“Uh-oh, the second-graders have had enough,” my good friend Marci said one day during our fourth grade history class. I followed Marci’s gaze out the window where a jumble of children were spilling through the side door onto the east lawn. Laughing, clapping, chattering, some wandering aimless smiling holding their arms up to the sunshine, some linking hands and singing songs. Several children hoisted picket signs, too far away to read.
Our entire history class went over to the windows. The teacher ordered us back to our seats and threatened us with tired old penalties to no effect.
Marci and I had been staring mindless at a worksheet on which we were supposed to record the dates of European “explorers” of North and South America for the third time in as many years. The first thing Marci and I did was cross out the word “explorers” and replace it with “invaders.” Then we doodled.
On the bus the past few weeks this fall, we had heard rumors about the blowout. The second-graders were really outraged. It was a small elementary school and usually each grade was split up into two classrooms but because of budget cuts and space limitations, this year all the second-graders had been jammed into a single classroom – all thirty-five of them. Well, no longer. Some put down blankets on the lawn which they sprawled upon. Others gathered in small groups and talked. Still others played and raced around.
Soon the second grade teacher, Mrs. Fowler arrived on the scene. She was mostly easy going but would crack the whip when things got out of hand. Apparently there was no stopping what the second graders had decided to do today. Mrs. Fowler lived on a farm with apple trees and a cider press and she took us there one day when the apples were being pressed. The way I remember it, onto this big wooden press they threw all the apples plus some leaves and little sticks that got caught up, and you had to figure worms and all, and then squash! it all got mashed in the press and out came this really dark juice, and we drank it, delicious, but you had to wonder wasn’t it a little gross? With the worms and all, I mean. It was the best tasting though. I had seconds.
Next on the scene was the Principal. We didn’t much care for him. The way I figured it, things were basically in control until he arrived. Now a mess was to be expected. Well, there is opportunity in confusion and sometimes you don’t even have to create the uproar yourself – you’re simply handed gifts. “Show time, Marse,” I said and tugged on her ponytail because sometimes you have to make Marci mad to get her to do anything, you have to get her blood flowing, the juices and stuff, and when you get her mad she doesn’t really think too clearly, or maybe the opposite, or maybe she thinks with her blood and bones for a change, and you can make her feel guilty about not being a true-good pal and all, and that’s basically what gets Marci in gear. Blame it on her parents, I say. I figured it was my job to give Marci a life, even if it meant being somewhat manipulative. I mean, whatever works when the time is right. Fight fire with fire. I can’t help it if people think I’m a troublemaker.
We went outside. Our teacher didn’t notice since he was at the window along with our fellow fourth-graders gawking at the astounding sight of the second-graders occupying the lawn.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we had a brother or sister in second grade?” I said to Marci.
“But we don’t,” Marci replied with that sensible part of herself that can really get on your nerves.
I looked at her.
“Well, we don’t.”
“We can adopt,” I said. But the more I thought about it, the more I respected Marci’s astute insight. The Overlord, I mean, Principal, and also Mrs. Fowler would know right away that Marci and I (especially yours truly) were not there to defend any particular blood sibling. So I had to think. We walked outside and I swung around the flagpole and waved to our history class and to our teacher behind the windows and we traipsed across the lawn toward the commotion. “What about cousins?” The idea came to me in a flash. “I bet we’ve got cousins in the second grade. Maybe cousins we don’t even know about.”
“I doubt it,” Marci said, and she gave me The Look.
The thing about The Look is that you don’t have to see it if you have a mind not to. I walked right up to the closest child holding a protest sign that read – “Whose school? Our school!”
“You know it,” I said to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Evie.” She glanced uncertainly at Marci and me. “Are you with us?” she asked.
“All the way and back, Jack. Put it there, Evie.” I held out my hand. The girl got the idea and we shook – she hung in there while I worked her young paw through five quick grips. “My name is Maxine and you can call me Max. Do you know who that makes me, Evie? I’m your cousin.” I winked at Marci, who attempted to pierce me with her eyes. I was having none of it. Evie blinked, and I moved on.
Marci followed. We milled among the children who were milling among each other. Some were sitting on the grass, picking it and throwing it around. Some were holding flowers. I pointed out these latter types to Marci – “Future artists or future dutiful young parents,” I told her. “You can’t quite tell at this early stage.” This was just one of many life lessons I kindly offered Marci on a regular basis, free of charge. I had no intention whatsoever of becoming a stodgy old teacher but did feel obliged to administer great learnings as often as possible to all ears everywhere. Mostly though I simply contented myself with enlightening The Marse.
I kneeled down amid the young flower children and clenched my hand in a fist holding an imaginary microphone close to the mouth of a respectable – smoothly ironed and tucked in – young boy and I inquired in my most polished reporter’s voice, “Tell me, young sir, what you and all these other fine children are protesting outside Clearview Elementary this grand day?”
The boy leaned forward and bit my hand. Fortunately he didn’t break the skin, or leave slobber. I chalked up his barbaric behavior to an infection he must have gotten from the grim spirit that haunts these grounds and I took care to hold the microphone further away from his face.
“Would you like to comment or not?”
“Too crowded,” the boy said. “Students have rights too.”
I nodded professionally and faced the camera that Marci failed to pretend she was holding. I spoke into the microphone to her anyway, explaining the overall situation, the layout of the school and grounds, including the precise location of the spotty playground, the infamous “roadkill cafeteria,” the second grade classroom, and so on. I also commented on the marital and family status of Mrs. Fowler, along with the as-expected poor handling of the overall educational environment by the too perky and in turn too dreary and most of all too predictable Principal – the Overlord, Mr. Waller.
Marci and I walked over to Mrs. Fowler who was patiently standing there as if waiting for a bus, as if she did not quite know when to expect it, as if she was not inclined to get too agitated trying to anticipate its arrival. I felt a surge of empathy, compassion even, and so let the microphone and reporter’s role drop. “Mrs. Fowler, I never thanked you for taking us to your apple cider press even though I think your husband got some worms in there but it was still good. Quite tasty. I know I’ll always remember, and never forget. So, do you think the second-graders will take over the school by sundown?”
Mrs. Fowler hinted at a smile – you have to watch them more closely when they do that – and she put her hand on my shoulder. “Maxine…” She shook her head reproachfully, possibly because she knew I would appreciate a bit of well-placed admonishment, “aren’t you missing an important class right now?” Everything was important with Mrs. Fowler. An important point. An important test or quiz even. Important instructions, manners, behaviors. Endlessly telling us how important we all were too, as people. I don’t mean to be unkind.
Sure enough Principal Waller came right over when he saw me standing there and he started using the language I detest: “Young lady – ”
Mrs. Fowler watched me boil up red. She intervened – “Mr. Waller, perhaps you remember Maxine. Maxine Smith. I was just telling Maxine how important it is that she be getting back to class right now.”
“Young lady – ”
Ever notice how seldom adults ever really listen to one another, or, even to their own words? I mean, listen.
“I’m here to defend my cousins,” I interrupted the Principal. “I’m here – and Marse is too – ” I looked around for Marci. She had drifted over to the edge of the whole group where she squatted down trying to pass for a second-grader. I could not believe my eyes and made a mental note to get back to Marci with some quick and pointed tutelage. Meanwhile, the Overlord needed to be dealt with. “And we are here to tell you, Mister Principal Waller, that this school is our school too and we have plenty of rights like anyone else. Just ask my cousins here.” I swept my arm behind me, gesturing to all the second-graders.
Principal Waller shook his finger at me. “Back to class, young miss, or into my office.”
“I choose to remain with my cousins,” I told him. “In solidarity. Do you know what that means? My dad told me one day exactly – ”
“I’m talking about a suspension or worse, young miss. I’m warning you.”
“People are led by spirit alone,” I told the Principal. “By force they are plunged into – ”
“Maxine.” Mrs. Fowler again. “Don’t you think it important that we continue this discussion in a more suitable time and place?”
“Now is the important time and this is the place,” I proclaimed, “and my cousins – ”
The Principal grabbed my arm and hoisted me up so my shoulder was half-pulled out of its socket and he turned to drag me toward the school building. Then Mrs. Fowler grabbed my other arm, to help of course, but I was stretched and twisted between them. I looked for Marci among the mass of second-graders who were now staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the example of which I was being made. Meanwhile, my arm. Evie put a hand to her lips, and the picket sign drooped by her side.
“Let go! Mr. Waller! Let go! Mr. Waller! Let go!” Marci. Right beside me now, at last. Screaming, jumping at the Principal, batting at him until finally he released me all at once but not before half-lifting me off the ground as Mrs. Fowler pulled and lost her grip and I fell hard on the grass in front of the school. Splayed.
Marci knelt beside me, placing one hand protectively on my forehead and pointing back up at the Principal with the other. “My parents always taught me to respect people,” she told Mr. Waller angrily. “You need to respect people like my parents do.” Mr. Waller froze in place. It was not lost on anyone at that moment that Marci happened to be the daughter of the Superintendent of the entire school district.
So you see, dear and gentle reader, I choose my friends wisely.
And that’s what friends are for. Maybe they need a bit of educating is all, if not schooling exactly, a little wising up to the warped wicked wrathful ways of the world, but when push comes to shove, they are there for you. I beamed at Marci, Loyal Pal, Good Friend, Superintendent’s Daughter.
Then Marci began to wrinkle, like she was going to cry. I held her hand and got up and put my arms around her and hugged her close. “It’s just school,” I told her. “It’s just this naughty old school all over and over again.” Arm and arm we walked across the lawn toward the flagpole – yes, abandoning my cousins in the breach, I know, and I regretted it – but, at the moment, Marse needed me more.
It would have been nice to sit down in the shade somewhere on the lawn – out of sight of the day’s troubles. Instead I figured we would go inside, get a drink of water and then, I suppose, return to history class where we might blend in unobtrusively with everyone else and just keep to ourselves for awhile. But sight of all sights! Wonder of all wonders! Rousing spectacle of all spectacles! From beyond the flagpole rushing out of school spilled our entire fourth grade history class! Half the class streamed toward Marci and me. The others poured directly toward the Principal.
Now this was History. Something worth studying at long last. Everyone going for the highest grade, full speed, all together.
I stopped there on the spot. Marci did too, blinking at the sight. We smiled and waved to everyone running forth and they waved and kept coming and you could feel everyone’s spirits rise, not just our own class but the whole school, the second graders on the lawn and even those in the rooms who would find out later the whole story and wonder at it all.
The bright sun shone. The blue sky beamed.
“Marci, you and me, we did it!” Victory! Freedom! I could taste it in the air.
“What did we do?”
Okay, so maybe she still had a thing or two to learn.
I kissed her on the cheek. She kissed me back. And we were engulfed by the class.