I was an imaginative child.
By this, I mean I was an utter space cadet – perennially adrift in an imaginary plane of existence peopled by brightly colored superheroes, undefined but horrifying monsters, and anthropomorphic everything.
Other “people,” as I eventually learned they actually were, didn’t completely register to me as such at first – adults were either toys, referees, or scenery. Other children were mostly just toys that had an annoying habit of not necessarily doing what I intended them to do.
(I can honestly remember a time, however brief, when I thought that everyone over the age of six was probably a ghost. And I behaved accordingly.)
At any rate, being thrust into a large group of other carbon-based life forms that shared my approximate height, general interests, and conviction that each of us was in fact the most important life-form in the room was quite a shock to my system.
(And don’t act like you weren’t like this as a kid. All kids are like this as a kid. From what I understand, one of the main jobs of any parent of young children is to quell their naturally sociopathic tendencies.)
As is inevitable, there were times when these disparate views of the world’s actual center resulted in scuffles, confrontations, scraped knees, and bruised egos. Then as now, I had an innate dislike for conflict. As a result, many of my altercations with other children revolved around trying to STOP THE YELLING.
For instance, when I was in the first grade, a bully from a higher class was picking on my friend, Matt, who was pretty small. I did not like this. So I promptly kicked the bully in the unmentionables, in full view of everybody in the parking lot that served as our playground at St. Barnabas Elementary.
“Everybody” included, of course, the teacher. So I lost my smiley-face sticker for the day, the one they pinned to your shirt to let your parents know you were a good boy.
I would love to say in injured tones that the bully lost his, as well, but I honestly can’t recall. (Remember: space cadet.) I can vividly remember, however, standing by the car lane waiting for Mom to pick me up, belly roiling with terror, spine burning with searing white shame.
I was wearing a sweater that day, so I hunched in on myself, pulling my shoulders forward, trying to cover up my stickerless torso for a few extra seconds as if that would somehow delay my inevitable execution. This was my first time being in trouble in the first grade – my punishment was sure to be dire, I’m a Big Boy now, so what will it be? Caning? Hard labor? Straight to the gallows? This was not kindergarten any more this is the big leagues oh my God what HAVE I DONE!
Ok, that’s a bit melodramatic. But then, I
was am a bit melodramatic.
I got in the van, my heart thundering, but bravely determined to face my execution.
Mom: “Michael. Where is your sticker.” (Notice the lack of a question mark. This is not a grammatical error, but rather an indicator that this was less a query and more an order.)
Me: “ummmmmm… I … um… um… I lost it.”
Mom: “You lost it.”
Me: “mmmm hmmm…”
Mom: “You mean Ms. Newland didn’t give you one.”
Me: <gulp> “Yes…” Taking what I was sure was, if not my last breath, then certainly within double digits of that fatal finale, I recounted my story.
Upon hearing my tale, my Mom, who in retrospect was obviously proud of her son, asked if I had learned my lesson, took away some privilege or another that I remember bewildering me in its mildness, then gave me an extra helping of dessert that night.
Not that I’m any kind of Casey Heynes-ish folk hero. There were, of course, other times when I was not so heroic. For instance, at another point in first grade (an eventful year, you’ll gather) when I gave a girl a black eye.
I mean, she was picking on another of my buddies, lording it over him that she’d beaten him in a foot-race, and I swear I was just trying to separate the two, but my “separation” ended up with my fingers jamming into her eye and my father in the principal’s office.
There was no extra dessert that night.
However, most of the time my innate clumsiness translated into self-injury whenever I came into conflict with those around me. Take, for instance, the time I tried to eat a sandbox while in kindergarten.
Elizabeth was very pretty. I wanted her to be my girlfriend. I obviously had no idea what “girlfriend” really meant, because I was five, but I knew I wanted one, and I wanted that one. She, however, was already taken. By Andy. Simpering, skinny little Andy.
I wanted to play “robbers,” “outlaws,” “Jedi,” or “pirates.” You know, fun stuff. But Andy was happy to play along with a game that appeared to be “octogenarian,” in which the two of them walked, very slowly, around the perimeter of the playground, hands not quite touching, eyes down except when Elizabeth would sharply inform any would-be suitor that she and her boyfriend were playing “Olden Times.”
So I did what boys do: tried to play with her anyway, got rebuffed, and when I had enough of the rebuffs, I just chased her.
Well, one time in particular, I was chasing Elizabeth around the playground, she was squealing as she was prone to do, I was yelling something warrior-ish, possibly about “revenge” because I thought the word sounded cool, and she jumped, light as a gazelle, into the sandbox and kept running.
I jumped, light as a hippo, and did not run.
Directly, face first, into the sandbox.
I lost four teeth, my top front four – one went spiraling into the sandbox, a gleaming gyre of argent in all of its gory glory. The others were a mangled mess that had to be removed by force – in my recollection, the medical personnel used a tennis ball coated in steel wool to perform the procedure (at least, that’s how it felt), and my face was forever changed, baby-teeth vanished in an instantaneous explosion.
I even remember the taste of the gas they used to numb me up beforehand – they used a yellow plastic mask-and-tube, it was sour and bitter and frightening, and did not put me under.
My visage in family photos at the time shows a child blithely unaware of how cute the missing teeth made him look, and I was mortally embarrassed for years by how my father introduced the story: “Did you hear about the time Michael tried to eat a sandbox?”
I wish I could say that I learned my lesson, that I figured out at this early age that you cannot treat people like playthings, that seeking to hurt others only ends up hurting yourself. Specifically, your teeth. But alas, I was not so mature.
Because, you see, I didn’t care – at the time, I didn’t even care about the soon-to-be-permanent name for this happening that my dad assigned to it. You see, my newfound deformity got me all kinds of attention. It was a battle-scar, which the other kids found cool; it was a cute story, which adults found endearing; and it made drinking milkshakes much easier.
Which made it a successful outing, of course, because it’s always about getting extra dessert!