We used to get it. Statewide, school started only after Labor Day was spent. We could all feel the nights run crisp while water held its warmth. Everyone wanted a final big weekend. But this year, in our local district, the buses roll in August. The powers that be are worried about STEM and globalization. They’re likely right to worry, but still.
This year, Caleb will be in the seventh grade and Hollis in second. Caleb starts junior high. When I was his age, in Dekalb County, GA, seventh grade was the last rung in elementary school. Eighth graders were sub-freshmen in high school. My family moved to a new district during the dividing summer, to a place where I knew no one. A big change was coming for me regardless, but seventh grade wasn’t just the end of an era. It may have been the best of my formal education! Too much of what followed was a slog.
Pleasantdale Elementary sits in the subdivision where I lived, and I walked or rode my bike to school. Our principal was Mr. Chivers, pronounced like the shakes. He was a steady presence and didn’t take guff. My vivid memory of him is from fourth grade. I was alone in the hallway while class was in session, maybe running an errand for the teacher. I heard shoes scrabbling on the polished floor, and then hard but measured breathing. Around the corner came Mr. Chivers, dragging an older boy by the wrist. Dusky Green was a known asshole and a troublemaker. Mr. Chivers’ face, always red from rosacea, was impassive. Dusky twisted and lunged for purchase on the painted block with his free hand, snagging the edge of a double door opened toward them. The door swung home with a thunderclap. Mr. Chivers didn’t flinch, just kept on dragging Dusky toward an epic reckoning. Dusky writhed and screamed, “I hate you! I hate your guts!” As they approached, I flattened against the wall. Neither one of them saw me as they struggled toward the school’s office. I felt weirdly privileged to witness such drama, and I’m not sure if I told anyone about it at the time.
The other mythic male figure at the school was Mr. Beal, who taught physical education. A large black man who wore track suits and a whistle around his neck, he resembled the rapper Heavy D. His students amused him, but he flatly told kids to shut up. The whistle stayed loose in his lips like a professor’s pipe, and its chirps and blasts kept us all in line across the courts and fields. He taught us to jump rope and count out pushups. We moved our bodies in celebration with The Village People, and learned to slow dance and two-step to “Looking for Love” and “The Gambler”. There were many innings of kickball, cross-country footraces, and wide receptions that convinced me I had a future in the NFL.
Dodgeball was the purest form; the playground sport of kings. One particular kid perfected it. Troy Rucker. Yes, we boys rhymed his name with a whispered, “motherfucker”. And he was exactly that on the dodgeball court. His gift was for the attack, when he would emerge from the backfield with the inflated rubber ball and eye the formation before him. He accelerated toward you, hips pivoting as he loaded his thighs with potential energy. His torso opened while he cocked his throwing arm and readied the fast-twitch muscles. Perfectly planted and aligned, he was free to channel a primal fury. His lips shrank away from the gums and his eyes rolled back into his head as he roared from the crawlspace of his psyche. He was pure malevolence.
If you were in his cone of destruction, you had a choice: try to dodge or hope to catch the ball cleanly. You had just a blip to commit. If you elected to catch and positioned your arms in a breadbasket, the ball slammed against your sternum. A pressure wave rippled into your genitals, closed your throat, and blew out of your tear ducts. Assuming that the ball hadn’t ricocheted off of your chest, it would slide from your grasp as you collapsed. Troy’s grimace became a loose-lipped grin. He was magnificent!
I should sketch a self portrait from this period. I was tall and wiry with blow-dried, parted hair. I wore sneakers with air in their soles, displayed in oblong portals. There were jean jackets and surf shirts. I wore glasses. Big, bug-eyed, aviator style frames. I can’t adequately explain how unfortunate they looked, but I suppose it was the style then. The glasses distorted some social anxieties. I was hardly a dork, but I was docile and sensitive. Green. Straight A’s came easily, while giving opinions and flirting with girls did not. As people labeled me in the offhand ways that we all do with others–often based on their appearances or how they carry themselves–I internalized what I took to be their judgments about me. I grew timid behind those big lenses. Embarrassed to be the smart and shy guy, but afraid to break out and be more than that.
I loved to read. History, fiction, news magazines, science, travel, all of it. Words were far more dimensional than any tv show, but many lunch hours dissected racy and reckless bits seen on screens. I feigned familiarity, although I did get to appreciate “Miami Vice” when my parents allowed me to watch it with them. They usually chose to err on the side of overprotection. I feel that this was a missed opportunity for them and for me. Had we watched, together, some of the stuff that they were always labeling, “inappropriate”, they could’ve commented on characters’ authenticity. They could’ve been goaded to talk about their own experiences. I could’ve learned more about being a man in a shallow and contradictory culture. With them. I don’t imagine that they presumed my endless innocence. I just think that they, like many parents, were a bit squeamish. They certainly meant well, though.
I really read my ass off, almost anything with print. I was many leagues beyond grade level. But, with passages aloud in class, I adopted the hesitant and flat diction of my peers. Happily, math and science rarely saw the spotlight pin any one kid. I was free to know my shit. Seventh grade geometry focused on word problems and precise arithmetic. Ms. Cleveland was relatively young, and spunky and attractive. Many years later, when I scribbled on the raw drywall of a new house, sweating the calculations for a stair railing, I pictured her face. I recalled her classroom as I dusted off the Pythagorean theorem to square a foundation. That was probably my last year of real world, practical math instruction. I had no love and certainly no future use for the process-driven algebra that followed, no patience for its dry puzzles.
What really got me that year was science, when Mrs. Walker taught us about living things and the workings of the earth. Massive forces over mighty spans of time. I still remember the introduction to cellular biology, and the concepts of the mitochondria and cytoplasm were familiar when I encountered them twenty-eight years later, researching ALS. The intricacies blew me away. That year, our big project was to build a habitat for an animal and then record our observations. I stocked a glass terrarium with ferns, rocks, and a pond. Then, I carefully introduced a type of lizard called an anole. It could change its coloring depending on surroundings and mood. I caught crickets in the grass and my lizard stalked them, pouncing for the kill. I was so proud of it! Mrs. Walker had a way of drawing her students out. Even me. She was a wise and organized teacher, able to compel the attention of hormone-addled kids.
And addled we were. Girls were ripening by the day, and though us boys were a bit late to the party, things were certainly stirring. George Michael and Prince were all over the radio. I began to feel an inner itch. I noticed girls’ hair and glistening lips and caught sight of the tops and sides of their breasts. That itch began to burn pleasantly, then built into a molten core of desire that’s lit me ever since. It’s more than just physical now; not simply sexual. It deepened into yearning; into spirit. I hunger for landscapes; for starry skies and saltwater; for round rock and the winds of autumn. When I look into my wife’s eyes, her face contains these things and more. But back then, the frisson of eye contact–of briefly melding with another person–was too intense. I wasn’t ready to look.
There were two girls after me that year: Jenny and Kelly. They were friends with each other. I’m not sure what sort of arrangement they had–how they determined who would lead and who would defer in their pursuit of me–but they were determined. They liked to ask me questions about science. I guess they thought that nerds were hot! None of my buddies had girlfriends or anything, and I was weirded out. One of the girls called to invite me to some function. I was nearly healed from a minor cut, but I moaned that, “My stitches are really bothering me”. So, so lame! Even sorrier was this incident: we were in class when one of my admirers called my name from the desk diagonally behind me. When I turned she looked into me, opened her thighs, and blushed deeply. I probably just laughed, all nervous. Definitely didn’t follow up on that. Now I kick myself. Hard. Good Lord, I could’ve had some action in seventh grade! But I wasn’t ready. I didn’t get that she was made from the same stuff as me; that the world was in her, too.
That era was certainly awkward and even painful at times, but in my memory it glows. It lights much of who I am, like it or not. It got me started into adulthood, gave me material to work into something fuller and stronger. Of course, I can’t wrap this up without mentioning my best friends from grade seven: Mike Harbuck and Brian Guffin. To do them justice, I really need to write separately about our adventures outside of school, especially in summers. Until then, thanks for playing!