did.
It felt like Candace and I were really in love that year. Whenever I thought about her, my stomach knotted up in that terrible, exciting way that it does when there’s so much you want to say to someone, but can’t, or don’t know how to, or don’t need to.
And I remember that feeling completely unknotting when we were playing Charlotte's Web. During that fantasy, I felt alive and free, and that I had everything anyone could ever want in life.
Mrs. Van Buren was mousy and wore thick glasses. She was all business, one of those teachers who showed affection so sparingly that, when it happened, you knew it really meant something.
She had more trouble with students because not everyone loved her. She would bust your balls, and she didn’t think anything you did was cute. It wasn’t about cuteness for her. It was about education. I respected the fuck out of Mrs. Van Buren.
In this class, I was in love with Jenny. Jenny was pretty, blonde, quiet, smart. We were the two smartest in the class. The problem was, she was in love with Scotty, my best friend. Scotty was not a smart as me, but he was cuter and he had a gold chain.
When I told Scotty I liked Jenny, his reply was, “Yeah, me too.” He was tying his shoe and didn’t even look up when he said it. I watched the cross on his chain dangling above his laces until he finished and stood up.
Soon they were together, Jenny and Scotty, and I was miserable. I would see her and Scotty laughing, passing notes, and my stomach would tighten, and my heart would hurt, and I’d feel like a fat, ugly loser. Scotty and Jenny were neither cruel nor unobservant, so it wasn’t long before they proposed something.
There was a red-haired girl named Carrie Anne that was Jenny’s best friend, and Carrie Anne had decided she liked me. Maybe me and Carrie Anne could go together?
Soon enough all four of us were hanging out at P.E. At first, I didn't think Carrie Anne was pretty. She had freckles and space between her teeth. Whereas Jenny’s smile was knowing, understated, and aristocratic, Carrie Anne’s was un-self-consciously out of control, vaudevillian even. There was something unbridled about her laughter, too. Against my better judgment, I decided to give her a shot, although deep down I knew I was only using her to get closer to Jenny. Like I said, they were best friends.
Carrie Anne, Jenny, Scotty, and I would walk the playground playing games I don’t remember the rules of anymore, but I did feel my tolerance of Carrie Anne slowly growing into affection. Jenny, Scotty, and I were always comparing our grades after every math or handwriting exam, and Carrie Anne would always try to participate, but her grades were always lower, to which she’d shrug and say something self-deprecating. She seemed to be above the academic rat race with which we were obsessed, and I wondered more than once whether Carrie Anne knew something we didn’t.
Of everything on the playground, Carrie Anne loved the monkey bars the most, and she was way better at them than me. The more I got to know Carrie Anne, the more I wanted to love her instead of Jenny, but it was little use. Jenny’s eyes and smile were perfect and took me away to somewhere magical that Carrie Anne’s eyes simply didn’t. I was insanely jealous of Scotty, and I sometimes wished he’d get the flu and miss school for a week, or that his parents would get a divorce so one of them would move away to Florida and he’d have to go with them so I could have Jenny for myself. Scotty was clueless as to these dark wishes. And he never went anywhere. Mrs. Van Buren observed all of this with a kind of emotionless detachment that was never intrusive, but also never gave me the feeling that she wasn't, in spite of her hands-off approach, still watching, still listening, kind of like God.
And so, I felt guilty about everything. Eventually, I told Carrie Anne that we had to break up. I really liked her, but I was in love with Jenny, and it was wrong to go with someone when you were in love with their best friend the whole time. Carrie Anne took it badly. She told me the first-grade equivalent of “You’re a fucking idiot. You wouldn’t know love if it bit you on the ass. You’re going to live to regret this. You’re gonna be alone for a long, long time.”
I was single the whole year, and my teacher, Miss Mona, was my first single teacher. Miss Mona was kind of ditsy, kind of a bombshell. She wore purple lipstick and reapplied it after lunch every day. It grossed me out, but I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the mesmerizing ritual of it all. She had an enormous bosom. This was also the first time one of my classrooms had a para-professional, the term the school used for a teacher-in-training in the classroom. Miss Mona was always trailed by the rail-thin, tall, and extremely stern Mrs. Blackshear. Whereas Miss Mona wore dresses of flowing, billowing pastels, or, every once in a while, tight jeans that showcased her curves—Mrs. Blackshear always wore stonewashed jeans jacked up past her belly button with a tucked-in black silk blouse and a tight vest with western-style frill. She was also the first adult I’d ever seen with braces. Mrs. Blackshear was Miss Mona’s enforcer. There was a really gross, wild girl in the class named Tiffany Simmons who could whistle by putting her tongue up to her nose and blowing upward really hard. It was a very loud, extremely annoying, bizarre-looking way to whistle, and I was secretly always trying to mimic it, even though I never said a word about that to Tiffany.
Tiffany was the kind of girl who would get made fun of a lot for body stuff, like having boogers visible in her nose, or getting caught digging her underwear out of her crack, or having bugs in her hair. She was sort of like the second grade equivalent of a hippie, but she was self-aware. For instance, if somebody made fun of her for picking her nose, she wouldn’t just run away (which is what I would’ve done). She’d try to wipe it on them.
This didn’t always work to protect her from humiliation. She was often found crying and alone in a corner of the classroom or the playground, snot streaking her face, wondering why everyone hated her.
From a distance, I admired her as any coward admires any iconoclast. I never stood up for her, and I never befriended her. Had it been Nazi Germany, Tiffany would’ve been one of the innocents arrested and sentenced without trial; I would’ve been one of the ones wringing their hands in the alley, watching, feeling guilty, but not lifting a finger to stop it. I was a real piece of shit back then, and when I look back now and try to figure out why, I never reach a satisfactory resolution. One answer might have been that I was reeling from the Jenny and Carrie Anne debacle. To be sure, I missed both terribly, and Carrie Anne’s parting words hung on my conscience like a heavy stone on an invisible chain of my own. But I don’t wholly accept this rationale, as it seems to me like I’m trying to let myself off the hook for being a coward. There’s nothing more disgusting than a man who blames his defects of character on some past heartbreak, is there?
Like I said, no satisfactory resolution.
I don’t even know why everyone picked on Tiffany. She was actually kind of pretty, and definitely smart. Her clothes were dirty, sure, but, in those days whose weren’t? Maybe we were so backward that Tiffany’s smidgen of imagination made us aware of ourselves as the rubes we truly were, and we didn’t like that at all. God only knows what happened to her. I never saw her after second grade.
One day out in the hall after lunch I was standing against the wall, waiting for the bathroom, and when no one was watching me, I tried to touch the tip of my tongue to my nose and blow as hard as I could, and whistle like Tiffany. I tried for a long time, and then, right as Mrs. Blackshear swept past in those jacked-up, stonewashed jeans, the whistle inexplicably worked.
It was like a loud and beautiful birdcall. It pierced the corridors of the school, yet sounded faintly sad, like a whale song. Mrs. Blackshear whipped to me without batting an eyelash and said, with a mouth full of metal, “Get that tongue back in yer mouth, young’un.”
Thinking about this later, I found it perplexing that Mrs. Blackshear’s reprimand had focused on my tongue being out of my mouth, and had not at all addressed the disruptive sound I’d made.
Mrs. Paley had big eyes and hair and looked like a shell-shocked war veteran. Every morning when we filed into her classroom, she looked up at us like we were aliens, like she had no idea how she'd gotten here to be teaching these particular third grade human beings. Third grade was also my introduction to the cool kids at my school, who’d thus far never been in any of my classes. I think this might’ve been the first year they tracked students by test scores and shoved high-scorers into certain rooms and low-scorers into others. Whereas before, purely random classroom rosters tended to promote social parity by forcing clean, rich kids to commiserate with dirty, poor ones, which kept all alliances more or less loose—now all the rich kids were clustered in a few rooms, and powerful cliques with non-porous borders began to form.
Some of the cool kids were: Richie Myers, the third grade equivalent of a Hercules, Nessa (short for Vanessa) Evans, the unbelievably beautiful vamp with dyed blonde hair, and Cody Jones, who was skinny, sly, smart, and wealthy, and who was the first person in our school to wear sunglasses at recess. Also, in this class were Scotty and Jenny, all the way back from first grade, and guess who’d gotten fat and ugly? Scotty still wore the same gold chain, but he’d plumped up, and now it looked tiny around his big neck. He looked like Porky the Pig. He was no longer anywhere near alpha position, and Jenny had suffered a case of early-onset acne, and had gotten wispy. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t help but notice she was discernibly poorer than Richie, Nessa, and Cody—but if you think I was happy to see her knocked off her pedestal you’ve got me all wrong. I was sad for Jenny, and even for Scotty. I bore no ill will toward them whatsoever. In a weird way, I felt like I’d surpassed them, and I believe I felt some sort of survivor’s guilt. I was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as they say. Neither one of the cool kids, nor excluded by them, I was resolutely in the middle.
Anyway, Mrs. Paley, poor woman, was cognitively absent the entire year. I remember one day she got really angry at us for something, but no one could figure out what we’d done. There were no girls in third grade that I was in love with that I remember. Nessa Evans was beautiful but far too intimidating for my flailing masculinity. Plus, what would happen in fourth grade was so emotionally epic that I might’ve had hundreds of girlfriends in third grade and still wouldn’t remember, the way no one remembers who they talked to on the phone a week before Kennedy was shot, or what they had for breakfast the day before 9/11, even though, for all they know, it might’ve been the most amazing breakfast of their life.
Imagine Marilyn Monroe with brown hair. That was Miss McDonough, and I was in love with her. She was nice and smart and was always happy to talk to any of her students. Most importantly, by some insane stroke of luck, I was her teacher’s pet—a distinction I’d never enjoyed before. It wasn’t without its disadvantages, of course. People made fun of me for it, but similar to my first love, Candace, with whom I’d played Charlotte’s Web, it felt so gratifying to fill the role of pet that I was emotionally immune to any embarrassment.
Then, halfway through the year, Miss McDonough’s boyfriend, who was a police officer named Officer Sam, and whose cruiser was sometimes parked outside the school, proposed. Miss McDonough’s stapler was labeled with white masking tape and MCDONOUGH written in Magic Marker on it. As a joke, the teacher next door, Mrs. Thompson, who was incredibly mean and shrill (we could hear her shouting at her kids through the cinderblock walls) stormed into our room and tore the old masking tape off the stapler and balled it up and threw it at Miss McDonough. Then she put a strip of fresh masking tape on the stapler and wrote TAYLOR on it with a new Magic Marker, and the two teachers laughed uncomfortably. I don’t think they were friends. When Mrs. Thompson left, Miss McDonough explained to us the joke: Officer Sam’s last name was Taylor, and that soon she herself would be Mrs. Taylor, not Miss McDonough. There was nothing inherently frightening about the transformation of my favorite teacher’s name; after all, she was still the same person who doted on me and called on me and listened to me and whose angelic face and low, husky voice made learning about long division and earth science and world capitals almost narcotic. But how quickly a McDonough could become a Taylor for some reason planted within me a seed of unease.
I avoided discussing it with my girlfriend at the time, who was the beautiful, brilliant, vivacious, and utterly irresistible Carrie Anne. That’s right, the Carrie Anne. The one from first grade whose heart I’d broken and who, within the first few weeks of fourth grade, had taken me back. Boy, had Carrie Anne grown up. Her teeth had filled in, her smile was now kinetic, and her laughter was louder and freer. In a way, she reminded me of Tiffany Simmons, only in control, put together, and socially comfortable in virtually every clique. Of course, I never told Carrie Anne about Tiffany, but in my mind it was as if Tiffany Simmons was the prototype—an novel innovation that was too beautiful to function—and Carrie Anne was somehow an answer: imagination, popularity, and beauty all in one. That we had a history together gave me an in, and so I worked it.
Carrie Anne and I passed notes back and forth constantly. In them we covered topics as far ranging as the subjects we studied, the other people in our class, and how cute we thought each other were. My main male friend that year was a guy named Sam Washington, a really skinny dude who was equally athletic and charismatic. He was poor, but he was a cut-up, and he ruled the field when we threw the football at P.E. Mine and Sam’s alliance formed naturally and yet offered key strategic advantages. His status as class clown took the edge off mine as teacher’s pet, and mine as teacher’s pet probably saved him a lot of grief from Miss McDonough/Mrs. Taylor.
There was also this kid named Robbie in our class who everyone hated. He was dirty and mean, but I was nice to him because I always felt like I was in charge of the class, and had a responsibility to be nice to everyone. Just to give you an idea of how sad Robbie’s situation was, he’d spray-paint his shoes white every few months instead of buying the new ones he needed. I told him they looked cool and that I wished I had a pair. He seemed to appreciate it, even though I knew he didn’t believe me.
If second and third grade were characterized by fear and cynicism, partially due to my dawning awareness of competition and tension between different socioeconomic classes, and partially due to the aftershocks of first grade’s heartache, fourth grade was, comparatively, a utopia. Even the smoldering Nessa Evans, who was also in our class, smiled with admiration whenever I said anything clever. I knew I was too good, or perhaps too boring, to actually interest her, but that doesn’t mean her attention didn’t feel good. So I raked in the attention from Nessa Evans, Miss McDonough/Mrs. Taylor, and of course, Carrie Anne. And I had Sam Washington as my best friend. And I looked out for the little guys like Robbie. My life was so completely gratifying, that I had no reason to question whether it was real, or wonder whether I deserved it.
A week or two after Miss McDonough completed her transformation into Mrs. Taylor, Cody Jones transferred in from Mrs. Thompson’s. He had apparently been in the wrong class the whole time, and now he was in ours. When he walked in the classroom, all the girls in the class practically gasped. Then the boys saw his shoes, and they did too. He would’ve been an impressive enough specimen in any footwear, but he was wearing those new kinds of shoes that you could pump air into by pressing a button on the tongue. He was the first person in our school to have them. There was a poster on the wall behind Mrs. Taylor’s desk that featured a big cartoon heart with a smile on its face, reaching forward with a white-gloved hand and giving a huge thumbs up with the caption “You can do it!” This poster had always made me happy. I truly believed it. But when Cody Jones walked in, somehow I turned back to look at it, and it seems completely stupid, and I knew my days as golden boy were numbered.
Cody immediately took Nessa Evans, something I wouldn’t have minded at all if I hadn’t been able to observe how Carrie Anne looked at them, and at Cody, especially, when Nessa was laughing at the things Cody said. There was significantly less gusto in my and Carrie Anne’s note-swapping thereafter. Like a fool, I chose not to address it until it was too late. When Cody dumped Nessa after only one month, seemingly for no reason that anyone could discern, my life became a waking panic. There was a week where I tried to be his friend. We traded baseball cards. Snubbing Sam at recess, I would play catch with him instead. But Cody didn’t give a damn about me and my desperation. He was happy to accept any favors I threw his way, but he wasn’t about to slow his beeline toward Carrie Anne.
Like a true spineless worm, I even purposefully gave him better cards than he deserved when we traded. Even more repugnant than that, I stopped hanging out with Sam in order to spend more time with Cody. I wanted his loyalty. I knew Carrie Anne was losing interest, and I knew once she jumped ship, there would be no begging her back. She had a long memory.
One day, Cody and I were sitting on top of the monkey bars Carrie Anne and I had once climbed together so long ago in first grade. Cody and I were flipping through each other’s baseball cards, surveying the playground instead of playing on it, looking from our classmates to the cards and discussing the latter.
Reflecting back now, as the fat, ugly, zit-faced shipwreck of a sixth grader I have become, I ask the reader: in all of literature, has there ever been a finer or more disgusting example of the death of innocence and the triumph of patriarchy than two boys so obsessed with status and its loss or acquisition that they perched above the field of life instead of living on it, wasting precious recess time comparing their possessions, indirectly bartering over women? We weren’t even friends!
Toward the end of recess, Sam Washington ran up to the monkey bars and looked up at me and told me to climb down, he needed to tell me something. I felt bad, but I had to play it cool because I was trying to impress Cody.
“Just tell me from down there,” I said, bouncing my foot on a lower bar, which caused dirt to shake out of the bottom of my shoe. I watched Sam watch it fall to the ground where he stood. Then he looked at me sharply, then at Cody, then back at me and said with his eyes, “Fuck you. We’re through.” Then he said with his words, “Robbie stole Carrie Anne’s backpack and he won’t give it back.” I squinted across the playground and saw a commotion way the hell down by the swing set. I looked at Cody, then back down at Sam who was already walking away. He stopped. He turned around and said the fourth grade equivalent of “I guess I’m only telling you because we used to be friends, and I know you love her.” He spat into the dirt as if to clear the idea from his mind, then he dragged is foot through it and walked away.
I felt so bad I wanted to kill myself, but I had bigger problems. I turned to Cody, who hadn’t even looked up from my Trapper-Keeper. He just kept flipping pages, looking at my baseball cards, completely uninterested. I must have looked pretty lost, though, because I remember he suddenly shut it and sighed, “Well? You gonna go save your girl from Robbie, or what?”
“Right,” I said, staring at his pump-up shoes.
I climbed down the monkey bars and ran over to the fight. The whole class was standing in a semi-circle in the shadow of the swingset. Carrie Anne was sitting on the ground, crying. People were laughing at her. Robbie was holding her backpack over his head, laughing. On the backpack were four faces of some boy band the name of which I don’t remember and whose music I’ve still never heard. She’d gotten it recently at a concert that her father took her to, and it was her prized possession. It was exactly the kind of thing Robbie, with his spray-painted shoes, would’ve stolen, too, since it was a symbol of her privilege. I didn’t want to fight Robbie because I felt sorry for him, and I didn’t want to not fight him because—and maybe here’s where I fucked up—I don’t even think Carrie Anne wanted me to fight him. It wasn’t who I was. I was a peacemaker, I think. At least that’s what I was when I was at my best. Maybe the more accurate term would be appeaser. But seeing Carrie Anne crying on the ground, just looking up at me, there was something almost taunting in her eyes. She, too, I think, knew that Robbie was the real victim here, in the grand scheme of things. It made me wonder if this whole damned damsel in distress thing had been staged—just for a second—if not intentionally, subconsciously. What better way to upset the apple cart when you weren’t satisfied with the apple in your hand? My stomach knotted. I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt that I, and every single one of us, was doomed. I looked around, but Mrs. Taylor was nowhere to be seen. This was the world we lived in now. A playground with no teacher. And love, to the extent it existed at all, was a bridge whose bricks fell out from under your feet as you walked and then ran across it.
I jumped into the circle and fought Robbie. It wasn’t glorious. No punches were thrown. I pulled on one strap of Carrie Anne’s boy-band backpack while he pulled the other. We were evenly matched. I saw fear in his eyes, nothing more, but he never backed down. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I wanted to be a hero. I realized, if he wouldn’t let go of the backpack, I could sling him around and around until he got tired, so that’s what I did. It eventually became like a merry-go-round that, when it got too fast for him, he released. He went sprawling across the grass, ass over head. He rolled all the way to the half-buried tires, and for a moment an old memory of Candace as an innocent farm girl and me as a happily whipped pig flitted through my imagination. Funny how life comes full circle sometimes. Funny and terrible.
Carrie Anne got her backpack back. That made it that much more surprising—and yet somehow not, the more I think about it—when that afternoon in the last period of the day, which was social studies, she wrote me a note with one line in it: “What would you do if we broke up?”
I wrote back immediately: “I’d probably cry.” I immediately regretted this response, but when she didn’t pass a reply back, I thought to myself that perhaps brutal honesty had stayed my execution a while longer. My need to be honest, I think, was a reaction to my dishonesty on the playground. By which I mean the decision to fight Robbie. Even though Robbie never even seemed to hate me—no one did—I hated myself for taking him on like that. Though, maybe I shouldn’t? Hate myself, I mean. I don’t know. Another unresolved question. These things just seem to just keep piling up. I only hope all of life isn’t like this.
Carrie Anne cut me loose in a note the next morning, and she even asked Mrs. Taylor if she could switch seats. Cody became the new teacher’s pet, and Mrs. Taylor showed him all the affection she’d once shown me. Sam Washington and I were never friends after that either, and by the end of the year Robbie had grown into a dangerous bully. It was the last year of elementary school. Next year was middle school.
I cried myself to sleep every night the summer after fourth grade. I’d loved Carrie Anne more than anyone I’d ever known. No one was as beautiful and alive and smart and fun and funny as she was. She was gone, and was part of the cool kids thereafter. We’d never even held hands.
Masturbation, which I also discovered that summer, felt like discovering a magic power, and I don’t mean that in a positive way. I mean it like how winning the lottery feels good but destroys winners’ lives. Sure, it took the pain of losing Carrie Anne away, but it replaced it with a hundred thousand tons of shame. I’d lie in bed awake at night tortured by the brief release from loneliness into happiness it offered, but the huge toll of guilt it took. I don't even think I did it that much, and when I did, I don’t remember it as particularly sexual. It was more mechanical, engaged in specifically to distract myself from an all-pervasive heartache. It left me hollow, terrified, and lonely. I think I used it then, and use it still, the same way a grown-up might take a drink, or do heroin, or seek any other form of escape.