I could sell ad space here.
With a title like that, curiosity alone would get me enough hits to fund my retirement. But I’ve opted for the noble thing and will tell you the truth. I always tell the truth. All of my stories are true and actually happened at some bizarre time in my life. In this instance, it was 6th grade and we not only slapped her, we tackled her to the ground and jumped on her head. Many times.
My best friend was Steve Hoenig. He lived across the street and we attended the brand new neighborhood elementary school Cyril Wengert. It was the same year I had ‘called out’ Tony Francisco in Mr. Saxon’s class at recess. I had no business calling anyone out (an expression which, in that era, meant “I’m mad and want to hit you but I can’t do it in class so by all means, let’s beat each other up in front of the entire school at the next recess when we can both be horribly embarrassed and humiliated at a critically formative and impressionable age.” I was pushing 98 pounds fully clothed and wet. Tony, fortunately for me, was the slow moving fat boy of the class and as scared as me as we watched the hours pass, counting down, knowing that when the bell rang, thirty two kids were expecting a show that neither of us were equipped to perform. If he was the class donut that morning, I was the french fry in a highly tweeted mismatch of weight divisions.
But I digress.
Steve and I had good parents. That is to say they were parents who forced us to be well rounded in extracurricular activities, which necessarily included Chorus class. Nowadays, it would be called Gender Humiliation class because, to my recollection, we were the only boys. I could be wrong, but when you hear the story, you’ll understand.
It was Christmastime and the last day of school before the Christmas break. Miss Neurosis (not her real name, but could have been) had drilled us on the Christmas concert rehearsal for weeks. She was less concerned with how we sounded but absolutely ape shit about choreographic perfection. It was her first year teaching in a new school and she had a reputation to build. The Christmas concert was a pageant in which her disorder would be made public. It didn’t matter that 6th grade was statistically the worst adolescent betting year for vocal perfection, it was the spectacle that mattered.
Oh, did I mention how I remembered this story? OMG.
I was in church during the real solemn part of the Christmas eve candlelight service and as we passed our candle flame down the aisle, I began to giggle. By the time the entire congregation was fully illuminated and halfway through Silent Night, I had spent the previous 5 minutes camouflaging my laughter as if it was a spontaneous public outpouring of unrequited grief. When we were instructed to extinguish our candles, I lost it. I wailed aloud. Those around me made vain attempts to console what looked like a grief reaction that broke the Kubler-Ross scale. Before I was found out, I got up and ran down the aisle, through the exit door and to my car while they still believed I was moved by the Holy Spirit instead of Satan.
I will never sing Silent Night again without thinking of stomping on a little black girl.
But I digress again.
Where was I?
Okay, so it was the night of the performance and Miss Neurosis had gone over the procedure for blowing out our individual candles at the very end of the last song for the very last time before we made our dramatic entry.
The room was packed and the choral ensemble was robed in perfectly ironed black gowns with white starched collars that framed the 70 or so partly pimpled faces. Our group entered from both sides of the room. It was quite dramatic. Steve lead the group on the right and the little black girl lead the group on the left, followed closely by me and a trail of singing 6th graders cascading down the staircase behind as we ascended both sides of the staircase to the balcony above step by step in rhythm like a dirge. The group on the right, lead by Steve, met our group at the exact center of the platform high above the room. Our candles were lit and we were singing Silent Night in the climax of the evening performance and the end of the school year for two whole weeks.
So there, at the top of the balcony, in the perfect center, was the little afroed black girl, flanked on either side by Steve and I.
I said afroed but what I meant to say was AAAAAFRRROOOOEEDDD. A huge, bulbous, perfectly round, black, afro of hair sprayed so thick with hair spray like flocking on a tree, that it was almost reflective. The afro was in fashion in 6th grade, but only for a little while longer.
Miss Neurosis’ choreography was for one slow, unified and dramatic move whereby our closely held candles and illuminated faces would extinguish simultaneously as a group at the end of the song on the word “…peace.” Each student was to blow “Peeeeeaaacceee” as a stream of air that–at least hypothetically– blew out the candle as we bowed our heads in unison. We had never practiced with real flames.
At this point, I’d like to pause for a Wikipedia definition of the term “Roman Candle.”
Roman candle is a traditional type of firework that ejects one or more stars or exploding shells. Roman candles are banned in some countries due to their tendency to cause accidents. They come in a variety of sizes, from small 6 mm (1/4″) diameter to 10.2 inches, roughly the size of a 6th grader’s head.
The moment had arrived. “Peeeeeaaacccee.”
Try it now. “Peeeeeeaaaacceee.” There is no consonant or fricative sufficient enough to pucker your lips or give any candle-extinguishing breath velocity with the word. But we all tried and Miss Neurosis was in the back of the room flustered at this huge error in her enunciative judgment which kept the staircase of candles flickering much longer than expected. But as if that wasn’t enough humiliation….
Afros are flammable.
Add a can of Aqua Net.
6th graders can’t do two things at once. Especially without fricatives.
We dipped our heads and blew our vowels with open mouths and the like a reverse Oreo filling at the top center of the balcony. She burst into flames between me and Steve like some glorious high rise explosion. For a moment, it was beautiful. Like a Chia Pet caught fire. The flame rounded the outskirts of her head in a circular pattern faster and faster.
She didn’t know what hit her.
With our bowed heads sneaking a glance at each other through the flames, Steve and I recognized the opportunity to be heroes. So we turned and beat the little black girl’s head, pushed her to the floor and used our feet to stomp out the remnant of her smoldering do. Miss Neurosis had long since fainted in disgrace at the back of the room and missed the rising crescendo of applause at our valiant effort.
With the beaten black girl still on the ground in ashes, we did the next best thing.
We took a bow.
And the audience roared with gratitude.
And Tony Francisco and the entire 6th grade class forever knew me as a hero.
That was the year the cornrow was invented.
And we all had a Merry Christmas.