Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The First Day of School

          Owen sits on the steps of the old brick apartment building and lights one match after another, letting them burn down to his fingertips before dropping them to spiral down into the sparse grass his mother calls a yard. He calls it dirt. He is right. This is the latest in a series of moves that Owen accepts because there is nothing to do but accept them. He has been crying. Mostly out of boredom. Willing the tears out. Wringing them, as if from a damp wash cloth. He has been sitting on the steps for what seems like hours, absorbing the symphonic impact of his new lot in life. It sounds like taxi cabs and crying babies and cow farts. His old house had sounded like freeways and trumpets and zoo animals. He is not sure which is worse.
           
          The smells are different, too. The last house had smelled like paper mills. This one smells like chocolate…which seems preferable, but somehow is not. Owen’s mother is calling him, but he knows she will stop eventually and he does not feel the need to respond. They have done this drill many times. She will know that he is learning the noises. Adding sulphur from the matches to the smells assaulting his senses. 
           
          So, here sits Owen. You might as well meet him. This story is about him. Or perhaps it is about the way the world reflects Owen back at himself. Either way, you will be hearing a lot about Owen, so you should know what he looks like. He is a small boy. Twelve years old. His hair is cut short (he hates it that way) and is the color of a closet when you stand inside with the door closed. Not black. Beyond black. His eyes are also black. His skin is fair and pink. He does not approve of any of this. He wants nothing more than to have unruly, straw colored hair and green eyes. He is a bright boy, but he is “lazy”. This is what the teachers say. They have no idea what they are talking about. He is not lazy. He is merely still. Inside his head, he is constantly working, constantly thinking, smelling, feeling, tasting the world. And he is constantly noticing the way the world reacts to him as well. Owen is very particular about his clothes. He wears only corduroy pants because they make a pleasant sound when he walks. He wears only sweaters because he gets cold easily. And he wears only black Chuck Taylors because they are the only shoes cheap enough for his mother that may not get him beat up at school. 
           
          The street Owen lives on now is like many streets. There are houses. They look very much the same. Inside the houses are TV sets and beds and couches and old issues of National Geographic. It is all quite boring and we won’t get into it. You see, it is getting dark. And, with the dark, comes the cold. And Owen is hungry, although he does not want to admit it. 
           
          As Owen steps inside the house he smells cabbage. He smells corned beef. He likes and dislikes the smell. But he does like the taste. He smiles slightly. So slightly that his mother cannot see.
          “Owen, come sit down and eat.”           
          Owen sighs. He washes his hands without being asked and sits at the table across from his mother. Let’s meet her too, shall we? Owen’s mother is very pretty. She has the same black hair and black eyes as her son, but her eyes have laughter in their corners. There are fine lines around her mouth as well. She is always happy. It is partly because of this that Owen feels the need to be serious. There must be balance. 
          “Thank you for dinner, Mother.”
          “Owen, for goodness sakes, call me Mom.”
          “Thank you for dinner, Mom.”
          “Owen, you know we live in America, right? You know that you are an American. You are not in a Rudyard Kipling novel. I am not Mother. I suppose I should be happy you stopped calling me Mum, but really…”
          “I’m sorry Mother, I shan’t call you Mother if…”
          “Shan’t? Owen…it is beginning to concern me.”
          “I am sorry, Mother. I don’t mean to make you cross.”
          “You don’t make me cross, Owen. You don’t even make me mad.  You make me wonder why you think you’re British.”
          “I know I am not British, Mother. One would think you would be pleased to have a son with some sense of dignity and propriety.”
          Owen’s mother gives him a strange look. A queer look, Owen would say.
          “Owen…I never thought I would say this, but I think you might read too much…no wait, I think you are reading the wrong things.”
          “How so, Mother…I quite enjoy the books Aunt Abigail sends.”
          Owen’s mother frowns.
          “Yes, Aunt Abigail, the duchess of fraud. I will speak with her. In the mean time, eat your dinner or you won’t get any figgy pudding.”
          “It isn’t nice to poke fun at the British, Mother.”
          “I’m not making fun of the British. I am making fun of Pink Floyd. And a little fun of Aunt Abigail.”
          Owen shrugs his shoulders and picks at his food. His mother watches him with a curious smile. To an outside observer, they might seem like complete strangers. They are actually best friends. 
           
          The alarm clock blips and bleeps Owen awake, but he does not heed the call. It is his mother who does the actual wake up. You see, Owen does not want to get out of bed.  There are two reasons for this. One, Owen is not a fan of early wake ups. In fact, he would be a very happy boy if he never woke up before ten. Instead, he finds himself awake when the sun is still asleep…and this is completely unacceptable. Rotten, purely rotten. The second reason that Owen does not want to get out of bed is that it is the first day of school. And not just the first day of school, but the first day of school at a new school. Another new school. Owen knows what will happen. He will sort the people in his class. They are always the same. There are the bullies, the mean girls, the shy kids, the smart kids, the kids who try to be invisible. Owen also knows that the teacher will mispronounce his name. You see, Owen has an unusual last name. His last name is Capitulo. It is pronounced ka-pi-choo-low. It is usually pronounced ka-pi-too-low. Owen may or may not correct the teacher. It depends on whether it seems like the teacher will actually care whether or not they pronounce his name correctly. They usually don’t. So, he usually accepts that his name will be mangled by the toothy mouth of his teacher. It bothers him. It is not the worst thing in the world, but it is annoying. Every once in a while, someone gets the name right, but not as often as you would think.
           
          Owen decides that he will wear his green corduroys and a tan sweater. His socks are red. He looks in the mirror and wishes his hair was longer. He tries to do things slowly, but his mother keeps things moving. Since it is the first day of school, he will not eat cereal. Owen’s mother will make him French toast. Owen hates French toast, but his mother thinks it is a treat and Owen does not have the heart to tell her that he would rather have Cheerios.            
          “Owen, hurry up or your French toast will be cold!”      
          Owen takes a deep breath and tries to be happy. He knows that his mother is nervous, too. This will be her first day of work. Owen’s mother, you see, is a school nurse. This means several things. It means they will drive to the school together and drive home together. It also means that Owen will never, ever go to the school nurse. Not for a stomach ache. Not for a headache. Not if one of his legs falls off at recess.    
          Owen tries to smile as he sits down in front of the plate of soggy yellow bread.
          “Cheerio, Mother. Did you sleep well?”
          “Yes, Big Ben. I did. You?”
          “I slept rather fitfully to be honest, Mother. My dreams were a tad dodgy.”
          Owen’s mother sighs and takes a sip of her coffee.
          “May I have a cup of tea, Mother?”
          “No, you may not. And no scones either. Or stewed tomatoes. You may have orange juice.”
          Owen chuckles in spite of himself. He takes a bite of the French toast and shudders. The taste of the French toast…cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar…creates an explosion of memories in Owen’s mind. It churns in his stomach, but it makes him feel loved. It is a very confusing taste. It tastes like the first day of school, which is to say it tastes, not like fear, but resignation. Owen notices the orange juice that has materialized beside his plate. He takes a sip. The combination of flavors is surprisingly pleasant. It does not taste good, but it does taste. It is tart and invigorating. It makes him feel more alert. And alertness is something he will need today. 
           
          School. The idea makes him feel slightly woozy. There have been so many schools, and they are always different and the same. They have the same sterile smell.  The tater tots taste the same. The desks are the same. The people are different, but even they are the same depending on how you look at it. It makes Owen tired to think about. It makes him tired because there are so many schools swirling around in his mind. It is difficult to separate them and so he lets them blend together into one massive mega-school. But this, the blending of times and places, does something to his sense of being anchored in the universe. It makes him forget things. Simple things…say, his backpack. Or what day of the week it is. But sometimes it is more than that. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks he is taking an afternoon nap. Or he asks his mother when they will be going to the zoo when they went three days ago. This distresses Owen. It makes him wonder if he is losing his mind. But he doesn’t have time to wonder for long because somehow, without realizing how it happened, he is now in the car and fast approaching the faculty parking lot. His mother is saying the things she always says. Give it a chance. Smile at people. Be friendly. Aren't you excited? Today will be a great day. For some reason these pep talks, instead of making him feel prepared and excited, make him want to close his eyes, plug his ears, and sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic as loud as he can. 

          Owen is sitting at his desk and watching the other kids when the teacher calls roll.  She mispronounces his last name. Owen smiles and does not correct her. He feels the eyes of the other students drill into his skull. He knows what they are thinking. Some of them are genuinely curious. Some of them want to make him feel small. There is at least one girl who wonders if he has ever been to Paris. Some of the boys will wonder if he is good at sports. They will all wonder if he is strange. Some of them are already planning how to approach him. Or how to ignore him. 
           
          Owen tries to pay attention to what the teacher is telling him, but he is easily distracted. He does not hear the bell ring, but realizes that everyone is getting up to go to lunch. This will be the first test. Owen is not looking forward to it.
           
          Walking down the hallway toward the cafeteria is much like running the gauntlet. Running the gauntlet means running between two rows of people while they throw spears at you. And that is how it feels. Everyone stares. Owen tries to remind himself that most of them are probably perfectly nice. Unfortunately, the nice ones usually mind their own business. It is the bullies who smell fresh blood. And this is exactly what happens. Owen is picking up his tray full of food when he is pushed from behind. He falls forward and time moves very slowly. He is not angry. He is not upset. He is bored. And tired. He knows what is about to happen. His food will fly everywhere and somehow, although the cafeteria is an extremely loud place, everyone will hear his tray fall and stop what they are doing. Owen will stand up and there will be a boy standing in front of him. The boy will be big. His mouth will be hanging open slightly. His eyes will glint like the eyes of a child using a magnifying glass to fry ants. Owen will not say anything. Or he will say something that will confuse the big boy. It won’t matter. A teacher may stop things, drag the big boy off. This may not happen…it won’t matter. 
           
          Crash. The tray hits the floor and the items go flying. Pizza slides under a nearby table. A dish of peaches explodes into nectary spray. His milk is not opened, but the impact makes it explode. Much of the milk sprays onto Owen. He gets to his hands and knees and smiles. Of all the exploding lunch trays over all the years, this may have been the best. Then he stands up and turns. And there he is. Big. Open mouth. Glinting eyes. His hair is red and curly. There are two smaller boys behind him laughing. They are his ‘friends’. Bullying is only fun if you have an audience.
           
          Owen looks into the big boy's eyes. He is not afraid. He is curious as to what will happen next. The big boy's mouth opens a bit wider.
          “You should be more careful, new kid.”
          Owen smiles.
          “You’re right, it was rather careless of me to allow myself to be pushed from behind…a rather brave act I might add, pushing someone from behind. And it was rather careless of me to get in line without realizing that the Zoo had allowed one of it’s apes to go free for the day. I would like to offer my apologies. And a banana. Would you fancy a banana?”
          The two boys behind the bully stop laughing. The bully’s eyes go dull. Owen knows what he is thinking. He is thinking: ‘that was an awful lot of words’.  He is trying to sort them out. He will give up soon.
          “Are you trying to be funny?”
          “One does not try to be funny…at least I don’t think so.  One is either funny by nature or not funny at all.  It is something we have little control over. Like the fact that your parents are cousins and your eyebrows meet in the middle. You had no say in that.  It would be wrong for me to fault you for your simple-minded fun. You see…”
          Owen sees the punch coming. He does not move. The big fist hits him in the mouth and he can taste a bit of blood. It doesn’t hurt. The big boy laughs and his friends laugh. They are surrounded by a crowd now.
          “See, that’s what I mean. I should be angry that you hit me. But I’m not. It is your nature. Using words is difficult for you. Physical violence is much simpler. You are very big, but you feel very small. You don’t much care for yourself. Because of feeling small, you see. But when you pick on smaller people it makes you feel big. Just like the two chimps behind you make you feel big. They don’t really like you. They realize that they are safe in your shadow. Really, it’s quite like…”
         The second punch is to Owen’s stomach and he doubles over for a second. There is absolute silence in the cafeteria. Even the bully is quiet. After a few moments, Owen straightens up.
          “Perhaps you think I am being presumptuous. You see, I have known quite a few bullies, and you are all remarkably similar. Most of them hit harder than you, though, I must say. It is interesting that you have such red hair and so many freckles. Is that part of what makes you feel different?  Does feeling different make you feel alone? Quite natural that…”

          Another punch to the mouth, but this one kind of glances off. And then Owen feels hands on his shoulders. He is being pulled backwards. There are hands pulling the bully backwards, too. Owen allows the hands to guide him and soon he is in a quiet room. He knows what is coming now, too.  It is his mother.
          “Oh, God! Owen, what happened?”        
          Owen considers the absurdity of this question. There are so many answers. The same thing that happens almost every time they move. The inevitable. Human nature happened. Life happened. 
          “Well, tell me.”
          “I got hit with a ball, Mother.”
          She glares at him and fetches a brown bottle of Hydrogen Peroxide and some cotton.
          “Owen, I'm not a fool.”
          “OK, then you know what happened, Mother. Why even ask?”
          “Who was it?”
          “You also know I won’t tell you that. And you know why.”
          “Owen, you need to be honest…”
          “No, Mother, I don’t. I need to survive. And I am already the victim of fisticuffs on the first day of school. There will already be retaliation because that is how small minds work. Now, you know as well as I do that if I tell on the small-minded one, I will suffer all the more.”
          “Owen…”
          “There’s really nothing to discuss, Mother. We’ve been through this. I try to be honest with you about everything, but honesty is not the best policy when it comes to nitwit bullies.”
           
          Owen’s Mother dabs at the cut on his lips. She makes clucking sounds and sighs. Owen stares out the grimy window and wishes he was anyplace else. He wonders what will happen now. He knows that he should have kept his mouth shut. He made the bully look foolish, and that will come back to haunt him.  In the past, Owen was able to remain quiet, but he can't do it anymore. He does not respect himself when he does not speak up for himself. So be it. 
           
          Owen picks a spot on the wall and stares at it. His mother is filling out forms. The principal will be in soon. Owen wonders what the principal will be like. They fit a mold, too. There is the principal who wants to be everyone’s friend. There is the principal who wants absolute military discipline. There is the principal who hates his job and tries to do it as little as possible. They are usually equally ineffectual. There are good principals, but they are rare. Like albino alligators. 
           
          Closing his eyes, Owen can see the bully’s face clearly. He feels sorry for him. He can imagine the boy’s life laid out in front of him like a book he has read ahead in (the teachers hate that, Owen doesn't know why). He will be a big shot for much of school, but adulthood will be a slap in the face. The skills he has learned: intimidation, mockery, violence – they will not be respected in the real world. Not that they are respected per se in the present. But they will not be feared in the real world. Since he spent his years in school harassing people and thinking up new and elaborate tortures, he will not be well educated. He will take a job that capitalizes on his size most likely. He will not enjoy it. He may marry, but he will bully his wife because it is what he knows how to do. And if he has children, he will bully them, too. It will be a self-perpetuating cycle. And it will make him and everyone around him unhappy. This makes Owen sad. 
           
          The sadness is a presence. It grows on him like mildew. It has been growing for years and he is thick with it. His skin is tainted with it. He can’t escape the smell. Owen closes his eyes and listens to the chattering around him. It is all so trivial and meaningless. He knows it all. He can’t explain it. Of course, he knows that his mother means well. Of course, he knows he is not British. But reality is not Owen’s friend. He has one friend and it is apathy. It is his foundation. He has to try and get a laugh out of it, doesn't he? Something...
          “Honey…I can take the rest of the day off if you want to go home?”
          “I don’t want to go home, Mother.”
          He does not mention the fact that he does not really have a home.
           
          The warm arms around him feel good, but they also set the match to an intense sadness, a slow-burning agony. The only sadness he really feels. He can take it...them, but he can’t stand the look in his mother’s eyes. Like she is the one hurting him. He knows she wants to talk about it, but he can’t. He can pretend like it doesn’t matter. He can twist those feelings up, save the wringing out of tears for the dark and night. In this one moment, he can do only so much. And the only thing he cares about are the tears lingering in his mother’s eyes.
          “Owen…it will get better…”
          They will move again soon. It won’t get better. Owen knows it, and his mother knows it too. It is a shared misery, you can almost see the tendrils of love and grief…they shimmer between the two.
          “Of course it will, Mother.”
          Owen forces a smile that feels ugly.
          “Owen, are you going to be OK?”
          It is a question she will ask him a thousand more times. Until the answer is irrelevant. Until it is some kind of mantra. Some secular guilt.
          “Of course I’ll be alright, Mother. Stiff upper lip and all that.”

20 comments:

  1. Great piece, Senor Mader. Right on the money, too.

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    1. Thanks you, HOC. Your anarchic ways are always welcome here.

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  2. Oh my God. I WAS Owen. Way back when I was in grade school, made fun of and pushed around to the point where it was really bad. I probably not as eloquent as Owen, but I did read just as much as him. Reading was my escape.
    Well done, JD.

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    1. Thank you, my friend. I know a bit about it as well. ;)

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  3. I am literally speechless. I've been there as well, in different ways, and handled it differently but That's not what leaves me speechless. It's the telling. There are no words for how I feel about that.

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    1. Thank you, Yvonne. That means a lot to me.

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  4. Dan, the breadth of emotion, the truth of the emotion, is brilliant. Owen's imagination and resignation are painfully familiar yet utterly unique. Perfectly rounded out with that last line. Sending you many squishy hugs, my friend. I am in awe.

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    1. Thank you, Jo. You're a sweetheart. ;)

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  5. Bravo. That's all I will say, because that's all that needs to be said.

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  6. Always impressed with your writing. Bless your heart and talented mind. And Owen, I was a bit like him with the moving around and the bullying. But I had low tolerance for bullies and it showed. Thank God I grew out of that madness. :O)

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, I don't miss those days much myself.

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  7. Amazing story, I get where Owens coming from. I was lucky and rarely bullied but on a massive occasion which happened to me once, I felt for the bully when he was punished. Spot on as always. :)

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    1. Thanks, Audrey. Yep. Hate is so much easier than empathy. Strange world.

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  8. NICE JOBBIE MR MADER

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  9. Owen is also much like I was, a;though I was not physically bullied. Nor did I have the support of a loving parent, however misguided. But I had the insights, the understanding and the withdrawal into my own silence. Yes, i understand Owen very well. We're soul siblings.

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    1. Thank you, Yvonne. I've known a lot of Owens in my life.

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  10. Replies
    1. Thanks, G. I still like like it. I don't know about love. ;)

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