To declare my reinvented self, I decided Firestone Park Elementary School would be the site to appropriate a rebellion against authority. There was no question about the target, a classroom coterie of prim and proper girls, each pretty in her own right but at times collectively snippy. To cultivate my new rogue image, I joined a biker gang of sorts. We fired up fantasy motorcycles one afternoon and rumbled across the playground. On accident, I crashed into Beth Marshall, who shoved me back.
I fled the scene, my arms extended, fists wrapped around the handlebars of an imaginary cycle, a Yamaha Catalina 250. I raced away, lips blubbering spittle in three speeds, a mock twin-engine sound reverberating from my chest. The motorcycle seemed to have a mind of its own. Next it caromed into prissy Anna LaTona, who smacked into the building, scuffing her cheek against the red brick.
I fled the scene for a criminal's company. I wasn’t about to go it alone. We five bikers, aligned in flying wedge formation, dashed for the clubhouse, a statuesque set of monkey bars, to scope out the girls we had bumped. The ones we liked were one and the same, their round faces fresh and pink atop windbreakers of yellow and bright green. The chattering girls clustered, suddenly and inexplicably wary of our gang.
A playground monitor stepped out, her lips split by a whistle, and gave it a blast. Recess ended with slung open doors: Biker meeting adjourned. Down the hallways we ambled, pulling and shoving, throwing jackets onto hooks, past gray trash bins mounded with flipped-over foil lunch trays. Meatloaf gravy dripped like horror-movie blood, a scattering of diced carrots flung among nickel milk cartons crushed by tiny fists, transparent plastic trays clouded by golden residue of watery applesauce. Throughout the hallway, tater tots breathed a pungent greasiness, and they blended with the sugary stench of cracked ketchup packets. Someone let a stinker, causing a teacher’s pet to pinch her nose. The alarm went up, voices squealing Eww! in a key reaching soprano.
Around the corner Mrs. Gostlin swiftly appeared, her fingers clutching a teary-eyed Anna by the shoulder of her coat. I glanced around the biker gang: Every freckled face dropped to ashen while one or two raspy voices began stammering as to what had happened “out there.” Recess time, after all, was a savage place of unbuttoned coats and thoughtless punches, faces burnished by Lake Erie winds.
A defiant boy might have asked Mrs. Gostlin why entire wandering troops of ugly-toothed girls were always draped over the swing seats, implying on a daily basis that no boy could share a ride with their ilk. There was an elegant but noticeable imbalance between the confused sexes, a seasonal warmth of smells between children of the Rubber City, feeling ourselves through glandular sacrilege and burning trash. Our namesake delivered its loud rubbery odors, pungent one moment and then whooshed away by Akron’s shifting winds.
Before us, the leather-faced teacher, her black hair laced with gray wires, asked—rather, demanded—that Anna point. Point. “Go ahead,” she was instructed by the stentorian voice above us. Anna looked me dead in the eye, and for a second, I thought I saw her waver. Then she did it, pointing a lone but damning index finger and leaving me out to dry. I could recall that same finger in coloring time, its nail bed spotted with fuchsia enamel. At the time I looked past her precocious but shoddy tries at dabbing on paint like some high and mighty teenager. But now this.
How I hated girls! Yes, this was histrionics first-hand, her dramatic battle-scarred cheek, hardly worth crying over, much less tattling. Two skewed lines of red, a kitten’s scratch at best, had simply been swiped while wrestling during our harmless playtime. I followed the pink fingertip aimed at me, right up the sleeve, past the shoulder, taking a second to glare into Anna’s eyes before glancing at Mrs. Gostlin, whose green eyes just roiled. Big Gary Johnson, Craig Tracy, and Jeff Oakes loosened their shoulder-to-shoulder band, our sworn unity now threatened. The fluorescent cylinders overhead buzzed in the silent hallway as my gang shuffled toward the classroom door.
“Hold on,” Mrs. Gostlin fumed. “You other boys are not going anywhere. Not a cotton-picking one of you. You were all there, you’re all guilty as far as I’m concerned.” I swallowed, warmed down my neck by blame now shared, no longer the boy to walk the gallows alone. Craig’s eyes widened, his Adam’s apple visibly jerking like a heart. Jeff Oakes blinked at the floor, his cheeks ghost. “Suppose somebody start by telling me what this was all about,” she said with crossed arms, her mouth stitched shut. She leaned close before our guilty faces. “I’d like to know,” she whispered.
Anna was thanked for her service as stool pigeon and dismissed to the classroom. I thought, though I could not be sure, I saw her pull open the big door and smirk goodbye.
“It was our gang, Mrs. Gostlin,” Gary admitted, pleading below manic eyebrows. “We was riding motorcycles for fun, ma’am, pretend like.”
“‘We were riding motorcycles,’ Gary,” she corrected. “Were, not was.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. His bold playground yawp had gone suddenly funereal, like some fool who had swallowed a handful of cotton and turned yellow all at once.
“So, you boys formed a gang, did you? And you just went around the playground knocking down other boys and girls, I suppose. Is that what I’m to understand?” Her voice roasted. No one peeped. My arms hung loose, flatter than the jacket sleeves on the nearby wall pegs. In the distance, I heard a woman’s heels, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, then a final clack. Mrs. Gostlin turned and spoke on cue, “Mrs. Goodwin, may I trouble you to witness a paddling?” How she asked with such perfect timbre when a whipping was upon us seemed like the calm I associated only with Batman. I shook him from my thoughts.
“I’ll be right there,” a pleasant voice responded. This set my mind to wondering whether or not teachers rehearsed these things. To my right, Gary winced and dropped his head. “Oh, no, no, no,” he whined. I looked at the other boys, their jaws opened. Gary Johnson, co-captain of the Firestone Park Motorcycle Gang, was crying—without shame, I might add.
“Now, don’t you start on me, young man,” Mrs. Gostlin said. “There’ll be no alligator tears from you. And that goes for the rest of you. Motorcycle gang, indeed, pfft.” A door opened, Mrs. Goodwin stepped into the hall, a long leather paddle extending from her smooth dark arm. Where had the paddle been and why did she feel obligated to fetch it? Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, click.
“But I don’t want a whipping, Mrs. Gostlin,” Gary snuffled. “Only my mom whips me.”
“Oh, is that right?” she asked with acidic brightness. The teachers I saw shared a smirk. “We’ll just see about that. Now the rest of you. It’s one swat unless you move. You’re going to face that door down there and hold your ankles. If you jump before I hit you, we’ll have to start over, and, mister, you’ll certainly get another one. Any questions?”
I had heard that same instructive tone from Mrs. Gostlin explaining helium, cursive writing, and times tables at the board. I studied her hands guiding the paddle, the same ones that routinely clapped chalk dust from bony fingers.
Mrs. Goodwin stood silent, the teacher who until this moment I had heralded as beautiful, her mocha skin creamy smooth, cotton dresses pressed and singing with starch. Always she smelled of jasmine and mint gum, lips glossed soft pink. Now it was plain I was no one to her, but a birdbrain worthy of a whipping as she handed over the paddle and folded her arms.
Mrs. Gostlin raised the paddle to shoulder height for a stretch. “Who’s going first?” We turned glassy eyes on one another, conferring without words. No head nodded. No shoulder shrugged. No hand lifted. “Well?”
Then it hit me, a small hard voice. I remembered the belt at home. Just get it over with. Sooner you take it, sooner it stops hurting. “I will,” I offered, biting my lip. The others moved away, a lofty significance surrounding the first biker. I stepped into the open space of the hallway, faced the way instructed, and bent with a hard swallow, hands loose at my cuffs.
I heard the old lady shuffle toward me, and I remembered to clench my bottom before the paddle whooshed downward with a crack! sent echoing down the hallway. Instantly, little red and orange wires danced before my closed eyes, and I darted upright, hands caressing my rear. I turned to astonished faces, pairs of sparrows’ eyes below shaggy bangs, all imploring mercy. I stood off to the side, adhering myself to the cool wall, a human window sticker. I reasoned to wait there for the red-hot tingling to subside inside my trousers.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Mrs. Gostlin said, wagging her finger at me as Jeff Oakes stepped up to take my place. “You march into that classroom, young man, and resume your seat.” As I passed the others and opened the classroom door slowly, it creaked, announcing both my departure from punishment in the hallway and my arrival as a wayward curiosity in the classroom.
Twenty-four faces studied me as they might a race car driver crawling from a fiery wreck or an Apollo astronaut just back from outer space. Gary could be heard crying before the door closed behind me, “But I don’t want a whipping!” Don Brown snickered, his new permanent teeth too large for his lips. I shoved myself into my desk, bottom cheeks smarting with pin pricks. Rich Ake looked over from his doodling and grinned like a cat, and I nodded back with a smile to suggest somehow it did not hurt when in fact it burned like orange coals.
“It’s not funny,” Anna cried from her seat up front.
“You’re a big fat tattletale, Anna LaTona,” I shouted back. A murmur spread over the desks as though I had done it, sprinkled the room with the forbidden curse. Jeff Oakes pulled open the door, marched to his desk two seats ahead of me, and dropped his face into folded arms. His back rose and fell beneath his brown sweater, the old camouflage for crying.
A minute later, a third crack from the hall and Skinny Craig entered, his eyes glassy and deer-wide, dragging his feet and sitting gingerly at his desk, staring buck upright at the chalkboard. There arose in the hallway a half-crack, a howl, and then seconds later, a second popping noise louder than the first. Eric slung open the door, eyeglasses folded in a fist, and stomped to his desk in the far corner. He first slumped down with folded arms before snapping at Sheryl Everhart, tallest girl in second grade, to turn around.
Just then, Mrs. Gostlin threw open the door in a storm, Gary fleeing before her, his chubby cheeks splotched with tears, his nose a snotty mess. The teacher slammed her paddle to the desk. He was crying hard and openly. I wanted to laugh out loud at such a bozo, the sublime weakling.
“I have never heard such a thing,” she railed. “Thirty-one years of teaching and disciplining children and here’s one that can’t be whipped. Young man, your father and mother are going to have some explaining to do! You better not be fibbing to me.”
Gary spiraled into his seat. His round head thudded the desk, all huffs and puffs. I wished someone might tickle him from behind or toss him a hanky. Eyes around the room split between Gary’s blubbering and Mrs. Gostlin’s trembling fury at her desk, busying herself at the task of writing something officious on a sky-blue card, a punitive document I had never seen. “Can’t be whipped,” she repeated as she inscribed the card, her voice a venomous whisper.
Around me faces lit up. The room had become a stage with five separate scenes unfolding: Eric pouting in the back. Craig sitting there on a goose’s nest. Jeff burrowing down to a pink-eyed sleep. Anna studying me as though I should bawl or pound my fists at the desk like the others.
I considered speaking up, to offer a shaky-voiced protest about Gary getting off easy. A blue card in exchange for the strap? Justice seemed beyond the old woman’s purview. The lot of us were surely left wondering which strings the chubbiest boy in class had used to play our teacher like a tuned violin. Once the teacher accosted Gary, up he went by the collar, pushed from our midst with the folded blue card aflame with that brilliant cursive writing. The thing just looked dangerous.
Mrs. Gostlin now stood center room, smoothed her hair, and smacked her hands together. “Now then, where were we from yesterday’s primer?”
“Synonyms,” a golden voice rang from the back of the room. Sheryl Everhart. Smart. Large, glassy eyes. Pretty.
“Ah, yes, Sheryl, you’re right. Synonyms we’d finished, and that brings us to the point of today’s lesson. We’ll make a study of antonyms, but before I can tell you of the importance of antonyms, I’m going to ask everybody to take out our grammar books and turn to, let’s see . . . page 127, I believe it was. Yes, 127.”
My desktop popped open, my backside reeling from the dull ache. I plied from scattered papers, water-colored paintings, and books, my marked-up copy of A Young Person’s Guide to Excellent English: Just for Starters! Jeff sat up and rubbed his eyes with a sniffle, Craig continued facing forward, while Gary’s desk sat empty and ominous. My mind wandered. Sheryl Everhart. Named after a heart. It struck me then: Yes, I did like her. And the next time I raced my Catalina 250 across the playground with the others, I would bump her.