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Monday, August 31, 2009

Princess Leia and Kindergarten Redemption

It seems the older I get, the more I can spin silly and pointless stories by weaving the tiny, fine threads of relevancy into a thicker, more industrial strength rope of crap. Since I have been on a back to school kick this past couple of posts I thought I would share a first day of school story from my own life.

I was recently in a conversation with someone about how some schools, nowadays, offer all day kindergarten to students. I was taken aback by this revelation as I was firmly rooted in the mythos that kindergarten was a half day rite of passage for children. That first foray into public education was a small step, to be taken, and not a full gallop into eight hours of instruction. Besides, at the age of five, what can they be teaching kids that takes eight hours? Times have changed, I guess. In my day, I had afternoon class which meant I could sleep in and watch most of The Price is Right before having to be educated in subjects that aren’t as nearly as important as how much denture cleaner costs and should I bid a dollar, confident in everyone else’s inability to understand the actual retail price of a Zenith floor model television set in a fine oak cabinet. These are practices that would not be exercised again until I reached college some 13 years later and could schedule all my classes around this meticulous study of the economy and retail industry.

From the moment I set foot into the viper pit that is the public education system, I knew I needed to choose my path very carefully. I was in a strange land with unfamiliar native mores. I looked around at all the kids playing together and knew that this was something that could make or break me over the next 12 years. I was a little hesitant to jump in right away. Even though I had spent the previous year in preschool, I had reservations about doing this on a daily basis for the next nine months.

In preschool, I was known as a man who could get things. Other kids joined in my reign over the plastic kitchen sets. They would partake in my practical jokes, hurrying back in from recess to hide underneath the tables, in an attempt to confuse the teacher of our whereabouts. Once, I even convinced a friend of mine to help steal another classmate’s sandwich and we flushed it down the toilet. In preschool, I was someone. But in the real world, I was just another kid, like everyone else. And that world was about to get bigger as the one person who knew me was about to leave.

My Mother was getting ready to head for the door and for a moment I thought I could not hack this dreadful experiment. I could feel the knot tighten in my throat and the burning sensation in my eyes. Soon the air was filled with falsetto ranged wails and streams of tears, flowing down the doughy cheeks of a child not wanting to be left behind by his mama. But they were not my tears or my wails that had pierced the atmosphere. Before the first drop could form in the corner of my eye, another child standing a few feet away from me had begun to sob uncontrollably and latched onto his Mother’s leg with a vice like grip. I stood there gawking, not at his performance, but at the reactions of the other children in the room. All forms of play and interaction had ceased. All attention was focused on this child, flailing around at the door. His mother trying to pry his clasped hands from around her thigh, now numb from lack of blood flow. As the minute long exchange took what seemed like hours, we all witnessed the equivalent of the first day for fresh fish in Kindergarten. Somebody always breaks down crying. Happens every time. The only question is, who's it gonna be? It's as good a thing to bet on as any, I guess.

After the spectacle had ended, my Mother looked at me and we both shared a look of understanding. The kind of look that says, “I love you, but I can’t show it right now or I’ll never survive past recess.” She nodded and left. For the next four hours, I would have to fend for myself in this uncharted territory. An explorer in a foreign world of sand boxes, story times, and milk and cookie lunches. I figured I better make friends fast or I will be swallowed up by the system. Another casualty of social calcification, doomed to a lifestyle unfit outside these walls.

I scanned the room for someone I could interact with and not be dismissed as weak and inferior. This small towheaded boy sat on the other side of the room and I struck up a conversation. He was a rather quiet but cordial kid named Richie. We became friends that first week of Kindergarten. On the playground we took to imagining ourselves in the Star Wars universe. I was, of course, Han Solo and he was my loyal Wookie companion, Chewbacca. The merry go round was our Millennium Falcon and the slide that stood nearby served as The Death Star, with it steps on either side, an arched ladder in the back, and a space underneath to hold an imaginary Princess Leia. We made various attacks on that slide in many offensive campaigns against the Empire, which were real girls, at that age, always returning to the merry go round in victory after freeing the invisible Princess. Those were definitely the greatest days of my early scholastic career. Soon those days, like many in my youth would be over, converting to a sepia toned flash of synaptic nostalgia.

One night, a fire had broke out at Richie’s home and they had ended up moving away. I never heard from or saw him again after that. He faded into the tapestry of my mind and serves as a small, but bright stitch on a much larger and faded canvas of memories. I have no idea where he is in this world but I still remember the days of him gurgling out a passable bark as Chewbacca. His own voice, used so little in our conversations, is gone from my recollection.

There have been times when I have visited my parents’ home, nestled among the trees on the ridge overlooking my old Elementary school. I would stand on the edge of their yard, near sunset, looking down at that same playground that served as my “Long long ago in a galaxy far, far away” nearly three decades prior. The playground equipment still stands, however, standing on the edge of the merry go round, today, would invariable spin the metal plate off its axis, grinding it into the concrete slab beneath it. With my 30 years of growth, attempting to fit myself underneath the slide would result in needing the jaws of life or a really good can opener to extract me from my confinement. Those relics of recess past were better left seen at a distance in the pristine condition I could make out with my strained eyesight. Getting closer would reveal the Monet-like painted truths, rusted and worn and in places missing paint. Those chips could probably be found in the stomach contents of a small child enrolled in the school or a thirty-four year old, suffering from acute lead neuropathy.

In any case I hope my friend is out there, somewhere, doing fine. I hope one day I can shake his hand. I hope I can tell him that the continued missions of Han Solo in those days, minus Chewbacca, were victorious yet not as fun without him. I hope.

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