It was the seventh 30-minute recess of the first grade when I began suspecting I was odd. Actually, one of the teachers told me, “You’re odd.” She formulated this assessment just after I confessed that I hated recess. I just wanted to stay inside and play with the Baby Jesus doll in the toy bin. But I always attracted negative attention for being overly possessive of the Christ child. Often, I was forced to surrender him to the powers that be. This was a special trauma too, since every god-fearing five year old knows what happened to the Messiah the last time one of his friends surrendered him to an authority figure.
Still, crucifixion of a loved one could never rival the horrors of the concrete jungle and, of course, the iron jungle gym, a tool clearly engineered by parents of unwanted children. And to a homesick, Baby Jesus-stalking-five-year-old wearing corduroy koulots and untied shoe laces, 30 minutes seems a lot like a day-long New England church sermon spoken in Old English.
It’s significant to note that I started school a year early, and I didn’t know how to tie my shoe laces yet. My mother died when I was four and a half; my father often worked as an electrical engineer in a place called “Hollywood, Kentucky,” and my grandmother was in charge of all the safe deposit keys at Valley Fidelity Bank in downtown Knoxville. No one was home during the day, so my dad and grandmother prematurely deported me to a place that strictly enforced recess. There, I learned fast that the concrete jungle is no place for a child with loose laces.
The teacher assigned to guard the prisoners during that dismal thirty minutes of doom, the same teacher who deemed me “odd,” simply did not know this. It wasn’t her fault. What six year old doesn’t know how to tie his/her shoes? How was she to know that I was a barely-five-year-old masquerading as a normal first-grader? So, when I beseeched her assistance with my shoe lace predicament, she assumed I was lazy. She accused me of being just another attention hungry white child trying to get folks to do everything for me. I felt grossly misunderstood, a perception that was growing increasingly familiar to me. Conversely, she felt unfairly saddled with naive, blonde, koulot be-clad Aryans forcing her hand to shoe tie as a way of upholding a long-entrenched social structure fraught with evil, inequality, sorrow, and subservience. She felt grossly used and underestimated. A perception that had already been long familiar to her.
Ironically enough, recess had taught me to be everything but attention seeking and dictatorially dependent. Survival depended upon keeping a low profile. Attention was never something for which one should strive in a land of posturing jump-rope divas and bullying little boys pretending to be Gene Simmons. And I knew damn well that low profile maintenance requires self-sufficiency. So, I was desperate before I sought help. Naturally clumsy, I needed to eliminate any potential risks, and undone shoelaces were a major liability especially if I found myself in need of a quick bipedal getaway. Which I did. Soon after I got chewed out for being a spoiled, narcissistic whitey. I was just minding my own business, nursing my bruised ego following teacher-rejection when Shannon Green “declared war” on me for no good reason other than allegedly brown-nosing the recess warden.
She charged her blood-thirsty, brainwashed minions to run me down, a herd of salivating hyenas corraling supper. I fled toward the front-most middle swing set pole, which I knew was “base,” that locus of safety considered neutral ground. But I didn’t make it. I tripped over my shoe laces, fell, and skinned both knees and hands. The teacher felt terrible, dispersed the rabid mob, and sought band-aids for me immediately. They had Snoopies on them. I couldn’t fully bend my legs for nearly a week. But my dad taught me to tie my shoes that very night. So, I at least ended the day empowered. Plus, I got to watch the Gong Show & play with Mr. Potato Head before bedtime.
Update: My dad called to tell me that this school burned down in early April. The playground was reduced to ashes. The woe.