Had Wikipedia been around in 1979, I wouldn’t be holding a 32-year old grudge against a Meadowbrook Elementary librarian. I know it’s probably time I let this go but of the scant number of memories I retained from that year, it’s one of only five that I can recall with absolute clarity.
Memory #1: In an attempt to impress a neighborhood girl, I wore my brand new athletic socks pulled all the way up to my knees. They had kickass red and blue bands at the tops and I was certain that these socks would elevate me to the King of Cool. I remember feeling bewildered and heartbroken when she never even mentioned them as I strode by. Once, twice, three times just in case she missed them. Never a word or a glance. To this day, we remain apart. I wonder if Ann Fox knows everything she missed out on by dissing those knee-highs.
Memory #2: A teammate on my soccer team had just gotten a video game called Pong. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Pong was a video console that cost roughly $4,000 when adjusted to today’s dollars. For your money, you and an opponent got to rotate dials on heavily cabled paddles to control a thick rectangular line that had three movements: Up, Down, and Stuck. These thick lines would ricochet a square ball back and forth until someone scored a goal by slipping it past their opponent’s frozen rectangle. It was kind of like air hockey but infinitely less fun.
Still, it involved two relatively new inventions, electricity and television, so the nation was hooked. Hooked and intrigued myself, I approached Kelly Jenkins and said, “Hey, maybe I can come over and we can play Pong?”
He looked at me and replied, “With you? No.”
Memory #3: I was at my friend Eric Cracium’s house and was dying of thirst. Not wanting to be rude, I didn’t want to come right out and ask for a glass of water. So I chose what could possibly be the most passive-aggressive tactic ever used on another human being and said, “I wonder what your water tastes like here.”
We lived seven houses away.
He replied as you might expect someone to reply to such a stupid question.
“Uh, it tastes like water.”
Simple enough, and probably dead-on accurate, but he failed to get my hint. So what do I say? Do I just give in and ask for a glass of water? No. My genius mind reaches deep within its cerebral confines and pulls out this gem:
I eventually got a drink when I asked if he dared me to drink water out of the backyard hose.
Note to 1979 Self: Hoses left in the sun do not make for adequate or even tolerable sources of water. On the plus side, your lips will de-puff back to normal in just a few days.
Memory #4: I was walking home from school one day when Doug Markum approached and asked how I was doing. He was four years older than me and well known as the infamous neighborhood bully. Even with this distinction I was always cordial to him. Partly out of fear but mostly out of character. This in mind, I always thought that perhaps we had an understanding. As though I was granted immunity from his evilness because we lived just down the street from each other.
I looked up, told him I was good, and a smile crept across his face.
He revealed a speaker wire from behind his back and said, “NOW are you good?” At which time he began whipping the backs of my thighs with it. It stung with the intensity of a thousand bee stings with every strike, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me in pain or terror. Perhaps it was shock, but all I did was continue to walk slowly down the street towards home even though I still had two blocks to go.
Every second or third step was greeted by a whooshing sound and then a stars-producing lashing to my legs and buttocks.
Still, I walked. Without a sound, without a whimper, without hastened speed, and without ever looking back at him. Even as tears welled from the pain, I maintained course.
It was constant.
I must have been whipped twenty times along the way home and home seemed an eternity away. My jeans were torn, my legs bloodied, and every step brought a tremendous stinging pain.
Roughly a block from my house, he stopped. I never looked back so I can only assume he turned away to find someone more willing to coddle his demonic needs. As odd as it sounds, I was proud of myself that day. He didn’t win. He caused pain, he instilled fear, and he drew blood, but he never gained the satisfaction of hearing me beg for mercy.
My mother saw the blood through my jeans and ultimately the thick welts all across my legs, and was justifiably furious. She held me in comfort and that’s when I let go. Perhaps the shock of the experience was wearing off but the pain became almost unbearable. The innocent perception of my world was shattered, my skin was broken, and my legs were red and puffy from the assault.
I don’t know what happened between then and the time Doug charged at me between two houses a few days later, but he only rushed at me to apologize. Here I thought I was in for Round 2 and he was only coming to say he was sorry. Perhaps it was rooted in punishment and obligation, but he asked if I was okay, promised to never hurt me again, and said I was one tough, cool kid.
True to his word, he never touched me again. And aside from stealing my bike, he left me in relative peace. In fact, later that year, when he and a buddy of his were chucking rocks encased in innocent-looking snowballs at passing children, not one stone was hurled my way. Doug simply waved.
It’s odd where we sometimes find pride, isn’t it?
As you might expect with someone like this, Doug was eventually sentenced to life in prison for murder some years later. I’m probably the only victim he never saw cry and that experience is what makes me rabidly protective over my children when it comes to any form of bullying. They’ll never go through that degree of pain, fright, or shame. Ever.
At least not on my watch.
Memory #5: Now that I’ve left you all feeling warm and fuzzy, let’s get the point of this story. The stupid lamppost.
I was always strong in spelling and perhaps in an attempt to build my self-confidence, my English teacher recommended me for the school’s annual Spelling Bee. Only eight students out of 200 were chosen to compete so I was on Cloud Nine. I just knew I was going to win. Especially when the first word I was given to spell was “piece.” As in, “This Spelling Bee is going to be a piece of cake.”
Surrounding me were seven competitors, a teacher, and the school librarian, Mrs. Barkley. Behind her was the Spelling Bee’s 1st Place ribbon, and in my eyes, it already had my name on it.
And that’s about when the dream died.
I was tossed out of the competition on my second word. My second word!
That’s like getting ousted by Regis Philbin with a $200 question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
I had missed the equivalent of, “Which of these is not a fruit?”:
The kid before me got “carrot” so I was certain they’d lob an easy word over the proverbial net. This is when the librarian came at me with (and you’ll have to imagine this phonetically) “Spell lamp post. As in, the lamp post holds the street light.”
I knew it couldn’t be “lampost” so I proudly replied, “Lamp Post. L – A – M – P – P – O – S – T. Lamp Post.”
I looked at the next kid in line thinking I had coasted through round two when she told me I was wrong. She explained that there was a space between Lamp and Post and that I had spelled it as one word. Apparently, I was the only competitor in the history of Spelling Bees that had been given a two-word word to spell.
Being nine, I didn’t want to argue with an adult, so I slunk back to class and felt all the blood drain from my face when my teacher said, “You’re back already?”
As I slumped into my desk I wanted to disappear. It had already been one of the crappiest years of my life (in hindsight I’m fortunate that it was) and I was really counting on that Spelling Bee to make up for everything.
As neurotic as it sounds, I have been replaying that day in my head for-ev-er. I think about it every now and then and still can’t get over the fact that I was tossed because I didn’t say:
“L – A – M – P – SPACE – P – O – S – T.”
Turns out, and I have no idea what compelled me to look it up tonight, Wikipedia states that “lamppost” is indeed an accurate spelling. It can go either way. Adding more fuel to the fire, the way I spelled it, without the space, is actually the more widely accepted spelling.
Just not back in 1979. Much like how seat belts are widely accepted as an automotive safety device today, whereas back in 1979, they were deemed unnecessary because the world hadn’t yet discovered inertia.
Unsurprisingly, the spelling I used is further supported by Merriam-Webster Online, which asks beneath its definition of “lamppost”:
“What made you want to look up lamppost? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).”
You know what? Forget the fact that knee-high stretch socks didn’t land me a babe. Forget being humiliated when I asked to play a game of Pong. And forget being parched and then scorched by a sun-baked water hose. You can even forget all those welts and the pain I endured at the hands of a future murderer.
All I want from 1979 is the shiny blue ribbon that I was unjustly denied.
Now, I don’t know what the statute of limitations is with regard to elementary school Spelling Bees in the State of Michigan, and I don’t even know who to contact, but I do know this. The first person I’m going to seek out when I walk through the Pearly Gates is Mrs. Barkley. Because that woman owes me a ribbon.
And I’m bringing a printout of the Internet as proof.