October 21, 2018

Punch Drunk Schoolyard


It was a mild winter morning in 1974, and by “mild” I mean mild in Wisconsin terms. There was still two feet of snow on the ground when we were sent out for recess about ten o’clock; we all still wore our gloves and boots and stocking caps, but not all of us found it necessary to zip up our coats.

            The snow had all but cut off access to the playground equipment, so the second-through-fourth graders at Webster Elementary made do as we could in the parking lot. By then the parking lot had been plowed, and it being a mild day the asphalt was damp, but not icy. The thick clouds were hanging low.

            A few kids were playing on the snow mountains which ringed the parking lot, others were hanging by the frozen bike racks, others were over in the corner making up a game with a semi-inflated rubber ball. I was just wandering around without much purpose. Although I wasn’t looking forward to heading back to Mrs. Jenkins’ fourth grade class, I was still looking forward to the end of recess. There wasn’t much to do out there in the parking lot, and I was bored. My heavy brown jacket was flopping open.

            I was heading back in the general direction of the long, one-story school building when suddenly my friend Mike Fahrbacj came running past me, looking frightened. A moment later I saw why. He was being chased by a dopey, brutish kid named Doug. Doug was a little taller than Mike, and had a flat, expressionless, doughy face, pale with bright red lips. He looked like he was wearing a rubber Halloween mask one size too large for his head. Whenever I paid him any attention at all, which was rare, I didn’t like him. And now he was chasing a harmless friend of mine, which gave me even more reason not to like him.

            It all happened in an instant. So much so I didn’t even think about it. It was simple reflex. As Doug ran passed me in his monomaniacal pursuit of Mike, I stuck out a gloved fist about face level, and Doug ran into it.

            Even after it happened, I didn’t much think about it. Doug seemed to vanish, Mike was nowhere to be found, and I continued wandering the parking lot.

            About five minutes later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Charlie Patton, who lived right down the street from me. A very nice, pleasant kid with a large forehead. That morning he was also wearing the orange sash of a playground monitor. Rational and low-key as he was, you put that orange sash on any fourth graders, they all turn into little storm troopers.

            “Jim, I’m sorry, but you have to come with me.”


            “Because you punched Doug in the face.”

            “But he was chasing Mike.”

            “You still have to come with me to see Mr. Peterson. Doug had blood running all down his chin.”

            “Really?” I felt a sudden flash of pride. I’d been in fights, sure, but I’d never punched anyone like that, and to think it actually drew blood? Cool.

            A certain undeniable swagger crept into my step as I made the perp walk across the wet black asphalt toward the school, Charlie Patton holding tight to my right arm to ensure I wasn’t going to make a break for it.

            Charlie led me through the side entrance into the warmth of the school. I could already smell lunch cooking. Every day, whatever they made, it always smelled the same. The principal’s office was straight ahead, on the left as you crossed the main hallway but before you reached the school’s front door. There were two folding chairs in the hallway just outside the office, one of them already occupied by that dullard Doug, trying hard to look all forlorn as he held a bloody tissue to his lower lip. The little asshole snitch.

            Charlie sat me on the chair next to that simpering Doug, knocked on Mr. Peterson’s door, and headed back out to the playground. Doug and I didn’t say a word. I’d never been called to the principal’s office for anything like this before, but I felt an odd sense of confidence and calm. Maybe it was still a bit of the swagger that carried me across the playground

            A moment later the office door opened and Mr. Peterson stepped out. I could smell him before I saw him. An enormous man from my perspective, six feet and two hundred fifty pounds, with large sideburns and dark hair edging into gray. He was a slow-moving, soft spoken man who always wore way too much cologne. He never got outwardly angry, never raised his voice, and seemed to genuinely like the kids. Still, everyone had the sense that if he ever did lose his temper it would be terrifying. I always found him a little intimidating myself, likely because he always seemed to pay me a little too much attention. I’d be eating lunch in the gym, which doubled as the cafeteria, when suddenly I’d feel a broad and rough index finger sliding into my ear. I’d turn and find myself staring at Mr. Peterson’s belly and clip-on polyester tie. Then he’d make a crack about growing potatoes in there, and ask if I was being good, before sharing a little joke or poem with the rest of the table. Forty-five years on now, the thing I most remember about him was that he was always sticking his fingers in my ears.

            But that wasn’t the issue that morning.

            “Well, fellows,” Mr. Peterson began, hands in his pockets. He didn’t seem all that concerned. “Who wants to tell me what happened?”

            “Well, I was minding my own business,” I said, figuring it best to get the jump. “When Mike came running past me with Doug chasing him, so I just wanted to protect my friend and stuck out a hand.”

            “Liar! Liar!” Doug shrieked in his best Elizabeth Taylor, pulling the tissue away from his lower lip for the first time since I sat down. It didn’t look so bad to me.

            “No, I’m not lying. You were after Mike and I was trying to stop you.”

            “Liar! Liar!” He repeated. “I wasn’t doin’ nothing, and you came up and punched me in the mouth.”

            I turned to Mr. Peterson and shrugged, knowing he knew I would never do such a thing, and knowing he’d be on my side. “It was pretty much an accident,” I admitted, which was true. Clipping him in the kisser that way was just a very happy but inadvertent turn of events.

            Doug began bawling in frustration, and at that moment Mrs. Jenkins stepped around the corner, clearly having been summoned by Mr. Peterson.

            I hated Mrs. Jenkins. She looked like Margaret Hamilton, with a hooked nose, a small head on a long neck, mouth drawn into a perpetual frown and dark hair pulled back into a fierce bun. Christ, and that voice of hers—nasal and harsh, sharp enough to scratch steel. She was one of those teachers—and I’ve had a few—who never missed a chance to humiliate me in front of the class in some way. I knew I had nothing to worry about from Peterson, but the moment she appeared on the scene I knew I was fucked.

            “Oh, hello Mrs. Jenkins,” Mr. Peterson said. “I think these fellows are okay, so long as I can see them shake hands and make sure this sort of thing never happens again.”

            It was his standard technique to avoid punishing anyone for perfectly normal nine-year-old schoolyard behavior. Doug and I both stood and, quite reluctantly, without looking at one another, briefly shook hands.

            “That’s what I like to see,” Mr. Peterson said, clapping me on the shoulder but keeping his finger out of my ear. “Now I know Jim is coming back to class with you, but if you could drop Doug in Mrs. Brown’s room along the way?”

            Mrs. Jenkins harangued me all the way back down the hall to her classroom, which I’m sure Doug saw as the vindication he’d been hoping for, the flat-faced weasel. Once back in class, she made a few snide remarks, as it was clear word of the sort-of fight had quickly spread.

            Then, out of the blue, Mrs. Jenkins had a bright idea. Although she’d never done anything like this before, she explained that as part of learning about good citizenship, we were going to go around the room student by student, and with each one, she instructed the rest of the class to make a list of that student’s good qualities.  Over the next half hour or so, there was a lot of “She’s nice,” “he’s a good football player,” “he can run fast” and “she’s pretty.”

            Then we got to me, and I knew this was going to happen, that it was the whole impetus for her fucking “good citizenship” charade. Before any of my fellow classmates could say anything, Mrs. Jenkins told them, “There’s nothing good or nice about Jim. We’re going to move on to Stacy.”

            Mark Meindel, a scrawny little rich kid who could nevertheless be pretty funny at times, shouted out, “He has a mean left hook!”


Postscript, written ten minutes after the above was completed:

Again with forty-five years worth of perspective, I realize now that Doug never had a chance in this world. It wasn’t just me—nobody liked him. He had no friends that I was aware of, didn’t talk much, and usually sat off by himself during recess. He wasn’t too bright, maybe even a little on the special ed side, was picked on constantly at school and likely had poor and abusive parents. When he accused me of just coming up to him and punching him in the face, he was likely recalling not only all the other times that had actually happened to him, but all the times he saw the kids who did it get off scot-free. His resentments were likely understandable, and if he sometimes felt the world was out to get him, that’s because it was. I never did ask Mike why Doug was chasing him that morning. It’s entirely possible Doug was justified and Mike would have deserved it, whatever was coming.


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