Oct 18, 2010

Elementary Justice

The freezing rule was serious business. If any of us were caught moving after the first whistle, the punishments could be as severe as no recess for a week or a note sent home to our parents.

I once saw Nolan, the tall ringleader of the group of boys that called me Skinny-Bone-Jones, dragged off by the teacher on duty for moving after the whistle. At the next recess he sat on the blacktop against the blue cement wall of the school building, scowling at the teacher who stood watch over him.

I was usually a good girl. But you couldn’t give me a rule and expect me not to think about it good and hard. If I learned anything in Social Studies, it was that rules were meant to be challenged.

The freezing rule had a flaw, and I soon found it. “What if the whistle blows and I can’t stop moving?” I thought. “What if I was on a swing, or jumping in mid-air? Surely they couldn’t punish me for coming down to earth after the whistle.”

I tried various ways of challenging the rule by attempting to be in a mid-air position at whistle time. The problem was that I still couldn’t tell time, so I didn’t know exactly when the whistle was going to blow. I tried dallying on the high bar, spinning around and around, but other girls were waiting in line, and I missed the whistle every time. I finally came up with a perfect strategy: I would do cartwheels around the playground all recess long.

The next recess, I circled the field like a pinwheel of bony arms and legs. The grass was still damp from the overnight fog that had blown out over the ocean. Blades of it stuck to my wet hands. I counted to myself, so that I would know for future reference how many cartwheels long was morning recess.

“What’cha doing?” asked Andrea, a girl whose constant hunger made her chew her hair.

“Nothing,” I said, panting.

The playground and the sky swung in and out of the horizon as if on a hinge. After thirty cartwheels, my head felt strange and wobbly. I righted myself and shook it fiercely until the far chain-link fence came into focus, then I continued. I passed a group of boys playing marbles; each time I passed, they looked up.

The sounds of recess echoed far into the neighborhood. Dizzy now, I felt somehow far away from it, as if watching myself. I heard the tether ball chain clang against the metal pole, and the swarming, chirping sound of kids playing.

After cartwheel number one hundred, I began to imagine the scene as it would surely play out. The straw-haired teacher with the mole on her lip would drag me by the elbow to the office. My classmates would watch from their statue-like poses, as I kicked and screamed and asserted my innocence. In the principal’s office, I would stand in the middle of a wood-paneled arena, where I would have my say in front of my judges and prove that the rule was flawed.

When it finally happened, and my feet came down after the whistle, I closed my eyes and waited for my destiny. I felt all eyes upon me, and I waited for the teachers to swarm in. I smiled, knowing I had already outsmarted them.

This is not me. My parents stopped taking pictures of me after age 5. But it's a great shot.

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