Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Wonder Where My First-Grade Classmates Are

Pretty Babies - Dishwalla (mp3)
What's the Matter Here? - 10,000 Maniacs (mp3)

Billy is on sick leave today. In his stead is a column he wrote for the Warner Robins Daily Sun in the spring of 1995.

I Wonder Where My First Grade Classmates Are...

I didn't learn everything I needed to know in Kindergarten. Or first grade, for that matter. But I always tell people I wish I could stay that age. I wish I could be in first grade forever, because nothing was wrong with anyone. Everyone looks at me like I'm weird when I say this. I don't understand why.

My cousin Cathy was in my class. While me and Timmy Burkhalt were busy being Bo and Luke Duke, driving around the playground in our imaginary General Lee, Cathy was sitting on the monkey bars with Mason Jenkins.

Mason was black, and Cathy used to tell me she was going to marry him. One day, Cathy told that secret to her parents. Cathy and Mason never talked to each other after that. I don't think I ever heard Cathy call him that bad name until after she told her parents. After that, though, Cathy called him that word all the time. But not to his face, because she knew it would get her in trouble.

Mason moved to New York in the middle of the second grade. I think his father got a job trading on Wall Street. They were rich, and his father was a genius.

Cathy's married now. To a white guy. Her husband likes fishing. I hear he especially likes to fish for bass. And women.

Last time I talked to Cathy, she asked me if I remembered Mason, if I remembered how she used to say she'd marry him. Back before she noticed the color of his skin, before she knew how bad black people were.

Bill Robertson lived down the street from my aunt, the aunt I stayed with after school until my mom could pick me up. My aunt knew Bill's mom, so they always made us do stuff together in the afternoons.

Bill loved cartoons, and he was a little strange. We usually played with his Superfriends dolls, but sometimes he'd start shaking and banging his head against the floor. His mom would come and get him and put him in bed and tell me Bill couldn't play anymore that day.

One day during show and tell, he got up and said he was the Incredible Hulk. He started growling and hitting the chalk board with his fist. Then he peed in his pants. Bill didn't return for second grade. I never told anyone I used to go to his house.

Bobby Fields was pretty popular. He was pretty smart, if second graders can be smart, and nobody ever talked bad about Bob. He was a politician even in first grade, always saying the right things to the right people.

Bob and I used to talk about baseball, because his uncle was a pitcher for the Astros. I changed schools in third grade, and I lost touch with Bob.

Five years ago, Bob was away at Texas Christian University, where he had been voted into the student council as a sophomore, and he was coming back home for Christmas Break. Unfortunately, Bob stopped at a gas station that was getting robbed. He was back at the coolers getting a soda when the masked guy came in with a gun.

According to the papers, Bob tried to talk the guy out of robbing the store. The robber didn't take any money. Bob died from the gunshot wounds before they could get him to the hospital. Bob's murderer never got caught.

Nikki White was the most gorgeous girl. Even in second grade, our classroom of guys, who usually didn't admit to liking girls, battled on the playground for Nikki's attention.

I never knew Nikki well enough, because I wasn't the most impressive playground competitor, and Nikki only allowed the best to court her.

A friend of mine told me Nikki lives in a trailer park outside of Rossville, Georgia. She has four children from three different fathers and lives alone, on welfare. Nobody competes on the playground for her anymore.

Rachel Russell was shy. She was always sitting under trees and wouldn't really talk to anyone. After I learned Nikki would never be interested in my advances, I spent quite a while trying to impress Rachel. Maybe because Rachel was the one girl harder to reach than Nikki.

Rachel made good grades, and Rachel dressed for school like most of us did for church.

Rachel moved away just after Valentine's Day. Her mother took her away, and we never found out where. I learned later that Rachel's father loved Rachel more than a father is supposed to. But he didn't ever beat her, if that's a concession. Funny how she never looked anything but pristine in those Sunday dresses.

I was the only person she gave a Valentine to. I still have it. I miss Rachel, and I wonder if I should have tried harder to talk to her under that tree.

I don't understand why people look at me weird when I tell them I wish I was back in first grade. I wish it all the time.

The only thing I wish for more often is for Rachel's father to trade places with Bob at that gas station.

"Pretty Babies" is from Dishwalla's debut album, Pet Your Friends. "What's the Matter Here?" is from the MTV Unplugged album. Both can be hunted down on iTunes and Amazon.com.

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