[This is the first episode of a multi-part post that will comprise a short story I wrote about a year and a half ago. It meant a lot to me at the time because it captures an era of history and, more specifically, of my life that is forever gone, except in faded recollections. If you are a child of the 60’s as I am, I hope some of it rings true and awakens pleasant memories. If not, accept it as a snapshot of a more innocent and less technological time.
Additionally, it has come to mean even more to me since the time I wrote it. I’ll explain why after the final post in the series. How long that series will be remains as much a mystery to me as it is to you.]
The Boy in the Box
The classroom was empty that Monday spring morning, as it always was when I got there. My badly-worn, too-small black patent leather shoes clicked on the bare vinyl floor in time with the oversized clock that ticked loudly on the wall.
I always tried to be the first one in class. I liked to watch other people enter almost as much as I hated others watching me. I tended to slouch. There was no way I’d be in the running for the 1963 Benjamin Thompson Elementary School 3rd Grade Good Posture Award. That ratfink Karen won the girls’ prize every year even though she picked her nose when no one was looking. No one except me.
Besides being a sloucher, I wasn’t a very good student. And I talked to myself a lot. Still do. When Mrs. Quigley wrote on the blackboard with her back to us and she heard talking, she didn’t know it was usually me. Without ever turning to face us, she always said the same thing. “I hear talking back there. I know no one is talking in class because that’s against my rules. I can only assume you’re talking to yourself. You know what they say about people who talk to themselves? They’re either crazy or they have money in the bank. Now, I know none of you has money in the bank, so…”
She probably thought the giggling she heard was the class reacting to her terribly clever remark. Actually, we were laughing at her big behind swinging back and forth in her flowery dress as she scratched the chalk across the blackboard. Behind her back—as we so often were—we called her “wiggly Quigley”.
She was right, though. I was talking to myself and I didn’t have money in the bank. Maybe I was crazy. But do crazy people know they’re crazy? It never occurred to me that simply having the presence of mind to consider my mental state was proof enough of my sanity.
Or was it?
Sitting in that third grade classroom, I listened to the chaos in the hall where confused and half-crazed kids raced to their rooms. Unlike me, most delayed their entrance as long as possible. Arriving, they wedged themselves into tiny chairs that were permanently attached to equally small desks. The legs of the chair-desks made jarring, unearthly sounds beneath us as they skidded across the floor, as they did whenever careless urchins threw themselves into their seats. Textbooks and workbooks were stuffed into all our desks. My desk also contained crushed copies of every test I’d taken all year. I never brought them home to my parents, as I was supposed to. I was in no hurry to reveal my lack of academic progress to them and they never asked. They’d find out later when my report card came home. If it came home.
My mind wandered back to my school day preparations at home. Every morning I closed my eyes and randomly selected one record from the little robin’s-egg-blue vinyl-covered cardboard box that contained my collection of 45’s. This morning it was Leslie Gore singing “It’s My Party”. It wouldn’t have been my first choice. It depressed me when it came out and it depressed me that morning. (Fortunately, Leslie came out with her revenge just a few months later in “Judy’s Turn to Cry” or I might have given up on romance for life.) No, I was hoping for something a little lighter, like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” or some Beach Boys surfing tune, but fate would have none of that.
The song turned out to be appropriate; it was a depressing day. Rain fell like cats and dogs and ran down the school’s pastel-paneled exterior walls. (The building was only five years old but it already felt and looked out of date and in need of replacement.) There was a spelling quiz. I lost a barrette. I forgot my lunchbox.
And it was the first day Billy Almquist was absent.