Friday, January 27, 2012

The Saving Grace of Big Macs

Like many children of the 80s, the era of optional child restraints, plentiful second-hand smoke, and grapes not cut in half, I had a few brushes with death. I flew my kite into a utility line, I got an Atomic Fire Ball stuck in my throat when I tried to talk and eat it at the same time, and I rode my bike into the side of a moving car at an intersection. I either had a guardian angel to save me from my own stupidity or I used up my entire lifetime's stock of luck by the time I turned ten.

But the time my mother talks about the most, the time of my life that to this day, post-cancer-treatment and all, she says is the closest she came to losing me, was caused by our first and only real Christmas tree.

Christmas is a bad time to realize you're severely allergic to conifers. And red shag carpet is a bad thing to have when you have a real tree you're suddenly sickened by. By the time I was allergy-tested in January, following a sinus infection that had had me sidelined for four weeks, my top allergen was so embedded in the fibers of that floor covering that needles would appear in my mother's vacuum cleaner bags for a year.

It was by far the worst I've ever felt in my life. I believe that period of time in third grade was the reason for my present-day claustrophobia; until I began a new corticosteroid nasal spray in March or April, I could not breathe through my nose. I slept little; I could never fall asleep if I had to breathe through my mouth. I was the only child I knew who didn't miss a single episode of both The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman in the winter of 1982 and 1983. Years later, when we had to choose a celebrity to write to for an English project in middle school, I chose Johnny Carson instead of Alyssa Milano or Kirk Cameron. His was the last voice I heard on many a night during that long winter.

My mother was alerted to the seriousness of the problem when I wandered through the door after walking home from school one snowy afternoon, white as the proverbial sheet and shaking inside my coat. I don't know what my temperature was, but I know it made Mom call a neighbor who had been a nurse. Accompanied with it was the worst headache of my life, a pain so bad it made me throw up and begin trembling so deeply our nurse neighbor told my mom she thought I was going into shock. The weather had gotten bad, and my mother was alone, and she gave me my first-ever dose of Tylenol and prayed at my bedside that we didn't have to fight the snow and ice to go to the hospital. The Tylenol worked, God listened, and I was referred by our family doctor to a crew of specialists.

Food began to taste funny. Everything from chocolate milk to toast acquired a sickly, cloyingly strange taste that I recognized. It was the same smell I noticed when I was away from my parents' smoky house.

"This chocolate milk tastes like meat," I told my mother one day.

"Like meat?"

"Yeah, like hamburger smells sometimes when you let it go brown in the refrigerator and have to throw it out."

An x-ray of my sinuses confirmed that every cavity in my head was full of fluid. And since it wasn't coming out, it was starting to become horribly, devastatingly infected. The kind of infection that could cause long-term health problems. My mother put her head in her hands and sighed in the clean little examining room at the ENT. Repeated courses of strong antibiotics could kill the infection, but the swelling was persistent and preventing me from truly getting better. Allergy shots would take a while to work. I was put on prednisone and told if that didn't work, I might need surgery. A surgery on my sinuses not commonly done in children that may or may not work.

"Then what?"

The doctor help up his hands.

"Then we wait and see."

It was an interesting time. No matter how sick I was, I was the kind of kid who was fascinated by the wonders of my condition. It did not occur to me that I was very ill, but I did realize that breathing through both sides of your nose at the same time is a highly underrated thing that people take for granted, and I performed experiments to see what physical activities and body positions would cause my nose to open up. I became very knowledgeable about pharmaceuticals, asking the pharmacist questions about various potions' taste, side effects, and, after a particularly nasty response to erythromycin, whether or not they would make me throw up in public.

When the infection went to my lungs, I was given cough syrup containing codeine. After the first dose, the edges of my world became pleasantly fuzzy and soft. I had a revelation about human existence.

"We're all made of clouds," I told my mom that night, watching Superman: The Movie on cable.

"We're all what?"

"Made of clouds. See? My arm is see-through," I told her waving my arm in front of my nose. "But Superman on the TV? He looks real."

"Unh-huh. I think we're done with the cough syrup."

I also saw Death himself. One night, a night that sleep actually had come for me, my mother woke me to take a dose of prednisone. As she stood over my bed with spoon in hand, telling me to open my mouth, I saw a skeleton next to her. He was dressed in black and holding a scythe. I was frozen with fear and could not move, could not blink, could only stare at my mom and open my mouth. As the spoon came toward me, so did the skeleton. He fell toward me and I either passed out or went back to sleep, I was not sure which.

I hoped it was a dream.

"Did you wake me up to give me medicine last night?"

"Yes. Why?"

"No reason." I had been brought up mostly Baptist with a twist of Pentecostal; I knew the grim reaper when I saw it. I prayed nightly for my soul until the doctor asked Mom if I'd been having any hallucinations or night terrors; apparently, kids on steroids can.

I began to feel better in the spring. A new nasal spray had come on the market that allowed the air to return to my sinuses. Windows were opened, the house began to air out, and I shed my winter layers for t-shirts.

"Wait a second," Mom said, after she passed by my bedroom when I changed shirts. "Lift that shirt back up."

I lifted the shirt over my head and heard my mother gasp. I was in front of a mirror and I turned to it to see what she saw.

Ribs. Every rib in my chest and back poked out loud through the skin. My collarbones stood at attention when I lowered my arms. Hips and elbows and knees were sharp and prominent. Mom started crying and, scared, I cried too.

I know now that when you're a parent, you can go a long time looking at your kid before you really see your kid. I had spent the winter so bundled up my mother had no idea I had become so thin. Bath time had become a quick affair because she was so worried about me catching a chill. I was, yet again, scurried to the doctor.

No medicines this time. I was prescribed food instead. As much of it as I wanted, whenever I wanted it. Plus a new type of protein shake used primarily by athletes, twice a day. The problem was I still didn't have my appetite back. I went from having a terrible smell in my nose all the time to having no sense of smell at all. Oranges sprinkled with salt (yeah, I know, gross) were the only things that I ate with joy, and no one has ever gained weight from eating oranges sprinkled with salt.

And then I discovered Big Macs.

I may be the only person you've ever heard say this but: Thank God for McDonalds. I got a coupon at school for a free Big Mac for an essay I wrote, and my sister grudgingly took me through the drive-thru. Having her driver's license had stopped being cool after she found herself to be my official chauffeur. I dug into my burger on the way home, fully expecting to hate it but planning to lie that I loved it just to ick my sister out. She thought they were the most disgusting things on the planet.

I sipped my Coke. And nibbled my fries. And took that first bite. I expected it to taste like nothing, like everything else I ate. But it didn't. The pickles. The sauce. Two all-beef patties. Lettuce, cheese. It was salty, it was sweet, it was tangy. It was heaven. It was also gone before we got home.

"Can I have another one? Not today, but someday?"

My mother smiled more than any woman should smile after hearing her child profess a love for fast food.

And so it goes that I had a Big Mac almost every day in the spring of 1983. Healthy? Probably not. Though I did argue once to my skeptical father that all 4 food groups were represented. (Pickles were once cucumbers, after all.) But I did gain some weight. It took me years to get back to something resembling normalcy on my growth chart, but a daily Big Mac goes a long way toward making one's ribs no longer show.

I've mostly given up McDonalds now. I think when you hit 35, it either loses its appeal or you realize just how God-awful it is for you, and you do your general health a favor and stop loving it. However, after a cold, sinus infection, or bronchitis, I simply have to have a Mac. My body has remembered the peculiar and fabulous appeal they had for me once following the worse illness of my life, and I simply don't think I'm recovered until I hit a drive-thru and feed my body and soul with a little horrible deliciousness inside a sesame-seed bun.

They may be bad. But they tasted...gooooood.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Simple Joys of Snow

I have mentioned the infamous snow statue in another blog post, but that was a long time ago, and having had no snow so far this "winter" I am waxing nostalgic for the white stuff. So forgive me for this repeat. I just really, really need a snow day up in here.

I was a freshman in college the first time I played in the snow.

"Catching a chill" was a dreaded ailment in my house growing up and, for that reason, I was allowed only limited exposure to cold, damp winter air. When I was four, our family doctor told my mother that I had a weak immune system. Mom took this to mean that I needed to be kept warm and bundled and preferably indoors all winter. Regardless of her sheltering I spent every winter sick, anyway, perhaps because between November and February the only air I breathed was that of two chain-smoking parents partially filtered by a poorly-functioning gas furnace that more than once leaked carbon monoxide. But this was, in Mom's opinion, better for me than getting my feet wet.

Once, during a rare snow storm when I was not suffering from a sinus infection or bronchitis, I was allowed out long enough to build a really pitiful snowman. We had neither buttons nor coal nor a corn-cob pipe for my Frosty's features, so I used a pair of translucent neon-orange ponytail holders for eyes, which made my snowman look like a tribute to Satan. Despite his unconventional appearance, I was so proud of my first effort at snow sculpture that when the snow started to melt, I decapitated him and stuck his head in the freezer to keep for a while. I forgot about him until my mom shrieked as she was retrieving a Banquet chicken dinner and kindly asked me to take him outside and just let him die.
Besides that one glorious afternoon, though, I had skated through childhood without actually skating. I did not think I was missing much, for I hated the cold and did not see what there could possibly be to love about being hit with snowballs.

And then came college, where I rebelled against my parents' strict policies just as every late-teen binge drinker does: by going wild and breaking the rules that had bound me. Instead of alcohol, my vice was a snowmen in the shape of the male member.

The first big snow of our freshman year brought out the inner child in us. Study was abandoned for winter delights. It didn't take much to coax me away from my world history text and out for a walk to investigate the Wiseman fountain, which we had heard was adorned with a pornographic snow creation. It was, but we were not impressed; it was neither life-like (in the girls' limited experience) nor enough of an exaggeration to be worth our time. So a small group of us adjourned to the freshman girls' parking lot, where we planned on doing a friend a favor and clear her Ford Escort of snow so that we could later talk her into taking us to buy hot chocolate. We were nothing if not selfless.

Clearing the snow off the car was easy. Clearing the area around her car of snow was not. So we used some of the ample snow drifts to make our own version of the snow sculpture we had seen at the Wiseman fountain. On the top of her car. Because we knew she would just love it. Well, not really, but everyone else would. And again, we were selfless.

That effort went so well we expanded on it and built a stand-alone snow genital in the parking lot. And the final creation was a masterpiece that made Michelangelo sigh from the heavens with jealously. The attention to detail we paid to our tribute would have made you think we were much more careful, detail-oriented students than we actually were. It was so good that it almost wasn't funny; it was a work of art. It was life-like, grandiose, and perversely beautiful. And seeing as how my boyfriend stepped away from putting the finishing touches on it with his fly down, based on a real-life model. Or so we teased.

We did get hot chocolate, eventually. By the time I went to bed, my feet were soaked, my jeans were frozen, and I had sweated through the clothes under my coat. And then I fell asleep with wet hair. I had committed all the sins my mother told me would make me die of pneumonia, and yet I lived through that winter. I lived to build more snowmen, throw snowballs and be the victim of thrown snowballs, and even go sled-riding. The early- to mid-90s were a snowy time in central Kentucky, and I made up for the winter play my childhood lacked. In fact, I was spoiled by big snow; today a winter that doesn't produce a storm big enough for a good snowman in the front yard is an epic disappointment.

My own kid gets a bit sickly in the winter and I have found myself hollering out the front door, "Leave your hat on! Why are your gloves NOT on your hands where they belong? Are your socks wet? Come on in here before you catch your death of pneumonia!" My instinct toward over-protection wants to keep her warm indoors every time a little white precipitation falls. But then I remember the simple joys of snow angels, snow sculpture (of the non-profane kind), and sledding down big hills. I can't deny her these things, which I discovered almost too late to enjoy them.

And if she does these things now, maybe she will have had enough by the time she is away at college, and she won't feel compelled to join in her friends' creation of an army of snow phalluses throughout campus. Maybe.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Never, Ever, Ever Give Up

When I was in the fifth grade, and no longer believed in Santa Claus, I had one, simple request from my parents for a Christmas gift: a set of 5-pound hand weights.

They laughed until they realized I was being quite serious. And asked me if I wanted anything else. I rattled off a few things I felt like I could use if they had the money to get them: a small FM radio; a bottle of real grown-up cologne; a new pair of Lee jeans. But the weights, I told them, was the main thing I wanted. They shrugged, exchanged a look that said, "Our youngest daughter is by far our weirdest," and searched department store circulars to figure out where they were even going to get such a thing.

It was not because I was particularly athletic in fifth grade. In fact, I was the exact opposite of athletic in fifth grade. It was not because I was vain and wanted toned arms. That day wouldn't come for many more years, when I was a sophomore in college and decided that I simply had to have Linda Hamilton's Terminator 2: Judgement Day arms. I wanted to work out with weights because I knew with certainty that until I beefed up my spaghetti arms, I had a snowball's chance in Miami of passing the Presidential Physical Fitness Test and getting an A in fifth-grade gym class.

Our teacher had announced early in the year that our grade would, in part, be based on how well we performed a test of all the guidelines for our age group set by the President's Council on Physical Fitness. To get an A grade, one had to complete a shuttle run, sit-ups, an endurance run, a chin hang (for girls) or pull-ups (for boys), and a sit-and-reach for flexibility all above a set benchmark. (I learned from a Google search that the year we did the final test, 1985, was the year that STILL serves as the benchmark for scores for this test today. Youth of America--you're welcome.) For a scrawny, out-of-shape fifth-grader who had spent the previous school year in a school without a gym teacher during a cold, snowy winter, with no sport credits to my name, I might as well have just been told I needed to climb Everest to pass my gym class.

The pre-test we had taken in the fall was dismal for many of us. Our gym teacher threw in a few other categories in addition to the main five set by the President's council. For reasons unbeknown to us, she added the standing high-jump and the standing long jump. This worked out in my favor. I aced the modified high jump in which we stood next to a huge sheet of butcher paper with sticky notes on our hands and jumped as high as we could, slapping our sticky note and later having its height measured. I was tall for my age, and had freakishly long arms, so my sticky note was among the top five in the entire class. And because my legs were also disproportionally long and I weighed about as much as a New York City rodent, I did well in the standing long jump, too. I was heartened by this.

But in every other standard I, to not put too fine a point on it, sucked. My shuttle run wasn't so much a dash as a stroll. I am pretty sure the average kindergartner could have done that challenge faster. Because it involved starting and stopping and changing direction, all things which take coordination, and not just all-out sprinting, I knew this would be my blind spot.

In sit-ups, I was pathetic. In the endurance run, which involved many laps around the school gym, I thought I was going to die. In the sit-and-reach, I couldn't get past mid-calf without thinking my hamstrings were going to snap like rubber bands.

Yet nothing could prepare me for my disappointment in the flexed-arm hang.

A classmate helped me get in position with my chin above one of the vertical bars on the playground, where we were taking this portion of the test. She let go. I was instructed to hold my weight as long as possible. I lasted 3 seconds.

There was much laughter because, as it turned out, that impressively bad time put me second-to-last in the class. The only person I beat was the class clown who started giggling before she ever got up to the bar, and consequently decided to just make a face to make everyone laugh and write the whole thing off. I had tried my best to hang and dropped out in less time than it takes to get an allergy shot. So, really, the joke was on me.

I could have just decided that physical fitness was not my thing and focused on all the things I knew I could get an A in in fifth grade: English, math, and, if I could memorize all the state capitals, social studies. Something really bothered me about my performance, though, and I found that I couldn't accept doing badly when we were retested in the spring. I had to pass that test. Or die trying.

The day after Christmas, with a pair of bright-white hand weights from Sears, I started to work out in earnest. Each evening after dinner, I followed the exercises in the brochure that came with my weights. When it was nice enough outside, I ran laps around the house. As my endurance got better, this became laps around our yard, which was much bigger. I learned that if I wedged my feet under the sofa to replicate someone holding my feet I could do more sit-ups more comfortably. I stretched every night before bed and made it my goal to be able to touch my toes without bending my knees. I still thought my hamstrings might snap, but everyday I could reach just a teeny bit further.

I couldn't very easily practice the shuttle run and just had to accept that, come spring, my time was still going to suck. So I worked out a formula in my head wherein I could still bomb that one event, but average that out with excellence in other areas. I practiced my standing long jump in the hallway so many times my mother finally told me to give it a rest before I wore holes out in the shag. I long-jumped against the side of the house with masking tape on my hand. Strangely, my dad didn't want to spend his Saturdays measuring the tape pieces and then peeling them off the brick. My sit-ups were still questionable but much improved, and I once went 20 laps around my yard without stopping. Success! I was going to do it...if only my flexed-arm chin hang wouldn't let me down.

In the weeks before the spring test, we had gym outside, doing grueling challenges on the various bars all over our playground. One day, our teacher had us try to do a thing she said military folks had to do at basic training. We were to lower ourselves with bent elbows on the parallel bars that came up to about our waists, and then without the use of our legs and using just our upper body strength, pull ourselves back up so that our arms were straight.

I watched other kids much stronger than I struggle with this. I was last in line, and I wanted to make sure everyone else had moved on to another challenge before I tried. Had all my work with the weights and the exercises paid off?

I lowered myself down. And then began to push myself back up with all my might. For a while, I didn't budge. My arms began to shake and burn. But I made a decision--I was doing this. I was going to raise myself. Failure was not an option. For too long I was the bony, uncoordinated girl chosen last for kick ball, whiffle ball, dodge ball...pretty much everything except for Red Rover, which I was always picked first for, because I was an easy catch. I knew there was more to me than that.

I began to move upwards. My eyes were clenched tight and every sinew strained to the point where I began to see stars. But I didn't stop. And when my eyes opened, my arms were straight. I let go and looked triumphantly at the gym teacher.

"You know why you were able to do that?" she asked.

"Because I got weights for Christmas?"

"You got weights for Christmas? Well, maybe that has something to do with it. But what I think happened is that you didn't give up. You were struggling, and it was hard for you, but you made up your mind that you were going to do it and you did it. Sometimes, your brain is stronger than your body and helps it do things that are really, really hard."

Huh. My brain helped my body. Who knew? I'd been told my brain was one of my better features, and a light bulb came on above it. I could use my stubbornness, my desire to do well, and my smarts to make up for what I lacked in actual physical ability. I could will myself into being, if not athletic, than at least not an embarrassment on the playground. I could try trying for a change rather than just accepting my weak-armed shortcomings.

Later we took the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. I had a lot on the line. I did well in the standing long jump and standing high jump. I finished in the middle of the pack on the endurance run, the sit-ups, and even the shuttle run. I was not good enough to get praise, but not bad enough to get jeers. I was right where I wanted to be.

The last challenge was the hang. Just like before, I was assisted into position by a classmate. The stopwatch was cleared. I was let go, nothing holding me in place but my own arms.

I held on.

And on.

And on.

Classmates started whispering, "Keep going, Toni!" They were watching me. I knew I had passed up every other girl who had gone before me. I was actually going to pass.

When I could absolutely positively hang on no longer, I collapsed in a drained heap on the dry ground. My friend Denise, the Queen of All Elementary Athletes, told me I did a good job. Of course, she went after me and totally smoked my time, but that was to be expected. When all was said and done, I had the third-highest time of all the girls in my class. Something I came home and bragged about to my weight-buying parents to no end.

And somewhere in my mother's scrapbooks, there is a Presidential Physical Fitness Award from 1985. It may say I was just a participant, but in my mind, I passed.

As I had been told, such things are mind over matter.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Big Nose

When you're 10 years old, there is no scarier place in the world than the principal's office. Especially if you are a teacher-pleasing, goody-two-shoes rule-follower...who just so happened to almost get into a fight.

My stomach inched into my throat as I sat across from my principal, who was also a former classsmate of my mother's and a former teacher of my sister's. I knew he expected better from me, and I knew I had just disappointed him greatly.

I remembered his kindness to me my second day at my new school, after my mother called him to ask why I hadn't been put into the advanced 4th-grade class while my records were being sent, when she had been completely clear with the school secretary that I was a gifted student. The school secretary had listened to my mom discuss her recent separation and new single-mom status and made a judgement call that I couldn't possibly be advanced-class material.

"Are you a good student like your sister?" We were standing outside the door to the "low" 4th-grade classroom where kids were allowed to sleep, roll around on the floor when bored, and were still learning to sound out words.

"Yes, sir."

"Do you work hard, listen to your teacher, and make good grades?"

"Yes, sir."

"I know your family, and I am sure you will do well here. Let's get you moved to the other 4th-grade class."

I was terrified a few months later to be sitting across the desk from this man, who had been led to believe I was a good student, a kid who would never to do something so awful as insulting another student and coming one hair shy of knocking her block off in front of God and everybody. And yet that is exactly what I had done.

She had it coming. Since my first week of school, late in November, a student in the 4th-grade class I had been promoted from named Ellen took my departure personally and made it her life's mission to terrorize me. Whenever the fourth-graders were all together, which largely included the cafeteria line and the recess playground, she called out to all who would listen what she saw wrong with my hair, my face, my accent, my clothes.

Especially my clothes.

"Look at her!" she'd say in a high, shrill voice that I would be reminded of years later when I heard Fran Drescher speak for the first time. "She wears the same clothes every day! I bet she doesn't even wash 'em. Hey, ugly, do you ever wash your clothes?"

She never used my name. From the first of December until the ground started to thaw in March, I was addressed daily as "Hey, ugly." Sometimes she got close enough in the lunch line to pretend to smell me and make a big production about the nonexistent odor of my clothes, which were never dirty (but, like any other child of the 80s, occasionally smelled like cigarette smoke.) More often than not she just spoke loudly enough about my repulsive presence so that everyone in the 4th-grade could hear.

It shouldn't have bothered me. I knew, for one, that I was clean. My grandmother, who I spent most of my time with that year, is the genetic source for my current OCD tendencies and would not have tolerated anything less than a clean child in her very clean home. And while I did wear the same type of clothes everyday, they were not the exact same clothes. I had brought with me to my new town multiple copies of the unofficial school uniform of mid-80s Erlanger girls: a pair of Lee jeans, a button-down oxford shirt in a pastel color, and white leather Nikes with a dark blue swish. All of the girls in the 4th-grade class I had left imitated each other in this attire, which we found preppy and stylish and readily available at either VanLeunen's or McAlpin's.

Moving to Knox County was like moving to a different world, fashion-wise. Anybody who was anybody dressed like an extra in a music video or like a Nickelodeon-channel star. My conservative and boring clothes didn't get me made fun of by the girls in my own 4th-grade class, but these girls were constantly trying to make me over with neon off-the-shoulder shirts, Esprit pants, and almost-high-heeled boots. During a skit we had to perform, one of my classmates brought in a costume that made me look like one of the Go-Gos. It was her everyday attire; for me, it felt like Halloween.

Ellen's daily taunting didn't cause the kids in my own class to make fun of me, but she got plenty of laughs from the kids in the class I had originally been placed in. And while she couldn't entirely convince me that my clothes were awful, being called "ugly" every day had started to wear on me. After I started to come home every night crying to my mom about my appearance, she decided enough was enough.

"You know what to tell her the next time she says that?" Mom said. "Tell her she's not so pretty herself, with a big nose she keeps sticking in other people's business."

"You want me to call her a name? Isn't that wrong?"

"It's not calling her a name. You're not calling her 'big nose.' You're telling her she has a big nose. There's a difference."

I wasn't sure I saw the difference, and Ellen's nose was really no bigger than anyone else's nose, but I stored up my mother's advice. And when the taunting happened in the lunch line the very next day, I simply did as I was told.

"Hey, ugly! Are those the same pants and shirt you wore yesterday? Aren't you ever going to change your clothes, ugly? Or are you too poor?"

Oh. Snap.

I could handle being called ugly. I could handle accusations made about my wardrobe. Because, deep down, I knew those things weren't true. But I was, in fact, poor. At the time, I had a single mother who worked  3 jobs and we still struggled. And I happened to know for a fact that my tormentor herself did not have 2 nickels to rub together. Had one of the rich kids called me poor, I would have shrugged. Maybe even laughed. It's funny 'cause it's true! But to be called poor by a girl whose family, I was told by my mom when I named my bully to her, didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out that was just plain wrong. Something about throwing stones in glass houses with black pots and kettles.

I addressed my bully and said in a loud voice, "Oh, yeah? Well, you have a big ol' nose that's so big you can't keep it out of anybody else's business."

A hush fell over the fourth graders. Where were our teachers? I have no idea. Probably smoking in the lounge. The two lines of the two different 4th-grade classes parted like the Red Sea. Until it was just me and Ellen, face to face.

She was shocked. "What did you just say to me?"

I walked forward until we were toe to toe, our faces inches apart. I was mad, and for the first time in my life I wanted to smack someone. Instead of hitting, I made sure she heard me. Loud and clear.


Adults came rushing out of nowhere. I was escorted one way, she was escorted another. I heard her crying and was only somewhat pleased, because I knew she was faking for added drama. Ellen was not the crying sort. I sat in my classroom with my teacher to cool off, Ellen sat with hers. My teacher didn't say a word, and I took that to mean my time on earth was limited. Within minutes, we were called to Principal Payne's office where I knew I would meet my doom.

"Okay, girls, neither one of you has ever been in trouble before, so I want to hear from each of you, one at a time, what happened today. Tell me the truth, because I'll know if you're lying. Ellen, you go first."

Ellen spun a yarn about how I came out of nowhere and called her names. She told the principal she had never talked to me before, but all of a sudden I got in her face and started calling her "Big Nose." She sobbed the whole time, but I saw no tears.

The principal turned to me for my side of the story. I took a deep breath, mustered my courage, and looked Mr. Payne in the eye.

"She has part of the story right but she isn't telling you the whole story. She's been teasing me about my clothes and about being ugly ever since I got here. Every day in the lunch line. And sometimes at recess. And I got tired of it. I didn't call her any names. I didn't call her 'Big Nose.' I said she had a big nose." I was so hoping he would see the difference.

"Why would you say such a thing?"

My voice trembled. "I'm sorry. I don't really think she has a big nose. I told her that because she won't keep her nose out of my business." And then, for the first time, I looked away from my principal and down at my lap. "I told her to keep her big nose out of my business because my mom told me to." I hated to rat out my mom this way, but he wanted the truth. And I wanted to tell it.

I looked up, ready to face my fate. Something like a smile crossed his face and was quickly gone.

"Well, this seems pretty simple to me," he said. "Ellen didn't say anything about how she has been making fun of Toni, but Toni admits that she said Ellen has a big nose and is sorry she said it. It seems Toni is telling the truth because she admitted to doing something wrong, but Ellen, you didn't."

Ellen stopped fake-crying and, for the first time, looked contrite.

"I think maybe this whole thing started with Ellen not being very nice to someone who is new to our school. And Toni got angry over it and maybe let her anger get the best of her. I think you're both the kind of girls who will do better from now on. Is that right, girls?"

We both nodded.

"Don't let it happen again. Go on back to class, now."

I felt my eyes water with relief and from the pent-up frustration I had felt for months. I wiped the tears away with my hand and as I started to leave, Mr. Payne called me back.

"You let me know if she bothers you again, you hear? And tell your mom I said hello."

I smiled. I had been to the principal's office and lived. My class was abuzz by the time I got back. Because my escapade had caused me to miss lunch, a lunch had been brought to me. My teacher smiled and patted my shoulder as she found a place in the class where I could eat, and during our afternoon work time my classmates passed me notes telling me they were on my side. I felt just a little bit like a badass. The next day it was all forgotten and I went back to being the shy and quiet new girl who was in desperate need of a neon shirt or two. But Ellen had the sense to give me a wide berth for the rest of my time there.

My mother was initially mortified that I told my principal that I said what I said because she told me to.

"Oh, Lord," she said, putting her head into her hands when I told the tale. Then she told me she was proud of me for telling the truth and for standing up for myself in my own little misguided way.

This year when Ainsley herself fell victim to harsh words from a mean-girl bully, I found myself giving unsolicited advice and telling her what to say to her frenemy. Not all of it was nice. Thankfully, Ainsley has a different way of dealing with people who aren't nice to her: she avoids them, eventually forgives them when they warrant forgiveness, and moves on. She's not the type to get in someone's face and and yell, even when greatly angered. She is, really, a gentler and more even-tempered person than I am.

But should she ever choose to, I will support her saying someone has a big nose that they won't keep out of her business. But I won't stand for her calling someone "Big Nose." Because there is a difference.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Photo Album

So, I had this plan.

This December, I was going to get back to some funny and write cheerful posts about the holidays using as inspiration pictures from my childhood and young-adult-hood which I had recently mined from the riches of my mom's family photo album.

Then, on an otherwise beautiful Saturday afternoon, I got derailed from any and all yuletide plans by a very sick child running a very high fever.

Ainsley was diagnosed with pneumonia a few days later, went through two different antibiotics, missed a week of school, missed two weeks of swim, slept much and ate little, and in general gave me the mommy fright of my life. I thought the second concussion was as bad as it could get as far as thinking my beloved child was in mortal peril; seeing my child not quite getting enough oxygen and fighting an infection that just didn't want to leave proved worse.

So Christmas was weird. She did get better enough to go to school the last 3 days before break and attend her classroom party, but she wasn't fully mended until after Christmas. We didn't do any of the holiday things we usually do, I got hopelessly behind, and for a fortnight I was too fraught with worry to do much in the evening besides check her temperature every hour and pace circles around the kitchen. Needless to say, I've not been in much of a blogging mood.

I think I'll be back soon. If anyone is still out there (sometimes I envision tumbleweeds in the blogosphere when I write), keep checking. I'm slowly getting back to something resembling a normal life.

Oh, and the kid? She is doing well. Despite a lousy lead-up, she had a great Christmas. And has gotten her appetite back with a vengeance, hell-bent on emptying the pantry and refrigerator quicker than I can shop to refill them.

Happy 2012, readers. See you soon.