I’m having writer’s block this morning. I have no good ideas to pass on to you about writing or teaching, but yet I am compelled to write something. Maybe it’s my sore throat that is blocking my brain today. I woke up with this annoyance in my throat and my first cup of coffee has done little to soothe it. Or maybe it’s because Ken has the television on this morning. He’s watching an old episode of “Perry Mason,” and I’m a sucker for old TV, so my attention is drawn there instead of inside my head to create something fresh and new for you.
So with such a dilemma, I’m just going to pass along a short story for you today. Hope you enjoy.
Life Without Chuckie
Part I – First Grade
Copyright 2012 Barbara Celeste McCloskey
Barbie and Chuckie were best friends. They lived side-by-side since they were babies, playing on the living room carpet whenever their moms got together for a coffee klatch. As toddlers, they built block towers that they took great joy in knocking down. When they got older, the blocks were replaced by “Lincoln Logs,” and after that Leggos. When they could go outside, they played in the sandbox and flew into the sky on the swing set in the backyard. They climbed trees, roller skated, built snowmen and ice skated together. Every Halloween they went “trick or treating” and giggled when they thought they scared the adults who handed them enough candy to last until Christmas.
Last year, Barbie and Chuckie began their school careers together. They walked through the kindergarten door hand-in-hand; she worn a pretty pink dress with the crinoline, and he wore his favorite western shirt with the pearl snaps. As best friends, they never realized that the public school would change their lives forever. Kindergarten was the first place showed them that they were very different from one another.
Oh, Chuckie knew he was a boy and Barbie a girl, but the children didn’t realize until school was in session that being one or the other gender curbed the activities of what they could do together. Chuckie couldn’t cook with Barbie in the pretend kitchen, and Barbie was banned from the dump trucks and fire engines from the boy’s toy cupboard. When they asked why, their teacher just said, “That’s just the way it is.” And because their parents said to obey the teacher, they unhappily accepted these restrictions and followed the rules.
Before they knew it, they graduated from kindergarten and were “promoted” to first grade. However, when the next school year came, the two children would face another challenge that would upset their world as they had known it.
As six year olds, they spent the summer having fun—riding bikes, climbing trees, playing in the neighborhood park, and roller skating on the cement sidewalks in front of their homes. They took swimming lessons that were sponsored by their small village and held hands as they went on their first bus ride to the pool together. But before they knew it, summer was over and it was time for first grade.
Having such a wonderful time in kindergarten, ordinarily the two would be looking forward to going to school together, but something happened that was out of their six-year-old control. Barbie’s parents decided she should go to the new “parochial” school their Catholic church built, and Chuckie would stay at the public school. Before they knew it, the fun times of summer were over and the big day was upon them.
Barbie lay awake in the pitch blackness of the early morning. Her tummy was shaking inside, and her hands were cold. Usually she liked the quiet of the darkness, but this morning she wished a fairy godmother would rescue her with a wave of a magic wand and make her grown up so she could decide where she would go to school.
She wrapped herself tightly in the patchwork quilt that her Grandma Ella had made for her sixth birthday. The snugness of her warm blankets usually made her feel better. But today, even Grandma’s blanket didn’t help. She reached for her stuffed bear, Rupert, squeezed him around his plump, plush tummy with one chubby arm, and then stuck her right thumb in her mouth. For an instant she was ashamed of succumbing to her “thumb habit.” She had given up thumb sucking the first day of kindergarten and was proud she’d been on the wagon ever since going to school last year. But this morning, she couldn’t help herself.
Barbie heard her mother’s alarm clock buzz and listened to her mother’s scuff slippers shuffle to the bathroom and then the toilet flushed. The water ran. The door squeaked open, and her mother padded down the hallway to the kitchen. Barbie heard the perking of the coffeepot, cupboard doors slamming, ceramic dishes clinking and the rustling of the waxed paper her mother used to wrap her father’s sandwiches. Finally, the latches snapped on the aluminum lunch box and her father began his morning ritual. There was more toilet flushing, water running, and teeth brushing. After he walked to the kitchen, all she could hear were muffled sounds of their hushed morning voices. Barbie clung to Rupert tighter. She heard the backdoor slam, and knew her mother would be coming for her in just a few minutes.
When her mother opened the bedroom door, Barbie squeezed her eyes shut and pretended to be sleeping. She wanted to be a “Mouseketeer” when she grew up, and she knew she was good at acting.
“Come on, sweetheart,” her mother said in a too sweet voice. “It’s time for our first day of school. Rise and shine.”
The little girl groaned and just like her favorite little girl actress, Shirley Temple, she opened her brown cow-like eyes and complained, “But mommy, my tummy hurts and I just can’t go to school.” This excuse usually worked for “The Beaver” on TV, so she thought she’d try it. And besides, it really wasn’t a lie.
Her mother gave her a doubtful “mother look” and said, “Oh really. Well let’s just see if you have a temperature.”
Barbie realized that unless she had a temperature of about 108 degrees and could blow up the mercury in the thermometer like the Bugs Bunny cartoons, she’d be going off to the new school, probably with a smack on the butt for making up stories. So, she dragged herself out from the covers and shuffled to the bathroom.
All her mother said was, “Good, you’re up.”
Chuckie knocked on the door at 7:45 a.m. dressed in his favorite Roy Roger cowboy shirt and new corduroy pants that made a whooshing sound as he walked. Barbie’s mother let him in, and he smiled at the sulking girl sitting at the kitchen table.
“Ready for the big day?” he grinned. They had been talking about going to different schools since her July birthday, and he was doing everything to make their separation sound like a great adventure that they could talk about when class was over.
She stuck out her tongue at him while she played with her cereal.
“Hey, that uniform dress isn’t as ugly as you said.” Chuckie said as he sat down at the table.
Barbie gave him a look that said, “Shut up, stupid,” and continued to stare into the bowl of Sugar Pops that tasted better than candy. Then she spoke, “You probably wouldn’t think it was great if it was all you can wear for the rest of your life.”
“Oh come on—don’t be so crabby. You’re just scared.” He reached over and patted her shoulder. Then he grabbed a bunch of green grapes off of the fruit bowl on the table without asking first. Barbie’s mom gave him a disapproving look.
“Oh sorry, Mrs. “C.” Do you mind if I have some grapes?”
“No, Chuckie—you go right ahead.”
Barbie grabbed her new school bag and bagged lunch, kissed her mother and sighed. She looked at Chuckie, “It’s time to go.” He said “Okay” and the two of them walked down the sidewalk toward the highway. They walked two blocks in silence before Chuckie said, “As I see it, schools are schools. The teacher will tell you what to do, you do it and you’ll be just fine. My big brother Ronnie said that now that we’re big kids, we’ll get to go out for recess a couple of times a day.”
That brought a smile to her face. Why am I cross with Chuckie? After all, it wasn’t his fault I’m Catholic. “You’re the best pal, Chuckie. I just wish I was coming with you.”
“I know.” He grabbed her hand. “Don’t be afraid.”
When they got to the chain-linked fence that surrounded the public school, Chuckie opened the gate and walked into the playground that surrounded the school. Barbie had to cross the highway at the crossing guard station. Chuckie watched her as she waited for the crossing guard to blow his whistle, put his hand up to stop the cars and then motion for the children to cross safely to the other side.
Chuckie yelled, “Don’t be afraid, Barbie. Just remember that you used to be scared of climbing trees and roller skating and playing hockey and . . .” She kept walking afraid that he’d see the tears going down her face.
As the little girl walked toward the big white brick building, she was torn in two. Part of her wanted the comfort of the familiar surroundings of the public school and to be with Chuckie, but the other part of her—her explorer part—wanted to see what the pretty new building had to offer. Her mother drove past the place last week and told her what door she would go in, but Barbie pouted and pretended not to be interested. Now, deep inside she wanted to know what on the other side of the huge glass doors.
She pushed open the door and walked down a long hallway of tiled in black and white squares. On each side of the hallway there were tall green metal doors with silver handles. Eight doors opened along the hallway; each room had straight rows of wooden desks. Barbie looked for the door with a Number One on it. Even though the hallway wasn’t yellow, she felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, wishing this “road” would take her home. But this wasn’t make-believe, this was school.
When she found the first grade classroom, she anticipated to find a pretty young teacher like Miss Huck sitting at the desk. Her jaw dropped when she found a person, who looked like an overgrown penguin, standing at the blackboard. The person wore a long black dress that went down to black shoes. Over the black dress, there was a long white bib that went down to the floor both in the front and the back. The dress and the bib were cinched at the waist by a thick black leather belt. The person also wore a long strand of black beads that had a four-inch silver cross on one end. A white paper box was perched on the person’s head that was covered with a black veil. The only skin visible was gnarly hands and a pudgy pink face that was framed with rimless glasses. Barbie thought the outfit would be a darn nice Halloween costume because it scared the heck out of her.
This person looked at her with a cross face, “Come in. Don’t dawdle!” She commanded. “What’s your name?”
Barbie stood stunned by the sight and sound of this odd person. She guessed it must be a lady because teachers were ladies, and it had a woman’s voice but Barbie didn’t know for sure. The person repeated, “What is your name, child? Speak when I talk to you.”
“Barbie,” she answered in a barely audible voice.
“Barbie what?” the woman was growing impatient with her. “You must speak louder child, I can hardly hear you.”
“I’m Barbie Celeste,” the child answered in a playground voice.
“There’s no need to be fresh.” The teacher said as she looked at a clipboard. “Oh here you are, Barbara Jean Celeste. You sit here.” She walked to the first desk in the second row. Her cousin Jimmy was already sitting in the seat behind her. His eyes were wide and his usual smile wasn’t on his face. He was as scared as she was.
As soon as all the children were in their desks, the strange person said, “Good morning, class. My name is Sister Esther.” She didn’t smile. “The desk you are sitting in now is where you will sit the entire time you’re in the first grade. Your desks are arranged in alphabetical order, so I can learn your names quickly.”
The nun looked at Barbie, “Some of you I will remember right away.” She turned to the rest of the class and smiled, “And some of you will take me a bit more time.” She took a drink from a glass of water that sat on her desk and cleared her throat before she continued. “We have rules in first grade and you WILL obey all of them. Tomorrow when you come to class, sit in your desks immediately. You are not to speak unless I ask you a question. When you answer me, you are to stand beside your desk and answer the question. You will address me as, “Sister, not teacher.”
As the cross nun laid down the rules, she moved between the rows like a drill sergeant, assessing new recruits on the first day of boot camp. “I expect you all to obey and we won’t have any problems. First grade is harder than Kindergarten. We will be learning how to read and write the alphabet. We’ll also learn how to write all of the numbers and add and subtract them. In first grade, we call this arithmetic. There will be no fooling around in class. The only time you will have to play is when we go outside for recess. And when I ring the bell, you will run to get in line to come back into the building.” She took a breath and Barbie put her head down on her desk. Oh Dear, Jesus, this is worse than I thought. I wanna go home! I don’t like this. Why can’t I be with Chuckie? Why do I have to be Catholic? I bet Chuckie’s teacher isn’t like this penguin!
Sister Esther went to the front of the room and frowned. Barbie thought she must really hate being a teacher. Miss Huck never frowned in kindergarten. Then the nun said, “Class, open your desks and take out your reader.” She held up a book with a boy and girl’s picture on the cover. “Open it to page one.”
The thirty children in the class obediently opened the book. Barbie wondered what she’d find inside. She didn’t like her new school nor her new teacher, but maybe she could find a place for herself in her new storybook. At that instant, Sister Esther read, “See Dick run. She Jane run. Run, run, run.” Barbie slunk behind her “reader” and groaned. Wait till Chuckie hears about this. He’ll never believe it!
Barbie and Chuckie’s schools dismissal time was the same, so he waited for her at the crossing guard’s corner.
“So, how’d it go?” He said with a big smile.
“You’ll never believe it. My teacher’s a big penguin! And a mean one, too. And we got this dumb book where all the people just run, run, run. We have to be quiet all the time. Jimmy got put in the corner because he talked, and she yelled at me for sneezing! For Pete’s sake, Chuckie, I have to get out of this place!”
“Oh, Barbie. You’re such a kidder.”
“No, Chuckie, I’m serious. I’m telling the truth!”
“Come on.” Chuckie took her hand and they started to walk home.
Barbie continued her protest. “I’m not lying, Chuckie. Good ol’ Sister—that’s what we have to call her, not even teacher.”
“Sister? That’s funny.” Chuckie was sure Barbie had to be making this up.
“And good ol’ Sister Esther thinks she’s the greatest violin player. And I tell you that she’s awful. I bet the violin doesn’t even want her to pick it up. She got the squeakiest sounds out of that thing. It hurt my ears!”
Barbie punched him in the arm. “It’s not funny.”
Chuckie said, “Ow! Just because you don’t like your teacher, you don’t have to be mean.”
“I’m sorry. I just hate this school. She even yelled at me for singing too loud.”
“But you’re a good singer. I like it when you sing. She really yelled at you?”
“You need to come to school with me. We’ve got extra desks in our classroom.”
Barbie shook her head. “My Mom won’t give in. She’ll say, ‘It will be better tomorrow. You just miss Chuckie.’”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Chuckie said. “We need more time to convince your parents. I’ll save you a seat.”
“Thanks. You’re such a good friend, Chuckie.” Barbie smiled and they skipped the rest of the way home.