Thursday, March 13, 2008

Suffer the Little Children

No matter what, I will write each day. (That is, Tuesday through Friday, when the public library's open, at the very least. Not much room for something as frivolous as blogging at home.)

Trying to decide whether I would recount some old story from first grade or the military. I'm sure I'll do both, eventually, but... no, I can't question the point of it. The point is to write.

What I liked about first (and second) grade was that they acknowledged my reading ability. I was encouraged to read books one or two grades higher than my own. The instructor... I can't recall her name, Sister Maria? She would have me read to the class at the end of the day. Everyone was packing up their pencils and books, clearing off their desks, while I read about some young boy in China celebrating some kind of holiday. I got hung up on the word "licorice," never having seen it written before. I tried to sound it out: lick-oh-rice. Sister Maria corrected me: lick-er-rish, and I made a mental note. Several years later I would encounter the same problem with "artisan," attempting to pronounce it like "artesian." There are just a set of common words that, for whatever reason, we may not encounter often in print, or else the reverse is true. One of my acquaintances failed to make the connection between the written "misled" and the spoken "misled," so the print version attained its own distinct pronunciation: "my-zulled," being past tense of "to misle." I wish that were my own story. Instead, mom tells me I combined "beside" and "against" to describe objects that fulfilled both functions: "The bike is begainst the garage."

What else do I remember from first grade? I remember the teacher playing records of religious songs. Not choirs or pipe organs, but some nun or priest who'd picked up a guitar and made polite little tunes about loving Jesus or telling some Biblical story to music. A classmate, Everett Swann, would strum his own acoustic air-guitar with a look of supreme placidity on his face. He did this during all songs, even when there was no guitar to be heard. He dismissed my concerns when I pointed this out to him.

He was one of those bad boys who were placed into that position by dint of his own magnetism. There are some people whose genetic sequences simply imbue them with a supernatural attractiveness. They may or may not be good looking, they may or may not be particularly bright, but children get starry-eyed in their presence and adults find them especially dear. Everett was one of those, and a child drunk on that much undeserved power is forced to decide, on the fly, whether to redirect that power for good or for evil. A child that young hardly has any moral compass at all, even in a Catholic school, and Everett received the adoration and benefitted himself by it. Whatever envy some of us lesser boys may have felt was quickly eclipsed by our craving for his approval.

I know for a fact girls go through the same thing, and only in the last several years the "girl crush" has been thoroughly documented. I haven't read a lot of literature about heterosexual male-to-male adoration, however. Men and women each discourage men from talking about such things: women think it's ridiculous that men could have such complex emotions, though they wish the men in their lives did (and many find satisfaction in befriending homosexual men for this reason, among others). How many times have I heard women despair of finding a man strong enough to cry, and when it may happen that I succumb to tears, they respond with helpless laughter and a little mockery.

Uh. Anyway.

So, yeah, there was this one time when... okay, you have to understand that the first and second grades were seperate from the main building at St. Joseph's Catholic School, Chehalis, WA. We had these sturdy little huts, like elementary school on the moon or something. I think this is where I got my affection (not mere gratitude but real affection) for the sound of rain falling against a roof or a window: I loved being in a warm and well-lit room with a couple dozen students and a teacher while a storm brewed outside. I loved the compactness, the paucity of space, the sense of a thin but durable wall separating us from the cold and the wet.

We were in such a hut one day when Sister Maria stepped out for a few moments, leaving us unsupervised. Something was going on in the second grade hut. I don't know what it could have been, being in my seat like a little master, but a bunch of little boys in blue cardigans and blue corduroy trousers and white shirts were huddled around the glass door, staring across the walkway to the next hut. Everett, of course, was at the center of this group and was arranging a little skit. Whatever was going on had inspired some theatrics in him, so he was instructing the other boys to line up in two columns behind him. With a "one, two," he thought he had given sufficient notice for the boys to catch him, but they were dizzy on the thrill of being included in something like this and hadn't received proper instructions anyway. So Everett counted off, let out a loud fainting gasp, pressed his wrist to his forehead and let himself drop backwards.

Two rows of boys watched him fall. A couple quick-thinking types flinched, their hands just about to grasp the empty space above him, realizing what this skit was about. I leapt partially out of my chair, also very theatrically, as if to spring across the room and catch him... then watched the poor bastard drop through the air. I sank slowly back to my seat, grim defeat staining my seven-year-old countenance. What a world, I probably thought, probably resignedly.

Everett cracked his head but good on the hard tile. He howled in pain and clutched his skull, sobbing and yelling. The boys around him stared with huge eyes for a moment, then slowly remembered previous personal engagements that compelled them back to their seats. When Sister Maria returned to the classroom she was confronted by a little boy crying his heart out and a dozen increasingly urgent variations of the incident shouted at her by tiny innocent bystanders seeking to exonerate themselves of any criminal doing.

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