One day in my fifth grade class, Mrs. Daniels, our teacher told us that in the afternoon, a guest was going to visit our classroom. Even though I was sedated and groggy from walking to school in the heat, my eyebrows lifted at the news, followed by my head. Classroom guests were always a good thing, as they were a distraction from well, school. Anything that helped the clock tick that much faster toward 2:50PM when the freedom bell rang got a good mark in my book.
Our class had had previous guests, such as cops, firemen, a guest art teacher, and others. The firemen were great. They took us to the gym and while wearing those manly man uniforms, made flamethrowers using a match and several different commercial aerosol products to demonstrate how dangerously flammable the contents were. The largest was a can of spray paint that produced a ball of fire so intense that I felt the warmth on my face sitting several feet away. Of course, none of us were to try this at home. No, that would have to wait until college when art school provided us with all sorts of flammables and combustibles. Not that I'm encouraging this, but you haven't lived until you've painted a table with a rubber cement pattern and then lit it on fire from several feet away using a match and an aerosol can.
But, back to fifth grade and the sink of disappointment that I felt when Mrs. Daniels said that class would continue as usual and the guest wasn't going to interact with us, just observe. We were to think of her as invisible. Mrs. Daniels explained that the guest was studying how kids in the fifth grade act and behave. Knowing us all very well, she quickly followed that with a warning that she expected us to exhibit our usual behavior and not to make a show of ourselves.
At that, my anticipation rose. I wondered if this mysterious guest was from a top secret agency that was really searching for kids who didn't belong in Topeka, KS. Kids like me whose peers consisted of girls who carried combs in their back pockets and noisily chewed grape Bubble Yum. No, she was looking for girls who were expert tree climbers and who could ride a skateboard standing on their hands. And yeah, thanks to an insane sense of balance, strong upper body strength due to swimming and gymnastics training, I really could do that. Perhaps she'd discover something special in me and take me out of this place that I loathed beyond the daily recommended dosage of loathing. Maybe this was my big chance to be whisked away to Jedi Knight school where I'd meet a young Luke Skywalker and discover whole new ways to use the Force. Okay, the last part of that sentence was my adult self kicking in. I just wanted out of Topeka (Tatooine) and to begin my Star Wars adventure.
Besides serving as a pyrotechnics arena, our gym also doubled as a cafeteria with high ceilings and lots of floor space. That day at lunch, I was sitting at the girls' table when an over boiled, dimpled pea landed in the middle of our table. As it rolled around between our trays like an injured pinball, the boys' table chuckled and snickered. As a rule, cafeteria cooked vegetables were not food, they were ammunition, and that meant that someone had just declared war. I dipped into my arsenal and returned fire with a spoon-launched projectile of steamed cauliflower, and honest to God, knocked a bag of chips clean out of a kid's hand. Not to be outdone, Jay, who was also known as "the fat kid," upped my ante with an entire stalk of raw celery, throwing a Hail Mary that could have traced the outline of the St. Louis Arch if he'd been standing at one end. To this day, I've never seen a vegetable with so much hang time that it would have made Air Jordan and Mikhail Baryshnikov hold hands in communal sorrow and bow their heads in shame.
Since I was wedged between two girls and couldn't move, all I could do was helplessly watch as the celery tumbled toward me, end over end. I was so mesmerized that I didn't even block. It smacked me on the side of the neck, bounced off my tray and onto the floor. The boys' table erupted in laughter. The girls looked at me in that oh-I'm-so-above-this-but-I-can't-wait-to-see-what-you're-going-to-do-next way that pre-teen girls do. I couldn't back down now. I reached for the celery, but before I could return fire, a teacher pointed at me, Jay, and the pea shooter, JP "The Gooch" Gooch. Busted, we got up as the other kids did that chastising group, "Ummmmm" which meant they were celebrating that you were in deep shit and they got to watch you wade through it without the benefit of boots.
We three food-warriors put on brave faces and approached. The teacher furrowed her brow and shook her finger at us, saying our juvenile behavior would not be tolerated in the lunch room. After we finished eating, we were sent back to the classroom to sit out lunch recess. On the way back to the classroom, I asked The Gooch.
ME: Aren't we juveniles?
THE GOOCH: (looking toward floor, shrugs)
ME: So that makes our behavior exactly what it should be, right? Why are we in trouble for that?
It was too much to contemplate for The Gooch, and he stuffed his hands in his front pockets. Jay shuffled behind us.
We trudged to our desks where I pulled out a Starburst from my secret stash and unwrapped it. Jay sat on my right, his mouth watering at the sight my contraband. I made a show of opening it slowly, making sure the humidity aided aroma wafted over to him. The Gooch sat on my left, silent. They were total opposites in physical appearance. The Gooch was skinny, angular, and rat-faced. Jay was fat, round, and pug-faced. It was hot, sticky, and the sounds of kids playing outside drifted in through the window, taunting us at what we were missing. I decided to make the best of my purgatory by drawing. After a few minutes, Jay couldn't stand the lack of attention. He started to brag that he'd long distance bitch-smacked me with a piece of produce.
JAY: You know Anne, you owe me a piece of celery.
ME: I tried to give it back but Mrs. Kirk stopped me. Go to her with your complaint.
THE GOOCH: (snicker)
JAY: Like you could have hit me from there.
ME: (hackles rising) Oh, I think I could have. Just ask Van how his chips ended up on the other side of the gym.
JAY: (Unable to deny it, tries a different tactic. Looks at The Gooch.) You know I live in her old house?
THE GOOCH: Yeah.
JAY: I sleep in her room.
ME: My OLD room, so it isn't MY room anymore.
And that was true. After my parents divorced, Jay's family bought our house after my dad moved to another state and my mom, sister and I moved to a nice condominium which actually, I liked a lot better. For one, my bedroom wasn't sublevel. That is a whole other story which I will not go into at the moment.
With just a mother and two girls, the house was too big for us and we didn't need the extra garage space for my dad's boat, car, canoe, fishing equipment and other man stuff. And as my mom would point out time and time again, the yard work. Jay, like me until my dad moved, was an IBM brat. I think his father took over my dad's job when he moved out of town. All of it was too close and personal and annoyed me. It pained me to think that Jay's naked butt sat where mine had when taking baths and that we been naked in the same room. Naked! It felt like an invasion, and it didn't help that Jay was an obnoxious fat boy. It was fifth grade, and the taunts were pretty brutal. "Hey Anne, what do you think about a fat kid being in your room?" "I don't," I’d say, but I did. Sometimes I'd look at Jay in class and visions of him would enter my mind, prancing his fleshy boy self around my room in his birthday suit or sitting on his bed wearing a velvet robe, eating bon bons. Don't ask, it was my fifth grade pre-pubescent mind at work.
To make matters worse, Jay had a crush on me which made me a frequent target for his affections. In fifth grade, that meant teasing. Finally, when that didn't work, he made a point of letting everyone know about his crush during a moment when the teacher was out of the room during activities. He stood up, walked to my desk and asked me to "go" with him in front of the entire class as everyone, including the kid that I had a crush on, egged him on. When I vehemently said no, and I do think I accompanied that refusal with a pound of my fist on my desk, the groans of disappointment from the fifth grade cupids could be heard in the next state. I turned to the rest of the class and yelled, "Why don't you go with him?"
There were no takers.
But back to that hot, sticky sauna they called a classroom. I was outnumbered, being the only girl in there with two boys. They used their advantage skillfully. However, I was no slouch.
THE GOOCH: Do you dream about her?
JAY: (As if) No. I had to take all the stupid girly wallpaper down, too. Now it's a cool room.
ME: Except that you're in it. (To The Gooch) You know how many spiders are in that room? It's in the basement.
JAY: I just smack 'em. (Smacking his desk open palmed) They don't scare me.
Yells, bouncing balls, and laughter from outside recess floated into the room. A cheer from a kickball game erupted. I ached to be outside.
ME: Can't smack 'em when you're sleeping. Bet they crawl under your covers and right up your butt.
THE GOOCH: Gross.
ME: For the spider, it is.
THE GOOCH: (snickering) It probably suffocates.
ME: Yeah, how many do you have to shake out in the morning, Jay?
JAY: Shut up.
ME AND THE GOOCH: (grinning at each other.)
We were all so classy.
Now, I can't remember from here what Jay said to elicit the response from me that he did. Desperate that I'd just won over The Gooch, he relentlessly tried to shift the tide back in his favor. I on the other hand, was satisfied that I'd won and wasn't feeling generous enough to offer Jay a chance to recoup. I turned my attention back to my drawing of an X-Wing fighter. Besides, I'd already asked him once.
ME: Shut up, Jay.
Okay, it was more of a demand, not a request. So when he persisted, I reiterated it.
ME: I said shut up, Jay. Can you just stop talking?
But Jay wouldn't be denied. He pushed, and prodded, and poked, and teased, and taunted. Finally, I had to resort to this.
ME: (yelling) GODDAMNIT JAY, I SAID TO SHUT THE FUCK UP!
EVERYONE: (Stunned silence.)
And that's when I heard a scuff from the back of the room. The Gooch was sitting sideways in his desk, knees pointing toward me, looking at me as wide-eyed as his beady little eyes could manage. Jay was looking toward his desk, motionless. I turned around toward the noise and saw a woman I'd never seen before, looking at me, her cheeks flushed red. As I met her eyes, I realized it was the woman who had come to observe us, the very one who could have been my ticket out of here. I turned around, hiding my abject horror.
Seconds later, the bell rang. Kids hyped up from fresh air and recess play filtered in, ignoring the guest sitting at the back of the room by the empty coat hooks. Under the cover of class activity, The Gooch snuck over to me, snickering in that rat way that he did.
THE GOOCH: You said that right when she walked in!
JAY: Yeah, good going, Anne.
ME: (Head in hands) Shut up, Jay. (I was never going to be a Jedi Knight.)
YODA: (In Anne's head) Much anger in this one. I cannot teach her.
ME: Shut up, Yoda.