Cold Water on Your Back

I must have really been homesick those two years in Boston. That’s all I can excuse myself for.


All the same, I really enjoyed grade school. You got crayons, glue, pencils, and a notebook in September. You listened to stories after lunch. You wondered what was on top of the roof, over the fire escape, past the fences, behind the bushes, under the slides, inside the teacher’s lounge. I personally had a huge fear of being in the sunlight with the bloodstones present. As my friend described it, it would suck the blood right out of your body, much as lab reports and midterms were to do in a few years.

Cold water on your back … fingernails on the chalkboard, cow eye dissections, and field trips.

I have my second grade class photo, still. I’m on the left end of the front row, where everyone else looks to be slackly kneeling and giving slightly crooked grins. The kids standing behind me are scrunched over to the side, so that they’re not completely blocked out by this grimacing idiot on his knees, not his heels. It didn’t start out that way. I was terrified — new school, new enemies to make, after all.

I didn’t make a conscious effort to acquire enemies, but I also didn’t make many friends: I was and probably still am painfully shy. You’re still not aware that you have the chance to learn things here, so you either spend time with other students or bury your nose in books. Everyone is still about par with sports, with enthusiasm and attitude often being the deciding factors rather than your body’s clumsy attempts at sabotage. It’s not yet time to submerge all of your personality and become another well/ill-coiffed hall-lurking clone, so you try to find some way to stand out. Inevitably, you’ve chosen someone else’s way.

For the first half of the year, I tried to be the first one done with math problems. We had these massive paperback workbooks with tear-out pages that you handed in as that day’s work. Thus it was easy to know when the first one was done; into the silence a long riiip would resound to let you know only how slow you were. I silently resolved to be the next ripper after about a week of sifting through my inferior feelings. The two boys who were the young soccer gods of the class (youth soccer; one-eyed people in the kingdom of the blind, although they did go on to be successful high school footballers [no, not oval-ball]) now had my brand of heat on them, and things weren’t going to be the same. I was completely untoucheable for a month or so until the papers filtered back home and my parents started to wonder why I suddenly couldn’t do simple arithmetic; how could I convince them that learning was secondary to speed? I had my reputation to keep now, after all, so of course, all my pleas fell on selectively deaf ears. So I had to find some other way to stand out.

Everyone is special; everyone is a star. There’s the weird one, there’s the singing one, there’s the rich one, there’s the smart one, there’s the broken-limbed one, there’s the robot one … all kinds of shorthand descriptions and not the malicious labelling you do in junior high. If anything, try to figure this out: after you swore to be “ketchup brothers” with someone you met ten minutes ago over tomato-smeared wrists, oblivious to knowing smirks from the sixth graders, when does public face take pride over self-image? You say it’s selfish and I fire back that it’s more destructive to fix your mask every day. I’m sure that you have all heard of “losing face” but never realize that every day you lose some by not realizing the million little adjustments you make to your image every day: smiles at odious acquaintances while snapping at strangers on the bus.

I think that I was overly flattering to the teacher, too. We had to keep a notebook full of our writings for the year (it would often consist of poems copied, like Mad Libs, from the board: I love Summer/Summer is [good]/I like to [swim] in Summer) which would be subject to periodic review. One of our themes was “What is Beautiful”? and I, diligent student and no bootlicking slouch, wrote “My teacher is beautiful.” I thought she was, but was never sure; hers was the dazzling sort of beauty that might blind you if you looked at her too long, so I don’t think I ever really got a good view of her all year. Besides which, that was tantamount to admitting that the opposite sex might actually be bearable when you knew that the one thing you couldn’t stand out in was that — people would wag, you’d have to get married to escape biting tongues or live the rest of your life in denial.

You then thought that seven hours of school were interminable; recesses were few and far between; storytime was an excuse to sit on the floor and see what sort of damage you could do to the industrial-grade carpet; why, then, does anything seem difficult now? You try to shackle a child’s intelligence and creativity and go ahead and marvel at the job done by instructors at all levels. It’s all in how you look at it, after all: either the students are a resource or they’re your colleagues and the best teachers I had learned as much from the children as we did from them.

When I was in third grade, my friend Charlie had this set of Mr. Sketch markers that smelled heavenly and we’d sometimes spend the coloring times together sharing colors and scents. One time Charlie weaved a bit too close to lime and came away with a green nose; our teacher, whose name was pronounced “Spock”, proudly announced that Charlie had come in from Mars that day. We had no end of fun in her class, often laughing and talking as if there were no class at all. It didn’t matter that virtually no one else could stand me; let their waves of hate break on the friendship Charlie and I had built. So that’s why we never were in another class together until high school. Not just Mr. Sketch’s fault, mind you.

You get that giddy feeling again of being balanced on a bike, suspended on wire and rubber and feeling the road rush by and you know that for the first time you are free, wheels to move you and a heart that roams. And you fly free of the relationships orchestrated by the school, by teachers, by parents, going to birthday parties because her mom told her to invite everyone in the class; giddily you vaguely look down and see NO safety net to catch you below, which you think is a trick of the height, but still you revel and maybe take a few flips, rub your friend’s face in the snow, throw apples at each other, brag of this and that, but always manage to land back on the wire. The first friendship when your parents don’t have to remind you to “be nice” is something that lasts forever and maybe you think that you’ve grown past it, but picking up the leads again is as easy as can be. Maybe that’s when you first realize that you’re standing out, not because of something you do but because you feel deliciously, infectiously happy and that becomes more important than looking cheerily weary.

I also learned how to write cursive again; in my old school, they had me doing it in the first grade because of my penmanship (which has undergone a remarkable decline in the years) but here, you had to be advanced enough to do it successfully. We started off with most of the easy letters first: a b d e i o r s t u y … and then were given scratch sheets to practice stringing them together into real words. So Jonny in the corner was writing down cool things like “sat” and “bad” while Janey, a bit better and more confident, went to the longer words “read” and “robe” and I sat and chewed my pencil and couldn’t figure out what to write. I wanted to show off that I already knew this stuff, and could dazzle with longer words, a by-product of filling my mind with plenty of biographies that year (Beethoven, 1770-1820, was deaf for a long time and plenty mad). Inspiration struck and I scrawled “you bastard!”, probably the longest word I’d ever seen written, and one that had plenty of tricky interconnects, like b-a and r-d. The student teacher asked me later that day if I was referring to her and I said no, I just thought that it was a cool, long word.

But it was better by half to share dreams and hopes and find out that you’re not completely alone, after all. You say that there is no culture in America as rich as the European or African or Asian or Martian, and I say that culture is defined by interpersonal relationships, not by the layers of complexity you add to it to separate Uncle Bill from Uncle Warren, just because the one is your mom’s third-eldest brother and the other married your dad’s fourth sister (Mandarin has distinct terms for both). All that conceals how you feel about other people, and whether or not you actually trust them/yourself to open up in the same way. Not to suspect, not to blame, not to distance, but to keep seeking kindred souls.

I’d just as soon forget the fourth grade. I had the fine time of reading all of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and talking to people who didn’t have immediate gagging reactions. I made more friends, more into the cool group, and managed to wet my pants in front of the class soon after wishing a classmate good riddance.

We were yoked as surely as young, sturdy oxen. When we walked in, there’d be a laundry list of things to do: 8-9 we’d learn spelling, 9-10 we’d learn reading, 10-12 we’d do spelling and reading homework, 12-1 we’d eat, 1-2 we’d listen to the book-of-the-month, 2-3 we’d do some sort of math. Copy these words twenty times; work through your math books at your own pace, go to music class, be creative. What do your feelings count in any of this? This is the scientifically determined curriculum, this was good enough for your uncle, this is all and I’m going to sit down in my desk and hook an ankle around my chairleg, maybe jiggle for a bit and sharpen the pencil before I make a go of it. Motivation is surely as important to teaching as it is to learning, and students can only reflect what they see in front of them. It’s no coincidence that the first time I cheated on a test was in the fourth grade (chlorophyll, she said when the teacher’s back was turned, chlorophyll, and it hasn’t made a lick of difference that I passed photosynthesis).

I used to fold paper a lot. I tried to find ways around the seven-fold trick (if you take a sheet of paper and keep on folding it in half, you won’t get more than seven folds) but as that was the year that I learned both how to fold a crane and that you’d get a wish after folding a thousand, I made a lot of paper airplanes. I gave up on the cranes after a younger man made a mockery of my origami skills with his crisp perfection. Not just the standard dart, mind you, but delta-winged beauties, with intakes and stabilisers and rakish lines that spoke of speed. I made a lot of friends that way, at least among those who actually wanted such planes.

I also managed to make friends with someone I’d insulted at show-and-tell, partly on pants (hey, I own Rustlers, too) and mostly on humility. Bruce had built the monstrous LEGO 8860 Auto Chassis (Mark II) that I’d tried to complete a few months before and found out that since the differential wouldn’t fit as I’d built it (made a mistake), tore it down and later built a model of the Enterprise (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov, Uhura, Chapel, Rand, Riley, the original character that Diana Muldaur played, Joan Collins to love in the thirties … all part of those years) out of the rubble. He brought it to school, and there it was, gleamingly complete, gloatingly finished. So after I told him that I could build a better car out of LEGOs, one that would transform, too (after all, the Transformers were doing business on a scale unseen since the Shogun Warriors), I went and apologized to him just before recess. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it wasn’t that I’d been a fool, scarcely out of the spotlight for my Chinese locks, and I’d wanted his moment for myself, too, and I’d taken; not the sort of thing easily returned, and one probably the worse for wear.

I didn’t pee my pants at the same time that I told Jimmy “goodbye … and good riddance!” You see, Jimmy was moving back to California in the spring, after having spent a fairly eventful winter as my locker partner. I’d gone to get my coat for recess and found it floating off the hook, with Jim’s huge coat bloating up all the free room in the locker; so I naturally took advantage of the gradeschool code (do unto others, anyway) and unhooked his behemoth coat. I got back inside before him and hooked up my coat; when I went back to get it for the next recess, it was not only off the hook, it had somehow found its way underneath Jimmy’s boots. All-out coat war ensued, at least until he left for California. As part of his farewell, our class passed around a card and when I saw that Janey had already written something vaguely nasty, I had the license for a Mel Brooks-style sendoff. So, of course, our glorious leader, maximum teacher for life, read the card, probably to catch such miscreants, we three. We were forced to wait for fifteen minutes, head down, before we were allowed the clay to turn into art.

I love this concept, that you can turn on creativity when called upon; it’s probably true, but for me, I have to chew on the idea for a while and let boulders roll around behind my eyes before anything worth the time makes its presence known. I ended up that day making a cup that was more lip than volume, more lump than leap. Guilt does strange things.

Pride does, too: rather than ask to use the restroom, I decided to tough it out until recess; the really strong twinges didn’t begin until I was in front of the class. Twelve of us were to go in front of the class, based on poems we’d written about the months; we would go in order, and I had written a half-minute spiel about January. During March, I started to dance, and about halfway through May, I felt a hot rush on my legs and closed my eyes from shame and misery. The call — “Michael Liu has had … an accident” — the walk — to the nurse’s office to sit in cool semidarkness and wait, sticky heavy pants, for my father to come and take me home — and wondering what everyone would think make me realize that it was the beginning of the end. Bad enough that I didn’t demonstrate even rudimentary bladder control, but to have such a display in front of the class (you know, part of it must have been bathroom phobia, as I’d regularly filled my pants with both products through the fourth grade) … and in the end you know that the opinions of others had begun to matter more than your own. Mourn a little.

There were plenty of more comic moments. Discovering that someone had wandered off with my glasses (yes, glasses since the middle of the third grade, and glasses still) during recess, sharing the illicit laugh of knowing of someone else’s crush, and all the bright dancing days you spend not worrying, not worrying about the bills or cooking or whose turn it was to take out the trash, knowing that no matter how hideous your day, you could spend the rest in relaxation and thus finding your bliss no matter where you left it yesterday. Underlying it all is the dim understanding, garnered from siblings or parents, that you’re never again going to be as happy until a willing heart welcomes you into its fold and cradles your by-then battered soul.

I think that I’m only now losing the work ethic instilled by the fifth grade, when I wrote an entire report about Patrick Henry (incorporating a wholly handwritten transcription of his famous speech before the Virginia House of Commons) based on what I’d heard my teacher say. “Just doing good enough is not enough for an ‘A’ … you have to demonstrate the extra effort.” And it still makes me feel like a failure every time I remind myself that I haven’t succeeded at everything I set out to do, that winning friends and influencing people is not my forte, and I can’t decide whether it was better to have aspired and not reached or if I should have set my sights lower, like I am now, like I think I am now.

In the sixth grade … well, I didn’t really have much of a sixth grade. My father, after attending a parent-teacher conference, had the idea that I might as well skip the remainder of fifth and go directly into sixth grade. I jumped at the chance, as it probably meant that no one would know how regularly I’d been filling my pants, and besides, there were more new people to meet, more enemies to make, and trying to fly free was my specialty by now, right?

At the same time, I’d been going to a parallel weekly class since the second grade. One day a week, a group based on age would get yanked from the entire school district and get taught different things, like Russian and logic puzzles. I formed at least three crushes on older women in that class, and now, finally, I’d be able to interact with them as equals.

Will you still need me,
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?

–The Beatles, When I’m Sixty-Four

So the story goes that you met the person you were going to end up with, married or just living in sin, sometime in grade school and you’d exchanged your admiring glances and maybe peeked a bit at the other’s grade card to check progress and maybe catch a glimpse of normally-covered bits. So you thought that your children would all grow up above normal and better yet, not in the same parochial environment that limited your view until your escape to the larger world after high school, insular feelings of safety and comfort notwithstanding. So you lose track and didn’t worry about it, because your lonely times are sure to have been shared after all and boy won’t that make a funny story for the grandkids fifty years down the line, that you and the other, having met twelve years earlier in grade school, didn’t know until after having blundered about in your personal life like a lusty dog after his master’s leg, that you were right for each other.

And meanwhile, maybe the other shares your dream for a while but maybe the wait is interminable. And even though you confessed, half-believing it would make a difference, sometime in junior high that you were madly falling, the wisdom tells you to wait and before long, sheer presence and maybe familiarity will take their toll. And you wake up one day realizing that sex is not love, and before it’s too late, cut away the passed albatrosses without severing your hope. Kindle it, fan it in your own heart and maybe someone will see it, that one whose half-mocking, half-loving words whispered on a dare still swirl in your consciousness and color your now. And find your love, the one whose opinion, years after unlearning the lesson to heed others, matters more to you than your own; the one whose words and deeds can sting as well as they sing, because you’re too close now.

Find your love and call the other and say goodbye. Because no matter the potential, the inaction, the distances, the very thoughts have made it wither on the vine, unpicked. Why were we so too busy to have seen what might have been? Why did we forget the safe harbor we promised each other, jesting, jousting, and yearning? Why can’t we overcome our own expectations, and greet each other as easily as we’ve welcomed strangers in our life the past few years? All the time you sought the comfort of love, to drowse in another’s heat and wake up close, close; all the wasted days not realizing the distance already was nothing.


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