Danny Halderman got into big trouble the day the kindergarten teacher asked him, “What are some other things you can put in a cup?” “Milk”, “water”, “soda”, “tea”, “coffee” and every other reasonable answer had already been suggested by the gaggle of butt-smooching girls sitting in front row by the time Danny was forced to play Mrs. Crook’s version of Family Feud. “Piss.” he said with enthusiasm to Mrs. Crook’s horror and the class’s great amusement. “Well, yeah… ‘piss’ may be technically correct, but such language is simply not acceptable.” Mrs. Cook must have thought to herself, as she sent Danny to the principal’s office, simultaneously quieting the hysterical class with a gesture and the ole stink eye.
Today kids like Danny would be get diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and pumped full of stimulants, but back in 1955 he was just another pain in the ass and was packed off to Mr. Paleski’s office for a lecture or a couples of swats. “The principal is your pal.” we were taught. Danny spent a lot of time with his pal. And when he wasn’t with his pal, he was standing outside class in the cloakroom. “The cloakroom” sounds medieval, and is where you were banished when the teacher could no longer stand the sight of you and she was afraid of pissing off her pal by sending you to him too often. The cloaks were long gone and only quilted winter coats, galoshes, and funky milk crates filled the room. Danny preferred it to the classroom and would rummage through our coat pockets and belongings to amuse himself.
But Danny wasn’t nearly as sad a case as Nancy, the short stout girl in first grade, who rambled through all our lives like a stampeding heifer. She was obviously mentally challenged or and possibly autistic, but mostly I remember the teacher’s constant screaming at her. All the kids had long since quit laughing at her, because we had uniformly concluded that she was as nuts as a rat in a coffee can and laughing, like screaming, seemed sad and pointless. One day Nancy just vanished. No one was surprised when the rumor circulated that her rambunctiousness resulted in a fire in which her clothing ignited and she perished. No one ever told us what really happened, but the tragic myth was one of those things that was true enough .
Sarah and Judy were known as the “hag sisters.” Their ages were unknown, but it was assumed that they were a lot older than the rest of us. Unrelated by blood, they looked alike and only socialized with each other, although not by choice. They seemed pretty much incapable of learning and never talked in class. When asked a question, they just sadly shook their heads. Other times they grinned a lot with spooky vacant looks on their faces. Now I recognize those stares as dissociation and shudder at what horrors of abuse and neglect these pathetic girls, must have endured. They both wore bizarre clothing– mostly long faded house dresses and occasionally ancient tattered formals with anachronistic scarves and veils. They were always filthy and smelled of decaying fabric and feces and were desperately in need of dental work.
Their distinguishing feature, however, was stringy Medusa hair. It was so witchy looking it scared us. In the elementary school collective unconscious they were illustrative of archetypal childhood “cooties.” I remember once watching Sarah get swats for not paying attention during math. Her dress looked like dry-rot and I half expected her and the dress to disintegrate under the assault of the paddle. As her absent eyes filled with tears, I felt furious at the teacher for not knowing what every kid instinctively knew– that Sarah had bigger fish to fry in her dismal life than worrying about stinking long division. I wondered what Sarah would look like in normal clothes, cleaned up, hair combed and with a little dental work on those yellow buck monstrosities. But I could only speculate for a second or I might get tainted myself. Where the hell were all the grown-ups?
Wayne couldn’t read and the whole class would cringe when the teacher forced him. It was painful to watch. What was she thinking? Everyone else knew exactly why Wayne always picked a fight right after reading. The third grade teacher once broke a ruler over his head. I guess she was as frustrated as Wayne. I always fantasized that Wayne got a GED and became the world’s wealthiest dyslexic auto mechanic. But the scuttlebutt was that he became cannon fodder in Viet Nam, which of course was statistically more likely.
And finally there was Tom. Tom only had one little problem. One day he took a small plastic horse out of another kid’s desk to play with during recess. And suddenly all hell broke loose. For some mysterious reason this incident escalated into a case of immense proportion, as if the crappy plastic horse were the crown jewels. This was incomprehensible, since most of us had our lunch money stolen or extorted every day we weren’t actually beaten up by some large psychopathic classmate and usually no one seemed to give two hoots in hell. After a massive investigation, Dennis was apprehended and taken into custody. Although we full expected an execution, instead Dennis was sent to the kindly and motherly school social worker, who I will refer to as Mr. Wilkins.
Evidently Tom beat the rap by copping a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. When we asked Dennis what happen in his sessions with Wilkins, chagrined, he said the social worker asked him if he liked to play with little plastic toys. Mortified, Tom said. “I guess so.” and Wilkins produced a couple dozen plastic toys from a leather briefcase and let Tom play with them for the next hour. After a few months of playing with little plastic toys, Dennis was pronounced cured and the sessions stopped. Tom was forever deeply embarrassed by the whole incident, which was duly noted in his permanent record. If you don’t count opening soda pop bottles, still in the vending machine, and sucking out their contents with a straw, in the seventh grade, Tom never stole anything else in his whole life. Well done, Mr. Wilkins. The bad news is Tom’s whole life was only about nine more years, since he was shot to death in a dispute outside a tavern shortly after graduating from high school. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t over a little plastic horse.