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Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction

It is Alex LaCroix’s fault. 

Even as a 1st grader, I know he is pure Virginia white trash—all the LaCroix’s are, my mother says. Still, blonde haired, blue-eyed Alex Lacroix is the most handsome boy in class, if not the entire grade. Even if he is shorter than I am. 

It will be two decades until I understand the Napoleon complex, but Alex LaCroix has it in spades. Regardless, I’d have done anything for him, an angry little boy whose mother worked nights at ShopRite. 

We are lined up for a field trip to the woodlands behind the school. Excited, we carry little plastic cups with domed tops in our left hands and plastic spoons in our right.

“Today we are making terrariums,” says our teacher, auburn hair piled high on top of her head. She wears blue eyeshadow and a beige pantsuit with a wide-collared shirt. 

“We’re making geraniums?” asks a girl with braids in my class. 

“Ter-rar-i-ums. Geraniums are flowers. We are making terrariums.” My teacher repeats the word slowly and patiently. We all start hopping on one foot for no reason while she attempts to properly instruct us. “When we get to the woods, use your plastic spoon to dig up soil.”

“Oil?” 

Soil is the earth, the ground, the dirt. Layer the soil at the bottom of your terrarium. Then, plant moss or grass or tiny flowers. Make sure you scoop up their roots or your plants won’t grow!”

At this point, we are beyond ready to create our own veritable Gardens of Eden. 

Just before we head out the school’s heavy front doors, Alex LaCroix spots Mac. 

Like most elementary school custodians, Mac is the most beloved person at the school. He seems to be there at all hours, unlocking the front gate, helping direct traffic, cleaning up vomit in the classrooms, opening up milk cartons in the lunchroom, and giving high fives to kids in the hallway. He seems like the only adult who is chiefly there to personally help us, not like the principal who seems distracted or the teachers with their glares and worksheets or the school nurse who smells funny and doesn’t like children in her clinic or the librarian who wants us to read—but doesn’t like us to touch her books. 

Mac walks by our line and puts out his hand to give each one of us a high five. 

And then Alex LaCroix whispers a word—a word that I have never heard before. It sounds silly coming from his mouth. I laugh. Alex LaCroix looks at me and repeats it a little louder. I say it, too. Then he says it louder, and I laugh and laugh. When I say it again, I catch Mac’s eyes.

To my utter horror, Mac’s eyes are full of disbelief. It takes me a moment to realize that the word Alex LaCroix and I are saying is the cause of Mac’s distress. 

It takes my teacher less time. 

She unceremoniously plucks the spoon and plastic cup out of Alex's and my hands. A stern lady from the office appears and takes the two of us by the shoulders and seats us in a small conference room. 

I burst into tears and weep until I can hardly breathe. Alex LaCroix sits across from me, looking ugly and unrepentant. He picks his nose.

🜋 🜋 🜋

I come to dislike Alex LaCroix as I watch the red second hand make endless rotations around the clock’s face. Someone brings me my lunchbox, a meal meant to be eaten outside with my classmates and our new terrariums. Instead? I’m stuck in a windowless room with stupid Alex LaCroix. 

I open my Scooby-Doo lunchbox to eat my American cheese sandwich (with Miracle Whip, not mayonnaise) on white bread. My mother had packed orange slices and some Fritos, but they taste like ashes in my mouth. I throw the food back into the lunchbox except for the Hostess Twinkie. It’s cold comfort, as my stomach is still knotted from seeing Mac’s hurt expression. I place the Twinkie, half-eaten, on top of the lunchbox—the picture of Scooby Doo’s gleeful face making me even sadder. 

Alex LaCroix gets free school lunch since his mother works nights. He eats a lukewarm piece of meatloaf and green beans with gusto, making me hate him all the more. 

We both drink cartons of milk in silence, loathing one another. 

🜋 🜋 🜋

Hours drag by. 

Finally, our stern-faced principal gently explains to us how the word we said in the school hallway was mean-spirited and unkind. 

I start crying again, blubbering into my hands. Alex LaCroix eyes my Twinkie. 

“I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here for the rest of the day,” she sadly adds. “And I hope you choose to never use that terrible word ever, ever again. Will you promise me?”

“I p-promise!” I cry.

“Alex?” she inquires, looking at him with one arched eyebrow.

“Yes, ma'am,” he mutters, cowed at last. 

🜋 🜋 🜋

When the 3:00 p.m. school bell rings, we are dismissed to gather our things from our 1st grade classroom. Alex LaCroix simply leaves, running into his friends and disappearing into the crowd. He rides a bus, so there isn’t much time for him to loiter. 

I, however, am a walker. As the hallways clear, I trudge to my classroom with my head down, hoping to collect my green sweater and my backpack with my stickers before my teacher leaves. I’m hoping she might give me the plastic cup and the spoon so I can make a terrarium in my backyard, even though it won’t be the same, even though it won’t be displayed in the classroom window with my name labeled on the side in masking tape. 

I see Mac alone at the end of the hallway. He’s mopping up the footprints from hundreds of children's shoes, cleaning smudged fingerprints off of windows, bagging trash from the numerous receptacles around the building. 

Consumed with profound gratitude for this man—Mac—the kindest and gentlest of souls, the man who makes our school a home, I run over to him on my childish feet and hug him at his knees. 

Mac looks down, laughs, and tousles my hair. 

“I’m so sorry,” I say, eyes flooding with tears. 

“And I’m sorry you missed terrarium day,” Mac replies. “But look—” 

And with the showmanship of a magician, he produces a plastic spoon and a cup and gives them both to me—two things I need to make the perfect terrarium.


September 03, 2021 01:23

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24 comments

Beth Connor
15:51 Sep 03, 2021

Beautiful story. We need a world full of Macs. (and the little girl, because she certainly grew that day...) and the Alexes of the world need to be surrounded with Macs, so they can learn the meaning of love and kindness and hope because, by his actions, he doesn't have enough of it...And so I ramble, but mostly mean I loved your story, it gave me the "feels"

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Deidra Lovegren
16:20 Sep 03, 2021

From your lips to God's ears. I remember Mac very fondly from my childhood. He was a very good man :)

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12:45 Sep 03, 2021

Wonderful, I love the way that you have picked it apart with a real focus on a child's gaze and pic, it gave it a real To Kill A Mockingbird vibe imo. I also love the hopefulness of the last line. Brilliant :)

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Deidra Lovegren
16:21 Sep 03, 2021

Scout is one of my favorite characters! What a compliment - woo hoooooo!!

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18:53 Sep 03, 2021

Yeah, mine too :)

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Phil Manders
12:08 Sep 03, 2021

Great job Deidra. We had a Mac at our Primary school. He was called Mr Kemp. He always reminded me of the Fonz. Great memories, thanks for taking me back there.

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Deidra Lovegren
15:13 Sep 03, 2021

Please tell me he wore a leather jacket and rode a motorcycle 🏍!! It never occurred to me that primary and elementary school custodians were so beloved until one of my seniors wrote about his — a man who recently died of Covid after working at the same school for over 20 years. My student saw no adult was planning a memorial — so he did! Great young man… The town came out to celebrate 🎉 him en masse!

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Sheila Sarrett
23:01 Sep 09, 2021

Enjoyed your story. I liked your descriptions of characters. They seemed so real.

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Deidra Lovegren
23:46 Sep 09, 2021

Thanks ;) This was an embellished childhood memory. Mac was a very good man :)

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Ruth Smith
04:07 Sep 06, 2021

Loved the story! I certainly can relate having said something I didn't understand was wrong and having to miss out on something while I "learned my lesson." Never said that word again. Very well written!

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Bruce Friedman
15:45 Sep 05, 2021

Deidra, I have noticed that you often write stories that draw upon nostalgic themes such as memories of your school janitor in this case. I think that such pieces draw an appreciative audience but are also are easier for the author to write because the memories are seared in his or her own mind. Do you consciously scan your memory for such events or do they just pop up when you are seeking inspiration?

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Sarah Wheeler
14:34 Sep 04, 2021

I love the way you described the scene with Alex saying the word (without having to even use it, we all know what word it is) and the childlike innocence of the narrator joining in. And then, at the end, we get the contrast of Mac’s maturity and wisdom, as well as forgiveness. The characters are very real - I think all of us who attended public school knew an Alex LeCroix. Well done! I really enjoyed reading this!

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Deidra Lovegren
15:02 Sep 04, 2021

Thanks, Sarah. I appreciate the insightful comment -- just the boost I need to keep going!

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18:29 Sep 03, 2021

Robert Todd Lincoln died two years before my father was born. Two years separate me from Abraham Lincoln. In a country as young as America there is no ancient history only stories. I think of the stories Mac could tell. Stories that would mortify us, stories that would make us ashamed and yet my guess is he would much rather tell this story. I have a feeling it meant as much to him as it did you, maybe more. Thank you for sharing this story with us. It makes a difference.

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Fiery Red
06:46 Sep 03, 2021

I loved the way you slowly unraveled Alex's character. The protagonist surely has a big crush on him. This is a teenage thing, you are smitten by the face but later you hate them for their ways. I especially like Mac's character here. Cheerful, loving and forgiving. Great story!! But I can't understand how you used the prompt here. Did you use it as a metaphor ?

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Deidra Lovegren
08:03 Sep 03, 2021

Regarding the prompt, I was thinking of unsung heroes—people who make society better by just doing well what could be considered menial tasks. This story was a childhood memory. Mac worked at my elementary school for 25 years and was beloved in the community. At his retirement celebration, hundreds of people showed up. And I’m sure Alex LaCroix resides in a penitentiary somewhere.

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00:52 Sep 10, 2021

#macsupremacy #webelieveinmac #macfanclub *post*

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Deidra Lovegren
01:06 Sep 10, 2021

#BigMac

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21:48 Sep 10, 2021

why didn't i think of that one?

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Beth Jackson
08:04 Sep 06, 2021

I loved this story! I really liked how you never used the word at the centre of the incident - it really added weight to the promise never to use the word again. I loved Mac’s easy forgiveness at the end - it was really heartwarming. Thank you for sharing :-)

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L Mack
20:34 Sep 05, 2021

Lovely story, I really enjoyed it :) Our school 'caretaker', as we call them here in the UK, was also much-loved. He was called Mr Rooney. Apparently I thought Mr Rooney was the headmaster, and the headmaster was the caretaker, because the headmaster was called Mr Kerr. It made sense to me at that age anyway!

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Deidra Lovegren
21:01 Sep 05, 2021

Janitor, custodian, caretaker -- by any other name, they are the best of men :) Thanks for the wonderful comment.

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Nisha Shirali
14:14 Sep 05, 2021

I loved this story. So descriptive and subtle- you don’t even say what the word was but we can guess. Great job!

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Deidra Lovegren
15:41 Sep 05, 2021

I felt the need to get this childhood memory down before it faded. Thanks for the awesome support :)

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