A short story about growing up and growing old.
November had rolled around again; time once again to perform my civic duty and cast my vote for who would be the next person to mess up our great country. It seemed to me I had done this only four years ago, but apparently we have to keep picking new ones.
The voting polls for my district just so happened to be at the school where I attended kindergarten. When I walked inside, I was nearly overcome with a feeling of nostalgia. It was either that or I was getting a buzz from the smell of Playdough.
I took a moment to look at all the wonderful artwork displayed on the walls. I think my favorites were the Thanksgiving turkeys, which were conspicuously shaped like hands. They all looked so happy. Apparently none of them were familiar with our Thanksgiving culinary customs in this country.
I noticed how quiet the place was; a regular ghost town. Odd, I thought, considering it was a Tuesday morning, a school day, and we were in the middle of a fully operational elementary school full of five-, six-, seven- and eight-year-olds. Maybe the teachers kept all the little rapscallions under wraps, just in case there might be a referendum on the ballot asking for more money for schools. Having a bunch of seven- and eight-year-olds running around kicking you in the shins while you’re trying to vote might make you think twice before parting with your hard-earned tax dollars in favor of more schools.
I took note of how low the drinking fountains were. I have to admit, I didn’t remember them being that low to the ground. It suddenly occurred to me that as kindergarteners, we too must have been that low to the ground. I guess I was once a wee munchkin, perfectly suited for a drinking fountain so low. But I really don’t remember being short. To me, I was always the height I was supposed to be.
I don’t know if it was nostalgia or the buzz from the Playdough, but as I stood in line waiting for a voting booth, I began to think about my walk to school way back when. It wasn’t a real long walk … four or five blocks at the most. But back then it was a journey which seemed to take a small lifetime each and every morning. I swore I would spend at least half of my entire life walking to and from school. I’m sure I spent plenty of time doing many other productive things when I was five, like helping the old man fix the lawn mower, cooking dinner for my four brothers and sisters, tutoring my older brother in algebra … but the one thing that really stood out to me was walking to school every morning under the watchful eye of the School Safety Patrol.
The Safety Patrol towered over me and my other little friends just enough to put the fear of God into anyone who dared even think of disobeying one of them. I realize now that they were probably no taller than your average little-leaguer, but being as short as I now realize I was back then, they seemed like small giants.
I would brave the first two blocks of my journey without the assistance of any military personnel, until I reached the corner where our street intersected with Baker Street, the first of two busy roads I would meet on my daily trek. It was there where I would await the arrival of the other kids, the ones that lived way off in far-away neighborhoods, way over on the other side of Baker Street. I should tell you that the trip to school could have been chopped in half by cutting through the church parking lot and darting across the uber-busy Roosevelt Parkway. But such an act would’ve been considered a strict breach of kindergarten protocol. No one really knew what would happen if you took the shortcut, but there had been rumors of kids ending up at the workhouse, or worse yet, having to stay after school and clean erasers.
While waiting for those east of Baker Street to arrive, the nattily-uniformed third-grader/giants would make sure that we didn’t do anything that might be considered fun, no doubt practicing for later in life when they would become school teachers, or Nazis. Once the others arrived, we all would begin our diligent march towards the juvenile detention camp known as Roosevelt Park Elementary School.
Once inside the camp, we would begin our daily curriculum, which usually consisted of building things with small wooden blocks, painting pictures without the aid of brushes, and trying to correctly identify pictures of things, such as farm animals, foodstuffs, or our local congressperson. This was usually followed by nap-time, a custom which was vastly under-appreciated at the time. Had we only known how much we would eventually miss these midday siestas, we could have properly cherished them. But instead, we just frittered them away.
Nap-time was the best. That was when I got to plan out my future: my three-mile-tall mansion that I would someday build for myself and the roller coaster that would take you around from room to room. It would be built on top of the tallest mountain in the world and would have a landing pad on top for my hot-air balloon, which I would use to get to and from work everyday. I would have horses and penguins and kangaroos, which would wander freely throughout the house. I hadn’t yet made any plans for how I would clean up after all of them. Details like those rarely crept into the sanctuary of nap-time. Nap-time was a time for big, bold ideas, not the tedium of reality.
After our naps, we usually sat around and discussed geopolitics and astrophysics for a while before it was time to go home. Being kindergartners, we were only subject to half days at the camp, which gave us diplomatic immunity from the School Lunch Program. This was a good thing. The School Lunch Program was rumored to have forced countless children to eat horrible things, like vegetables. And not fun vegetables like corn on the cob, or something edible, but real vegetables, like peas, or asparagus, or something worse. Although I couldn’t imagine what could’ve been worse than asparagus.
Agonizing over which vegetables we might someday be forced to eat was about the extent of our five-year-old problems. We didn’t have much say in more important matters, like what clothes to wear, or who was going to be president. You just didn’t think about things like that. Who would’ve ever thought I would someday need to make decisions like these? Not me. But here I was, years later, acting just like one of the giants, doing one of the many grownup things I now had to do on a semi-regular basis.
A voting booth opened up. I stepped inside and pulled the big lever, closing the curtain behind me. I went down the list, flipping little levers next to all the names of the people for whom I wanted to vote. I had studied long and hard to decide which candidate was best suited to be the next State Water Regulatory Commission Board Chairman. That’s something that no American should take lightly. I continued on, reading names and flipping levers. I was quite surprised to see that only one person had wanted to be the Parks and Sanitation Department Deputy Administrative Commissioner. I remember when that position used to be so fiercely contested.
I continued flipping levers for two or three hours, until my hand fell asleep. Then I switched to my other hand and continued for another hour or so. As it turned out, there was a referendum on the ballot asking the citizens of our great state if they would pay a few more dollars in property taxes so we could improve our schools. I voted yes. But only so they could afford to buy some different uniforms. Maybe they could get something a little more stylish, with warmer colors, less rigid. Something with more autumn tones, maybe. Something that would take the edge off the already intimidating Safety Patrol. Perhaps something with a nice sweater vest. No one could be frightened of someone wearing a sweater vest.
Before I left, I went over to get a drink of water from one of those low-to-the-ground drinking fountains. It was tough, but I managed. It made me feel out of place. Somehow I didn’t belong there. I was standing in the middle of a museum, and my childhood was one of the artifacts. It was almost as if I was disturbing some ancient relic. I half expected to see that shorter version of myself come walking out of one of the classrooms. I wondered if I would even recognize him.
I’ve since moved away from that neighborhood. I haven’t seen that old school for years. But I think about that day from time to time.
Someday I suppose I’ll think of that day the way I used to think of my walk to school: a distant, fleeting memory that all too quickly seems to fade into the realm of another lifetime. I’ll continue to trudge through life, just like I used to trudge through detention camp every morning. I’ll go on with my day-to-day routine, working at a job that I hate, going home every night to an empty apartment. I’ll live my life just like I have for so many years, quietly wishing I could remember being short.
© 2003 John Ethier, all rights reserved.