I close my eyes; I’m back there banging fat felt eraser blocks together making chock dust clouds slide down the slanted rays of sunshine coming through the open window on this golden afternoon the first week of third grade. I try not to breathe that fuzzy stuff in, but it doesn’t really matter because I am elated with my elevated position. I feel special.
Close my eyes again to travel back even further; I smell the suffocating odor of steaming hot wool as the nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital wrapped my paralyzed limbs in these cooked blankets rather than let me start second grade with my friends. Hot packs they were called; the doctors said if I was a good girl and let them wrap me up as though I were a sausage several times a day I might someday wiggle my toes again. Well, did I have a choice? I was a good girl, but try as I might, not one of the ten moved. But that didn’t really matter because I wasn’t in an iron lung like some of the kids—I could breathe on my own. (Jonas Salk’s miracle was yet to come.)
Everyone knows by the time they’re in third grade that it’s teacher’s pet who has the honor of cleaning the erasers, wiping down the blackboard, and replacing stubs with fresh, long white pieces of chock that felt amazingly smooth as your fingers slid lightly over their cool hardness as you placed them neatly in the chock tray. Mrs. Conroy smiled at me as she arranged the pages of each student’s best cursive writing on the bulletin boards flanking both sides of the clean blackboard. We had everything in place for tomorrow. It would be a great day. And I was, indeed, a good girl who had learned the hard way to wiggle her toes a few months ago with the encouragement of the physical therapy heroes.
It’s tomorrow. It’s recess. I’m standing at the bottom of the high slide on my trusty crutches because my friend is climbing the scary stairs to the top so she can make the exhilarating glide down and land triumphantly at my feet. We will both giggle at the fun of it all. Just before my friend’s turn to slide down, the boy who was climbing the stairs ahead of her stopped at the top and hollered for everyone on the playground to watch him. As we all watched expectantly, he dug deep, with both hands, into the pockets of his blue jeans. Next thing I knew rocks were careening pell-mell down that high slide at me. I was the target. I was an easy mark, since I hadn’t yet mastered the art of nimble crutching. Above the cries of my friend waiting to come down to me, he yelled out, “That’s what she gets. She’s fat and crippled and retarded and has rocks in her head.” There was a lot of laughter.
I eventually learned to walk well—no braces, no crutches, post-polio syndrome in check. Hurray! I’m special. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I only think about that grade school high slide incident every ten years or so when something or someone reminds me how mean a few bullies can be. Mostly, I have nothing but positive memories of precious school days—mine and those of my three children.
August meant back to school shopping with my kids and was something I loved—or think I loved. “Do you really have to have a new backpack, what’s wrong with last year’s pink one?” “Mom, I need eye shadow, all my friends are wearing it.” “A car. Are you nuts?” New clothes that don’t look new, fresh books that I hope they’ll crack, magic markers that smell like fun, binder covers beckoning to be graffitied, and ruled paper awaiting critical thoughts, poems, problems, images, and answers to questions. Now it’s whiteboards and rainbow colored markers and too much home work. My ‘baby’ in tears, “That crappy girl in the popular group stuck her foot out so I’d trip and fall down in front of the entire math class. Everyone laughed.”