Biff America: Reading, writing and bladder control (column)
For me, living in a neighborhood filled with children is a joy. It’s much like watching a show about monkeys on the Discovery channel — they’re fun to watch, but you are comforted knowing you are not sharing a bathroom.
After a summer of kids on bikes, skateboards, go-karts and the sounds of basketballs and street hockey pucks, the silence of the first few weeks of school is haunting.
In my mind, the best bang for my tax-dollar buck is to support public education. My own formal schooling ended in high school but, even at this advanced age, I still feel there were teachers and coaches who left a lasting impression. By the same token I’m happy to support the local childcare centers that both provide care but also allow the parents to reenter the work force and maintain their sanity.
I’m guessing like most aspects of childhood today, public school is a kinder and gentler one, but as I reflect to my first day of formal education, it was a mix of dread and Darwinism.
Sporting new clothing (formerly my brother Mark’s) and sweating bullets, I made my way to opening-day of first grade. Being the youngest of six I had the low down of what to expect. My sister Martha was only five years my senior so it wasn’t so long since she had made that same journey.
Martha shared with me the atrocities of elementary education. She spoke of ruler-wielding teachers, gas-powered spanking machines and fourth grade bullies sticking first graders’ heads in toilets. (It was called giving someone a “swirly.”)
She also warned me of the three deadly sins: wetting your pants, crying for any reason or mentioning this conversation to my mother. “If you wet your pants on the first day of school,” Martha advised, “it will haunt you through college.”
I felt blessed by the advantage of my sister’s vast grammar school experience. Who would have thought a nervous bladder at age 6 could ruin a promising scholastic career? Martha’s final insight was, “Remember, if a fourth grader beats you up, don’t tear Mark’s old pants — Mum will be mad.”
I stood alone on the playground desperately looking for familiar faces. I knew my two best friends, Jed and Joey, would soon appear. I just hoped no fourth grader messed with me until reinforcements arrived.
I finally spotted them across a crowded playground. They had the same look of trepidation as I. Joey’s sister accompanied him to school that day. Jed was brought to school by his mother.
Getting walked to the first day of school by your mother wasn’t in itself reason to get your head stuck in the toilet as long as you didn’t hold her hand. Unfortunately Jed had the misfortune of arriving with a mother who was wearing curlers in her hair — we all hoped the toilets were clean.
The three of us huddled together on the playground. I told my buddies about my sister Martha’s warning in regards to bullies and pants wetting. Jed said his brother, Crusher, had told him much the same story and suggested he go without liquids beginning the night before.
The bell rang. Like condemned prisoners we shuffled toward the school. As we neared the building, we saw a sight that chilled us to the bone. In the middle of a group of laughing fourth graders, a boy our age stood in wet pants, crying.
Joey looked at Jed and me and said, “He’s dead.”
It didn’t take us long to realize grammar school wasn’t as bad as my sister made it out to be. There were no mean teachers, just tired and overworked ones. And if you kept your mouth shut and stayed close to your two pals, the fourth graders left you alone. I was placed in the tortoise reading and writing groups, but Jed and Joey were hare material.
After a few days we considered ourselves cagey vets, just like the big kids. I never told my mother about the lies my sister used to scare me on my first day of school … it was only a few years later that we repeated them to my younger next-door neighbor Brad.
I am guessing the kids in my ’hood are more insulated from swirlys and bullies than was my generation — at least I hope so. But what I do know is, it is those same kids in my hood and elsewhere who will be tasked with cleaning up the mess that we adults leave in our wake. I’m grateful for the couples in my town who, despite the challenges — inflated costs of living, housing, food and essentials — decide to reproduce. To them I say thanks; to the teachers, I say, you have the most important job in the nation, and to the kids entering first grade — limit your fluids.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or
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