Tuesday, February 9, 2010

At the Crosswalk

There are moments in our lives that, for better or worse, stand out among all the others. These may define us for a while or forever. Oh, I don't suggest that these moments stand alone. More likely, they stand with a few others, a tight little clique that looks smugly down their collective noses at the countless vague memories that have faded into inconsequential oblivion. One of my earliest "moments" came in the second grade. I was a pretty shy little girl for whatever reason, but on this particular sunny second-grade afternoon, my desire not to be noticed overran whatever amount of common sense an eight year old girl might reasonably be expected to possess.

My little sister and I were "walkers." Our little townhouse development was just down the road and a few streets over from Sinclair Elementary. Turning out of our neighborhood, we walked a few dozen yards past the big, ugly barn-shaped community center on our right and a little church on our left. After passing the "barn," we had to cross a four lane road that was, of course, dutifully managed by a bright-orange clad crossing guard who would hurry us safely along to the other side.

My second grade teacher, I'll call her Mrs. C., was a mean woman, intent on humiliating her students. I don't remember a single moment when she smiled or seemed kind (though I'm willing to admit that my memory could be selective on this issue). No, she was scary and she curried dread in our little eight year old hearts. Is your handwriting lesson messy? Beware: Your sad-looking, green-lined writing sheet will be held up for all the world to see. You will shuffle your feet under your desk while furtively watching your classmates giggle at the dark spit-smudges from where you licked your finger to rub out a mistake when you couldn't find your eraser! Have a tendency to get out of your seat and wander around the classroom? Don't expect a simple reprimand or a friendly reminder to put on your listening ears. You'll find yourself tied to your desk with one of the long blue and white plastic jump ropes used for Double Dutch. And don't turn around and start chasing after the boy who pulled your ponytail and ran: Old, plump, Mrs. C is only fast enough to catch the girls and will bend you over her knee and spank you in front of the entire class. (The jump rope thing didn't happen to me, but to another kid who today probably wishes our society had been more litigious back in 1977).

So, it was after a long, stressful day in Mrs. C's classroom that I started the trek home with my little sister Nicki, a kindergartner. I could not wait to get to the safety of my own home, away from Mrs. C and my teasing classmates. I was wearing a dress, knee-high socks, and pair of brown wedge loafers.

As Nicki and I started through the cross walk with the rest of the elementary school herd, I just made it through the first lane of the road when suddenly, I stepped out of my shoe. Time stood still. I was both horrified and humiliated, however inexplicably. After all, it's not like my skirt blew up or the elastic in my underwear gave out! In the time it took my right foot to lift out of my shoe and my leg to swing forward and make the next step, I made a snap decision: I'm going to keep walking. Maybe no one will notice that I don't have my other shoe on. I took a few hurried steps before the snickering started behind me. People were noticing the shoe in the road, but hadn't figured out who it belonged to. Nicki and I made it to the median. I started walking faster, dragging her across the last two lanes of the road. We were almost to the sidewalk. God, please let me make it home without anyone noticing and I'll come back later and get my shoe! Traffic was moving again in the first two lanes. I wondered if my shoe was getting run over.

The thing about Nicki is that she is a call-em-like-you-see-em woman today, and she was a call-em-like-you-see-em five year old then. Looking back, I wonder that I didn't at least realize that there was no way I was going to pull this over on her, even if I did manage to slip past unnoticed by the rest of the crowd. The thing was, that wedge heel was a few inches high, so wearing only one, I was limping along like Quasimodo. Seriously, it's a good thing I wasn't wearing a backpack or people might have chased me to the bell tower of that little church. Maybe if I had been wearing flats, I might have succeeded in my ridiculous scheme to avoid humiliation.

"HEY! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR SHOE?!" Nicki's thin, high-pitched voice broke through the din of walker chatter like a bull horn or, more accurately, like bull horn feedback. Everyone stopped talking and, naturally, turned to look. Nicki pointed at my feet. Laughter started. How am I going to explain this? Why didn't I just stop and put my shoe back on when it first fell off?!

This called for another quick decision, hopefully a better one than I had made 45 seconds earlier, one that would restore my dignity. I composed a quizzical look on my face and looked down at my feet, all astonishment, and said "Wha--?" then looked around confusedly as if to say, "Well, that's a darn good question! What DID happen to my shoe? It was there a minute ago! I wondered why I was lurching side to side when I walked. I thought we were having an earthquake! You mean my shoe was missing all this time?"

By now, no one was actually walking anymore. They were standing along the edge of sidewalk, laughing and alternating the focus of their accusing, stubby little pointer fingers between my burning red face and my sad brown shoe getting knocked about in traffic in a vehicular game of kick the can.

I tried muttering to Nicki to shut up, explaining that I would come get it later, but it was too late. She saw the idiocy of that idea and started getting the attention of the crossing guard. The guard assessed the situation, gave me a look that was a cross between pity and annoyance and then, to my complete horror, walked out and stopped all four lanes of traffic again. I had to do a running limp this time to retrieve my bedraggled Buster Brown. At last, I made it back to the other side where my sister stood, not laughing, but definitely with a "Well, duh!" look on her face.

The episode eventually became the urtext of my silly childhood insecurities, which were plentiful. A few summers later during swim lessons, when I pretended I didn't notice a horsefly feasting on my calf, Nicki would call me out again and I would once again act like I hadn't noticed the pain or the trickle of blood running down my calf (this thing had been making itself at home for many minutes). She didn't seem quite as astonished as she had that day at the crosswalk, which I don't think was a good thing. Years later, when one of my siblings would ask "What do you mean you're afraid to call and order a pizza?," I would respond with "Uh, hello? Two words for you: Shoe. Story."

Now, I have my own eight year old daughter who is, thankfully, much more confident and outgoing than I was at her age, which, admittedly, wouldn't take much. Last summer, I took her and her younger sister to a summer camp at the "barn" and found myself driving through the same crosswalk. "Hey girls, listen to this funny thing Mommy did when she was your age," I begin, then launch into the whole tale, laughing at myself. "Why in the world wouldn't you just put your shoe back on, Mom?," the oldest asks.

I keep laughing then breathe a sigh of relief.

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