School Days

Mt. Calm was a little town, population 493. The families that lived there had been in the area for generations. It was a mostly white and rural. There was a bit of an African American population, but for the most part a set of railroad tracks divided the two communities. Then there was us, this big family moving into a dilapidated old house. The running joke in the family was that we threw this tiny little town over the 500 mark when we moved in.

Halfway through my sixth grade year we started school. Debbie and I shared the fifth-sixth classroom. My brothers’ shared the first-second grade classroom. One teacher taught two grades, but since there were only eight students in each grade it wasn’t that big of a deal. It was harder for my older sister, she went to high school in a small town fifteen minutes away because there was no high school in Mt. Calm. My youngest brother was too young for school so he stayed home with mom.

Looking back, I’d say it was a good thing that most the siblings shared a classroom. We had each other, and though we didn’t dread going to school everyday, we were targets of ridicule. It happened for various reasons, the most noticeable ones involved my youngest and adopted black brother, and the fact that we were poor. Poverty was prevalent in everything we did; the way we dressed, the house we lived in, the fact that we were on the free lunch program.

We didn’t starve though. Dad made sure there were pop tarts, mac-n-cheese, and hot dogs to eat. There were also Mom’s forays into farming which gave us a cow and some chickens; that meant plenty of eggs and milk. At school we had hot lunch which was hit or miss for nutrition, but boy did we love the chocolate milk! There was a standing rule that you could leave your unopened milk containers on a counter by the lunch tray drop off area. It was a signal to students that anyone who wanted to could have the milk. I remember always being on the lookout for an extra carton and some of the meaner children turned it into a bit of a joke. They would drink their milk and close the container to make it look like an unopened one. Then, while emptying their lunch tray they would put the carton on the table where the full cartons sat. I jumped up more than once to grab an extra chocolate milk only to discover an empty carton and someone laughing off in the distance.

When seventh grade year rolled around my sister Debbie and I had to brave our classes without one another. She was in sixth grade and I was now in the seventh-eighth grade classroom. We took to writing notes to one another and sneaking them into the bathroom, hiding them in the last stall behind the toilet. This plan worked well until someone got wise to it and started taking the notes.

Seventh grade also saw my first and only fight. It was with a big black girl. She seemed pretty mean. I think I was defending my sister but I can’t remember exactly. What I do remember is this girl following us on the walk home; throwing out insults and calling us names. The instigator was a mean boy in my grade.  He would tell me things the girl was saying, then go and tell the girl things Debbie was saying. Looking back, I don’t believe any of us were actually saying anything. I think the boy was just trying to get a fight started. One day I just got so mad that I started swinging. Whether it was in defense or whether I threw the first punch I can’t remember. Actually the word punch may be a stretch, we just ended up wrestling in the end. In truth, the girl would probably have kicked my ass if the very boy that started the whole thing hadn’t stepped in and stopped the fight.

That fight was probably a turning point for us in Mt. Calm. We were still teased on occasion, but mostly we were left alone. We even made a few friends my eighth grade year. I was pretty confident that my “bad ass” status from the fight was the reason for this change in social status. There’s a good chance, however, that it had nothing to do with the fight…I seem to recall a new set of brothers moving into town that year and they became the new targets for teasing.

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