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Public School 1984

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

Little Winston was only six. He smoked heavily and drank Victory gin. Julia was five and a half.

One morning Winston met Julia by the monkey bars. She was wearing her Brownie sash even though it wasn’t Wednesday.

“Look at my sash,” she said, moving her hands over her non-existent hips.

“My mom lets me watch SpongeBob,” said Winston.

“I hate homework,” said Julia.

“I think it’s just a big bother,” said Winston.

Later on, inside the school, Julia passed him a note. They were standing right outside the Principal’s office when she passed him the tightly folded piece of paper. It was a dangerous move, not only because of the location, but also because of the message.

He opened his hand carefully. The note said, “My friends like Lady Ga Ga. I like Lady Ga Ga. Do you like Lady Ga Ga? Circle yes or no.”

He tore up the note and flushed it down the toilet. For good measure he flushed down six pencils and a dead bird he had found out on the playground. The dead bird was in a lunch bag and didn’t disappear as much as he’d hoped.

Winston thought school wasn’t so bad. He liked the teachers but he didn’t like the people who worked in the office. The people in charge were always using the school intercom to tell kids what to do.

“Winston! Where are your galoshes?” screamed the intercom, if he happened to show up on a rainy day wearing sandals. “Winston pick up that juice box!” screamed the intercom.

He was happy to go home after school, but then his gym teacher would call his house and his mom would put the call on the speakerphone. “Winston!” screamed the phone. “Touch your toes! Look at me Winston, I’m 64 and only a substitute teacher but I can still touch my toes!”

Winston bent over as easily as a rag doll and touched his toes. Meanwhile a small scream came over the phone and the gym teacher put an end to the call.

At school Winston sat at a desk all day and papers were dumped in front of him. He would correct the papers and then pass them along. Sometimes he had the feeling that other people in his classroom were working on the very same papers he was working on. He hoped his answers were the best.

He always hoped he’d be able to finish all his work during school hours so he didn’t have to undertake homework, something he thought of as a big bother.

One day he was looking at the school newspaper. In the paper there was a picture of three boys. The school was reporting that the three boys had skipped school on March seventh. But the paper was dated March seventh... and the boys were clearly there in the photo!

Winston realized all he had to do was bring this picture to everyone’s attention and the school would collapse like a stack of alphabet blocks. He began to doubt the library. He began to doubt the school yearbook. He began to doubt looped cursive handwriting.

“Winston, report to the cafeteria!” He dropped his crayons and ran to obey the intercom.

The lunch lady took him down a very dark hall. It must have been her home. Her secret home hidden in the bowels of the school. “I understand you like Ho Ho’s,” she said.

“I do,” he said.

She lit a candle. It was a scented candle. It was supposed to be a vanilla-scented candle, but he smelled a faint whiff of spaghetti sauce, a small odor of Lysol.

She sat on the bed. She gestured. He sat on the bed next to her. From under the pillow she pulled a dark chocolate treat the size of a hockey puck. He saw how old it was. There were cracks in its surface and there was powdered sugar on it to hide its age. He took it anyway.

Afterward he left some money on the nightstand and walked away, a sense of shame covering him. He was only six, yet he felt as if he were already wearing his dad’s raincoat. His father sometimes picked him up at school while wearing only shoes and socks and a tan raincoat.

Later Winston visited O’Brien. He brought Julia with him. Winston thought O’Brien was opposed to education.

O’Brien said, “Are you willing to cheat on the SAT’s, to stop taking Ritalin, to pass blank notes to blind children, to spread a rumor that Justin Bieber is coming to the school talent show?”

“He is?” said Julia.

O’Brien ignored the interruption. “Would you be willing to fart in the lunch line?” he asked.

“No problem,” said Winston.

“If for some reason it became necessary to take someone’s crayons and break off all the points could you do that?”

“Yes,” said Winston.

“Would you be willing to sit together on the bus and have the other children sing, “Winston and Julie sitting in a tree?”

“No!” screamed Julia.

It took Winston a long time to answer. He hadn’t been paying close attention because an ice cream truck was passing outside and he could see from the window it was going to stop down at Seventh Street. Finally after fishing in his pockets and finding he had no money he leaned forward and said. “No.”

O’Brien seemed satisfied with the answers. “One day you will bring a Knight Rider lunch box to school. When it’s returned to you it will have a book inside.”

“Do I have to read?” Winston said.

“It isn’t long,” said O’Brien.

“Are there pictures?” Winston asked.

“Some,” said O’Brien. “Any questions before you leave?”

Winston looked around and then thought of something. “Do you know the saying, Ring around the rosey, Pocket full of posey, Ashes ashes...?”

“We all fall down,” O’Brien said.

“You knew the end.”

They had been drinking chocolate milk. “Wipe your faces before you leave,” O’Brien said.

Three days later a lunchbox appeared in Winston’s locker. The Rules of Kindergarten by Emanuael Goldstein. Winston began reading.

  1. Throughout recorded history there have been three divisions amongst youngsters. High school, Middle school, and Grade school. Middle-school boys always want to date high-school girls. Grade school kids always want to use pointy scissors. And high-school kids try to blow up the chemistry lab. It has always been this way and it always will be.

  2. Have you noticed the bulletin board seems to change overnight? There may be an important game, homecoming... that special game at the end of a long season. For weeks the bulletin board will exhort our students to greater and greater spirit, but then even if we lose, the next day the board will say: OUR KIDS ARE THE REAL WINNERS. He who controls the board controls the past. He who holds the key to the bulletin board controls the future.

  3. Has our school always been at war with Charter schools? Or has it always been at war against Catholic schools? How can we compare ourselves to Holy Trinity in math and then compare ourselves to Brighton Parochial when it comes to spelling? There is no objective standard. No one knows if kids in the past really walked to school through six feet of snow. No one knows if teachers in the past had to buy all the supplies for their classrooms.

  4. If you want to know what the future looks like; picture a penny loafer kicking the back of your desk forever.

  5. The principle of Ink Sock. If you can obtain a girl’s frilly pink sock and you can dip it in an inkwell, you win.

The school mottos were:

Recess is Freedom
Testing is Knowledge
Lunch is Nutrition

Winston tried to get Julia interested in the book but she didn’t want to read it.

* * *

Maybe it was because of the book or maybe not, but one day in February Winston was called to the Principal’s office.

Facing the Principal was daunting enough; but sitting out in the silent office with real ruffians was even worse. One big kid was still wearing his wrestling attire including the headgear. One kid held a laser pointer. One kid had a whole audio-visual contraption in his lap. The kid with the laser pointer kept trying to blind everyone.

The kid with the headgear approached Winston. “Stand up,” he said.

“You’re not the boss of me,” Winston said.

“Hall monitor,” said the wrestler as he pointed his thumb at himself.

Winston stood up. No telling what would happen. He only knew the insult would be almost more than he could bear. What was it going to be: noogies? Twisting of ears? Indian burn?

A wedgie! Winston screamed. The wrestler was pulling Winston’s underwear up, almost pulling Winston up off his feet. Now Winston knew he could never hold out against the pain.

“What the hell?” It was the Principal. He’d stuck his head out his door. “Winston, stop showing off and get in here.”

Winston was surprised to see that the Principal was O’Brien. Winston sat in the big chair. O’Brien went to the supply cabinet and brought out a big object made of wire. It was a wire cage and inside one end it contained a caterpillar. A huge caterpillar. Like ten cantaloupes scrunched together, that’s how big it was. And its head was bright red with two long feelers and the segments that followed were differing shades of blue or green. Kelly green followed by lavender blue followed by emerald green with tiny streaks of acorn brown thrown in.

With a sickening feeling Winston recognized his adversary. It was the hungry, hungry caterpillar.

“This is not your ordinary Very Hungry caterpillar,” O’Brien said. “This particular caterpillar has not eaten for a long time. He hasn’t eaten one apple on Monday, nor two pears on Tuesday, nor three plums on Wednesday, nor four strawberries on Thursday. He hasn’t eaten anything all week long.”

Winston’s bowels turned to icy mush. Not because of the danger but because all the talk about food made him remember the cafeteria food he’d had earlier.

O’Brien continued: “You’ll notice the construction. This part contains the caterpillar, and this part latches over your shoes. When the cage is opened the caterpillar will launch itself at those nice shoes of yours. It may start on the eyelets or on the cotton laces; it may even burrow deep and attack the tongue.”

“No! No way! You can’t do this!” Winston screamed, “I promised my Mom I’d take care of these shoes.”

Winston’s mind boiled over and he tried to jump up out of his chair, which should have been easy since he wasn’t restrained, but he was sitting in an adult chair and his feet didn’t quite reach the floor. “No! Do it to Julia,” he screamed. “Do it to her tap shoes! Rip her Communion dress! Take those white gloves she’s always wearing and run them over with school buses!

O’Brien put away the cage and the caterpillar.

Winston left the Principal’s office. He knew he’d be expelled someday. Some day soon a member of the school board would sneak up behind him in the hallway and tap him on the back of the head and inform him he was expelled. It always happened in the hall. It always happened with a tap on the head.

Winston went to the cafeteria and without even asking for it, the lunch lady brought him a glass of cherry Kool Aid. The Kool Aid was made with ice cubes of Grape Kool Aid, a specialty of the house.

Later that day he met up with Julia on the school yard. “I betrayed you,” she said. “I told them you colored outside the lines. I told them you forged a hall pass. A person can’t help but cooperate. They threaten you with things you can’t bear, like calling your Mom and saying you were smoking, or making you clap erasers out in the rain.”

They cried.

Later that week he played hopscotch with her; but never again did he watch as she bent over to retrieve the pink sea shell they used as a marker. Even freeze tag had lost its appeal.

He no longer wanted to play. He just wanted to get a homework assignment, any homework assignment. In the end he had won a great victory over himself. He loved big bothers.

Copyright © 2013 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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