I watched as the finest kids from the suburbs filed in and sat in one row. Their hair had corners like one end of a box. How does anyone get their hair to look like that with a comb? Their clothes fit and were made of cotton. They filled out their pants like high school kids. Mrs. McCombs always called on them.
I tried to make the best halloween decoration. Mrs. McCombs had taught us to make things with paper mache and balloons. Blow up the balloon, layer newspaper strips on the balloon, let dry, then paint on a face. I got a big balloon, applied the paper mache, painted it green. I realized I could also mold and lump bits of paper onto it.
At the science museum there was an exhibit featuring African art. I loved it there because it had a peculiar scent that was intoxicating. I don’t know if it was the material, or the glue, or the paint, or what it was. In my mind, it was museum African art exhibit smell. There were masks with eyes that puckered out a little. So I molded some paper mache into little oval ridges for the eyes. It was also possible, it turns out, to mold paper mache into a long nose. I painted the whole thing green; filled the eye ridges with black paint; a fine Halloween witch… It frightened the other kids. They gasped and remarked. In my shyness, I looked at the ground basking in their attention. Mrs. McCombs took in the scene, looking at the witch and the kids. Approval? Disapproval? She had those big round glasses that reflected the light so I couldn’t see her eyes.
I tried to make her laugh. Sometimes the class played a game of hiding the eraser. We each took turns trying to find where in the class it had been placed. In the back of the room was a card board mock up of a fire place. I stood a few feet in front of it, eyeing it suspiciously. I knew the eraser wasn’t inside. In fact, I had already figured out where it was, but that didn’t matter. I bent over forward in a perfect 90 degree angle, then walked so that my head eventually entered the fire place, looked this way and that, walked back out remaining in a 90 degree angle, then stood upright. The class laughed uproariously. I let it wash over me. Mrs. McCombs’ owl glasses reflected the light. She called on Mitchell, a boy who loved baseball. He found the eraser.
There was a small room of three walls in the front left corner, like an additional space added on to the rectangular room. Small groups of us would have reading sessions in there behind a curtain (I don’t know why). My family were going to the library since before kindergarten. It was the one thing a family could do that could not afford an activity that was more expensive than “free”. So by first grade, reading was a normal thing for me.
When it was my turn to read, I would hold the book in front of my face, clear my throat and then suddenly read the passage at super fast speed, as though the entire paragraph was one long word. The other kids giggled. Mrs. McCombs did not seem to approve or disapprove. She had promised that who ever was the most enthusiastic to read aloud would get picked, so I used all the will power in my body, I held my hand up high, I made a spectacle of myself. Then I read the passage like a tape recorder playing at high speed. Some other kids giggled; but Mrs. McCombs finally had to admonish against it. She had to know, surely. She had to know that reading was nothing for me.
There was going to be a puppet show. The stage was set up in the missing 4th wall of that little adjacent room. The Ginger Bread Man. My puppet was going to be the Fox. I had to come up with some way of making it. Todd seemed to be getting a lot of help with his. His shirt was some kind of jersey with a 32 or some number like that on it, and his sleeves always had an ironed crease in them.
I hit upon the idea of using Elmer’s glue to give teeth to my fox. It seemed like an odd idea. I felt waves of anxiety and doubt as I dabbed white glue along the gum line, short ones for molars, longer ones for eye teeth. It dried. They were teeth, real teeth in my puppet. Improvising, using hair and paper mache and paint, did not make an exact fox… but maybe something better.
When the Fox jumped out, I growled and gnarled, I ate the Ginger Bread man. The kids gasped. They shrieked. They finally laughed as I “gulped” loudly. Michelle’s face beamed with surprise and delight. She was one of the girls I always watched sitting in the front row.
I always watched three girls who sat in front because, unlike myself, they did their school work with such studied diligence that I found it mesmerizing. I couldn’t’ take my eyes off them as they carefully wrote their letters, colored within the lines, did everything perfectly. I tried and tried and tried to figure out what motivated them. Michelle had raven black hair that I used to watch the back of. I didn’t exist in their world, but she loved my Fox. Mrs. McCombs may have liked the fox. I don’t remember.