My father often says, “Never teach a pig to sing, son. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” I had always thought that this meant I shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing. Symbolism was a concept I didn’t chance upon till later in life, though I wish had learned this life lesson earlier, and in a less abrupt way.
The fifth grade was absolutely terrible for me. Already a year of impending bodily “changes” and emotional upheavals, I was forced to go through this year in a foreign environment. My parents had decided to build a house in the suburbs of North Ogden, and we were financially obliged to leave our quaint little house in “old-people Ogden,” as we called it, to rent a house in South Ogden, while our new house neared the end of its construction. The rental home was small, cold, next to a highway, and filled with exotic spiders the size of puppies. I had been ripped from my childhood home and forced to live in this limbo-dwelling, knowing full well my time there would be short.
And, in fact, the fifth grade was the worst year of my life, not just because of our moving, but more due to the fact that, in this new society, my brothers and I had become the lepers.
I couldn’t understand it at first. I was used to being part of the herd, not one of the sick and dying, wounded beasts at its fringe. For years, I had assisted in mocking the weird kids, and now, I had joined their ranks.
It all started fairly quickly. The first few days were filled with forced introductions by parents in the neighborhood, mostly harmless and awkward. However, my younger brother, Casey Sean, had started in recent months to develop a mouth like a burning tire, spewing forth toxic smoke wherever he went. He was a good kid, but we had been raised to be fairly intelligent children, and it was important to him that everyone in our path become aware of this.
Armed with gobs of useless trivia, for instance, hundreds of Shakespearean insults, courtesy of our mother (“You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so…” – MacBeth, Act I Scene III), and dump trucks full of sports factoids from our father (he can still recite the winners and scores of every Super Bowl up to about the year 1995), we went forth to mingle and battle in the harsh, unforgiving streets with our co-children.
I was a non-confrontational child, avoiding combat wherever possible, but Casey’s frequent oral output often left me having to defend our persons from bodily injury, or at least from a stern white-washing and a wedgie.
I remember, in particular, one frozen morning at the bus stop. We were all there, a shivering flock of children, each one bundled up in layers of swishing snow clothes, waiting for the powerful heaters and warm (if not friendly) atmosphere of our daily transport.
Precisely upon our arrival, our neighbor, a scrunch-faced, sturdy, baggy-panted man-child named Ryan, the dominant male at our stop, was melting all the snow in a 10-foot radius with a fiery inundation of obscene jokes (most of which, none of us, including Ryan, understood) and curse words that poured steadily and unstoppably from his mouth (some men make swearing a true art form, but cursing from a boy never seems to sound completely natural, like watching Michael Jordan play baseball, or hearing Pavarotti sing the blues).
He soon ran out of colorful expressions, however, and his attentions were turned to making life more difficult for those around him who were already too low to fight back. “Hey, Diaper-heads,” bellowed Ryan. Fully aware of our own status, we at once acknowledged and ignored his salutation by raising our eyebrows and sinking deeper into our hoods, feigning little interest in his attentions.
“Hey, you two! You’re sitting on the barf-seat again today. If you don’t sit there, you’re dead.”
I’m thoroughly convinced, after having surveyed many thousands of former bus-riders, that every known school bus is pre-installed with a “barf-seat,” as Ryan so elegantly referred to it. This seat is always slightly off-colored, with patched leather, and is covered in faded stains torn holes, and sticky spots of an uncertain origin. Our job, as the community exiles, was to occupy that barf-seat, thus keeping other bus-patrons from having to sit there. Ours was a crucial role, much like that skinny kid who is always the last one out in a dodge-ball game (he never survives that long as a result of athletic prowess, mind you; he lives as a result of hiding behind larger players, always at the absolute furthest point from his enemies, dancing around meekly and quietly, until he is the last target left, while every usable ball sits idle on his side of the court, with him too scared to run up, grab one, and throw it back, thus prolonging the match).
It was no joy to sit on the chair of menacing blemishes, but it was by no means intolerable. The stains, though hazardous in appearance, were quite dry, and had no harmful effect on the body, or, at least, nothing of an immediate danger.
But Casey Sean couldn’t take it. His Irish blood boiled that day. “No. We’re not sitting on the barf-seat. You sit there, dummy,” murmured my brother, his eyebrows angrily furrowed in protestation beneath his Ninja Turtles took.
Ryan stared at him in that confident way, a way only the true bully can ever fully achieve, with his head cocked slightly to the right (approximately 85 degrees), and a combination of shock, aggression, and joyous anticipation crossing his face. “No, I don’t think so, doofus. You are going to sit there.” And with that, he nudged Casey full in the sternum with his iron-filled glove, his features flashing between a scowl and a leering grin every few milliseconds.
I had chosen not to react at all. If my brother wanted to fight the system, he was more than welcome to. Who knew, maybe he’d get lucky. I stood, watching innocently, as Ryan chortled with his lackeys, and my brother rubbed his scrawny chest in his bubbling, suppressed anger.
“Yeah, well, you better watch it, ‘cause Kory’ll fight you back, stupid.”
Oh, dear heavens. From this point on, I was being dragged out of Switzerland and into Bavaria, my blessed neutrality torn from me.
“Look…C’mon, Ryan, stop it. You’re going to get us all in trouble.” I had elected to take the moral high ground, subtly avoiding a fight while not necessarily conceding that I feared him. I was simply afraid of the resultant disciplinary circumstances that were always unavoidable.
Secretly, I would rather have hitch-hiked in a dress to school than face Ryan, who stood half a head shorter than me but a full thirty pounds heavier, with most of that difference resting in his forearms.
“What, are you scared to fight me?”
“No, I just think fighting is for morons. And cavemen.”
“Oh, so now you’re calling me a caveman, huh?” he asked threateningly, lifting his knuckles from the ground to point a hairy finger between my eyes.
Violence was imminent, and I had no option left to me and my bony frame but to use my superior intellect to beat him down to the uneducated, blue-collar, Philistine pulp that he was.
“Look, Ryan, you know what? You’re probably going to be working for me someday, okay? So just back off, or I might have to fire you later on, and that won’t help you much when you’re buying that truck you want, which is most likely going to end up being the most important thing you do in this life.”
Wow! What a crippling blow! A zinger! Surely, this paralytic bee-sting would burst his balloon, would silence his roar, would bring this thuggish tyrant to his knees, to the ovation of my peers.
His confused, odious stare peered into me for perhaps a full minute, and then it twisted into his more natural, pitbull-grin, and his arms shot out like pistons, knocking me a full twenty feet back through the air to land on my rear, spread-eagled, in the snow.
Thanks to my mother and her far-sighted preparation, my arctic bundling preserved my fragile frame from sustaining any actual physical damage, the majority of both impacts being absorbed by my over-large ski coat, but my dignity was unprotected. It had, in fact, been dragged into the back alley and shot in the kneecaps. I tried to play it cool, cheerfully accepting my circumstances, joking in a sickly, whispered voice, “Gee, it sure is cool down here. Comfortable and soft, too. Heh, heh.” I even attempted whistling.
“Good, moron, then don’t try to get up until the bus comes.”
And so I lay. A minute or two passed, and Casey once again shot off his mouth. He ultimately joined me in the slush, the both of us lying there, silently staring up into the cold, icy-blue sky.
The bus eventually pulled up, and we all piled on, the driver not bothering to question our sorry status. As the last two kids onto the bus, we assumed our rightful place on the barf-seat, continuing to sulk, and avoiding the gaze of the surrounding herd.
And so that year went. After the 5th grade, we moved to our new house, in a happy, delightful neighborhood, and we quickly made friends and led peaceful, normal lives. It was as if that horrid year had never really happened.
I am, however, glad for that year spent in an odd, foreign, harsh reality, the year spent on the fringe of civilization. I learned much about life, about the art of avoiding confrontation, and about knowing when you’re beaten.
But I’ve never had to sit on the barf-seat since.