From the get go, elementary school and I knew we would not be friends, and neither of us made much of an effort to pretend otherwise. Pre-school at the JCC was one thing, where the greatest demand made of me was five minutes of Tidy-up Time at the end of what was effectively a three hour group play date. I could get behind that. But when I entered kindergarten at Beulah Shoesmith Public School I realized that what lay ahead was undoubtedly a dead-end relationship, a dysfunctional clusterfuck, and the sooner school and I could make a clean break from each other the better for everyone concerned.
While being separated from hearth and home for six hours a day was a drag, it was Mrs. Polakoff, my teacher, who was the real problem. A martinet straight out of central casting, my memory has broken her down to component parts: long fingernails burnished in an unsettling crimson, a sternly set mouth that could only seem to voice disapproval, hair as black as the numb mystery of death.1 Her pedagogy was deeply rooted in negative reinforcement: make the child feel badly about not getting something right often enough and they will soon learn to avoid doing things wrong. I vividly recall her shaming me in front of the class for some incorrect answers to a “what two things go together” activity. While I’d like to say I thought it far too harsh an assessment of my developing skills, copping a self-preservational I don’t need this bullshit from some self-loathing, repressed bitch attitude, but if I’m honest, there was really just the hot panic of feeling dumb, of having disappointed her, of being bad. In no time at all school was a needy, bossy, and unkind tangle of problems I had no use for. How many more years of this? Are you fucking serious?
Luckily I was blessed with a loving mother who operated on a hardy diet of guilt and emotional fatigue. Here I was, the last of her nine children from two defunct marriages. She’d been through a lot, and I soon realized I could use that to my benefit. When I discovered that feeling sick was a free pass from Mrs. Polakoff’s Circus of Rancor, I was beset by a succession of vague ailments: fatigue, stomach pain, “body ache”. I even remember pulling the old thermometer-under-a-hot-tap gag, giving myself a fever that should have had me in a coma or a pine box (Though, to her credit, I think my mom called bullshit on that one; even she had her limits). I now figure she was on to my scheme the whole time, but it was ultimately just easier to give in. We had broken her will.2 And so I sat out what seemed like huge chunks of those first few years of elementary school, focusing on my independent study in advanced Media, based largely on a vigorous regimen of game shows and sit-com reruns.3
While I would classify most of my truancy as “passive scholastic resistance”, there was an incident a couple of years later when I ventured into more classic hooky territory. My brother, Josh, who is four-and-a-half years older than I, suggested we ditch school one Spring day and check out what looked like the mother of all playgrounds, which sat on the lakefront a couple of miles north of our neighborhood. I had admired this recreational Valhalla from my father’s car window as he drove us along Lake Shore Drive to his house when he had custody. It seemed to call out to me as we passed, with its towering rocket ship that was ringed by a corkscrew slide, a multicolored geodesic dome of a jungle gym, and a host of other wonders that made it seem like the Disney World of public parks. But it was an obscure object of desire, too out of the way from either of my parent’s homes to warrant them taking us there. So when my brother made the suggestion, I was all too game.
We set out for school on the designated morning and, as planned, we altered our course a couple of blocks from home. I hadn’t considered just how far we were traveling, trusting my brother’s navigation. It really just seemed like a succession of manageable distances. First a few blocks east to Lake Park. No problem. Then north to the 47th Street viaduct that served as a gateway to Lake Shore Drive. Easy. Lastly we would take a pedestrian bridge over the Drive and then walk north the playground at 31st Street. That never took too long in my dad’s car. A piece of cake!
Everything was indeed going fine until we got to the viaduct. It ran under the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, making it more like a tunnel than an underpass. Forty-seventh Street itself, while technically smack in the middle of Kenwood, was an unofficial dividing line between the mixed-race middle-class area where we lived and the poorer (and totally African American) confines to the north.4 Two white kids strolling along there weren’t exactly inconspicuous. But I was blissfully unaware of the more complex socio-economic underpinnings of the adventure as we passed from the bright day into the dank cave of our passage to the lakefront. Watching my shoes, I thought it impressive that, even in the piss-scented dark, weeds still were able to squeeze up between cracks in the huge slabs of cement.
About halfway through I became aware of some other boys several yards behind us. Were they also ditching? Did they have the same game plan? Before I could consider it for too long my brother stole a glance behind us, grabbed a handful of my shirt and hissed, “Run!” Just as I began to take a full stride forward I heard the bottles shatter right behind us, followed by the echoing shouts and laughter of the boys. Fear seemed to ride the wave of broken glass, egging me on but also grabbing at my ankles to keep me from running. This wasn’t good. In fact, this was really really really really bad. Not only was I going to die, but when they recovered my body here in the viaduct it would be clear that I was ditching school. Would my mom be sad or just mad? Lying about being sick to stay home was one thing, but straight up playing hooky on the streets and getting myself killed was another. My PF Fliers pumped and pumped and somehow we passed out the other end of the viaduct, back into the comparative safety of daylight.
Josh and I ran on toward the pedestrian bridge that spanned the Drive and we finally turned to see that the boys hadn’t followed. It was OK. Everything was going to be OK. That realization was enough to calm my heart and allow an unpleasant stinging to creep into my consciousness: I’d been hit. And not just hit, hit in the ass. I twisted to assess the damage and saw a small but expanding dark stain on the left cheek of my blue-and-white striped chinos. Fuuuuuck. OK, so everything was not OK after all. I was wounded and bleeding and we were a good mile from home, which was also the last place we wanted to go since we should have been in school.
Whether I cried the whole way back or just saved up the water works for my mom is no longer clear to me. But I do remember that my mind raced over the import of all that had gone down and the lessons learned. Thanks to my strict atheist upbringing, I had no thought of an angry and punishing God getting me for my errant ways, but I did figure that karma was what really bit me in the ass. More epochal was the terrible, heart-sinking realization that people you didn’t know could do vicious, violent and malevolent things for no reason at all. Those lessons, above what anger my mom may have expressed and the tenderness she no doubt poured down on her injured baby boy, are what remain.
1Over forty years later, I ran into a kindergarten classmate at my brother’s wedding. Sharing our memories of dear Mrs. Polakoff, he admitted her diabolical mien had done a little number on his developing sexuality, making him attracted to her type for years to come. Too bad there’s no Golden Apple Award for that shit. Go Back To Reading
2My brother Micheal has corroborated just how far I pushed my poor mother: “I remember in kindergarten Mom would drive you to school, get out of the car to take you in, and you would lock all the doors before she could open them.” Go Back To Reading
3I should have been transforming into the Incredible Hulk considering how much gamma ray exposure I withstood. Go Back To Reading
4The other thing I always associate with 47th Street is Gill’s, a now long gone liquor store that offered their own house lager, which they claimed was “The beer that won’t go flat!” You could buy it by the gallon glass jug from a drive-thru window. It was the first beer I ever tasted, and it was wretched. Go Back To Reading