I loved school at first, back when it was okay to pay attention and know the answers. My mother worked in the school library, so after dismissal I would stay and help her re-shelve books, repair them, or–best of all–cover the new paperbacks with clear contact paper. If her work kept her later still, I could curl up on the carpet next to the hum of the fish tank, and happily devour any book that caught my eye.
Midway through third grade I got my vision checked. It was bad news—not too surprising for a bookworm.
My first pair of glasses had gold metal frames that were squashed into two little hexagons, and filled with already embarrassingly thick lenses. When I put them on, suddenly everyone else saw me clearly. They began to notice my dated hand-me-downs, my awkwardness, my skinny legs. I started to hear whispers about birthday parties to which I was not invited, and once-good friends meandered away at recess. Those that didn’t, stole my hat and buried it, or worse, called me “Miss Mature.” My social circle slowly dwindled to one friend who insisted we play Dog, galloping up and down the stairs of her house on all fours. I appreciated her loyalty, but found her game babyish and tiresome.
Meanwhile, I tried to do well academically while flying under the social radar. I just wanted to survive and move on to junior high.
Then, in sixth grade, Mrs. Crouch sat me next to a kid I’ll call Larry.
Larry was on the scrawny side, and pale as a potato chip like me, but there the resemblance ended. As class clown, he had lots of charisma and loads of friends, but no desire to do anything but ‘get by’ academically. Larry had little time for things like geometry and state reports because he was busy with his super top-secret notebook. He carried it everywhere: a tiny red spiral-bound steno, which he filled with juicy details about the girls he liked, and then tucked in his back pocket for safekeeping. At recess, the popular girls would speculate about which of them had made his list, and what he might say about each one.
Clearly, he and I could not have been more different. The bizarre thing was, Larry and I got on spectacularly well.
For one thing, he was damn funny. I recall the giddy joy of watching the faces he made behind Mrs. Crouch’s back, and hearing him parrot her most annoying remonstrations. I suspect we would not have gotten on so well if we had had a more palatable teacher.
“Who belongs to this ink pen??!!” she barked, waving it in our faces.
“Do not wipe your nose waste under the desk!”
Mrs. Crouch had a very prominent, pointy nose, which went well with her daily barrage of tedious teacher speak. She constantly lamented our lack of respect, and lectured endlessly about how much time we wasted messing about in line. We would all have to miss recess if one person spoke, or burped, or snuck a drink on the way to the music room.
Listening to her drone on and on seemed like the real time-waster to us.
Larry and I began to tune her out and do our own thing; we became allies.
Perhaps because I had no one to tell, Larry showed me his super top-secret notebook of girls, something he hadn’t even shown his closest friends. I found out that he liked Teresa because of her strong legs and perky boobs. He liked Becky for her great dimply smile and her athletic ability. Bethany had a tight little butt and a great sense of humor. Page after page of hormone-dosed, haiku-like lists of infatuation. In all, there were about fifteen girls for whom he pined, but not one would he ask out, not in a million years. I’m still not sure why.
When we would get caught discussing his notes, Mrs. Crouch would say, “What are you doing? Making a date for tomorrow??” And then she would laugh at our discomfort and embarrassment.
Larry and I started a new notebook: “The 50 Things We Hate Most about Mrs. Crouch.”
- Her sensible shoes.
- The way she calls pens “ink pens.” Is there some other kind?
I wish I could remember the rest. All I remember is how great it felt to retaliate with a pencil and paper. We never made it to fifty, of course. She wasn’t that bad.
The last month of school, Larry’s good friend Kenneth was seated in front of us. Sometimes he chatted and goofed around with Larry, but the bulk of his free time was reserved for making my life miserable.
He would poke me with his pencil.
“Miss Mature,” he said repeatedly, trying to get a rise out of me. I would pretend to be engrossed in my work, and then roll my eyes at Larry when he wasn’t looking. He would shrug. I knew where his alliances lay, and I understood.
Eventually Kenneth would tire of that game, though. Turning back around, he would tip his chair slowly, slowly, until his greasy head rested on my desk. I could no longer pretend to do my work.
“Ah! Miss Mature! Your desk is sooooo comfy,” he cooed.
Strangely, Mrs. Crouch never seemed to witness his egregiously annoying behavior; for once I would have appreciated one of her mind-numbing lectures. At least he would have had to sit up.
One day, as Kenneth started to tip back, Larry stared at the back of his head thoughtfully. Suddenly, he grabbed my desk and slid it back just enough so that Kenneth crashed backward onto the floor.
Since he didn’t crack his head open, I can safely call that the best day of fourth, fifth and sixth grade combined. What’s more, Kenneth never rolled his head on my desk again, not even when we had to sit next to each other in junior high.
Eventually Larry gave me his notebooks for safekeeping, and I’ll probably find them when I dig through the closets at my parents’ house. It would be hilarious to re-read them, but I don’t really need them anymore; just reminiscing about them does the job. Thanks Larry, wherever you are.