My family moved to Lake Ronkonkoma in February, a time when friendships have already been formed and being the poor, shy new kid doesn't really have the mystique to attract would-be friends that children's novels lead you to believe. Instead, I quietly took my seat at the end of the long row of paired desks, kept my head down, and spoke to no one, like a dude just trying to get by in court-ordered rehab.
My new second grade teacher was Mrs. Man, who looked like her head was screwed directly onto her body, like the Malibu Barbie whose neck I had accidentally snapped. She had a brushed-out blonde perm and often wore dashiki-print dresses though she was a white woman in her forties. Mrs. Man learned from my file that my father was dead, so she paired me up with a girl named Lori, whose father had also passed away. Lori seemed unaffected by the loss, twirling her long blond hair around her finger with a fifty-yard stare and a mouth-breathing semi-smile while I did both of our homework. There was a separation between us, an indifference to life's harsh tokes that allowed Lori to talk about how she used Pantene Pro V on her hair and that's why it was so shiny while I read chapter books about orphans and methodically planned what route I would take when I ran away from home to live in an abandoned camper in my cousin's backyard. There wasn't much common ground for us to stand on, and at lunchtime I read quietly by myself.
Our class also had a student teacher a few days a week. Miss O'Reilly was young and idealistic, with flaming red hair and an early-90s fashion sense that was very Pearl Jam Goes to the Temp Agency. She picked up a piece of jaundice yellow chalk and scratched LOCAL HISTORY onto the board.
“For this month's Special Assignment, everybody has to interview an old person and find out about what Lake Ronkokoma used to be like in the old days. You have to record the conversation and write a paragraph about it.”
I was only eight, and this seemed like a pretty tall order for someone who hardly had their toys unpacked from a major life uprooting. I raised my hand, hoping for a loophole. “What if we don't know any old people?”
Miss O'Reilly had already thought about this possibility. “Well, the oldest store in town is Andrew & Taylor Hardware. It was built at the turn of the century, and I think some old people still work there, so you can just talk to them. Otherwise, you can interview an elderly neighbor.”
Earlier in the week, my stepdad, Artie, had shoveled the driveway for one of our neighbors. Otto was in his eighties and had some kind of birth defect where his fingers looked like he was holding a handful of disembodied nipples. I started to sweat profusely just thinking about talking to him.
When my mom picked us up from school, I choked out the details of the assignment, deeply inhaling the tranquilizing blue secondhand smoke in the car. The project seemed absurd, and my gut instinct said that this was the worst idea anyone had ever come up with while stoned in a college Elementary Education class. I awaited my mother's response, which finally came in the form of an angry string of rhetorical questions.
“What is she? A fucking idiot? Sending a kid to the hardware store to talk to some old coot? Doesn't anybody watch America's Most Wanted in this town?”
Artie came home from work just as my mother was piercing the plastic seals on our TV dinners with a fork. They both went upstairs to give each other an update on their respective days, which usually involved the UPS guy failing to deliver an important piece of jewelery from QVC, gossip on our relative's personality disorders, and one person or another at the Union Hall being an asshole. “Can you believe this? Sending a kid out to tape-record a bunch of pedophiles?” I heard my mother asking when I pressed my ear up to the door of their room.
“Why doesn't she just interview Old Nipple Fingers?” Artie suggested. “I snowblowed his driveway, so he owes us one.”
“That's not the point! It's not only dangerous, it's sick! You don't know what's out there!”
My parents were hardly ever on my side. My sister Carly had a way of doing this whalesong ambulance cry that made everything my fault no matter who had let the first slap fly. Any judgement in my favor was practically a miracle.
“What are you gonna do?” Artie asked.
“I'll just write her a note,” my mom answered. I heard the groan of the mattress and my parents moving toward the door. I scrambled downstairs and waited at the table with folded hands, an innocent victim in a world of sick elderly pedophiles.
Miss O'Reilly was disappointed when I handed her the note from my mom, excusing me of all local history assignments for the town of Lake Ronkonkoma. I shrugged and gave a sympathetic smile, as if to say, Moms! Sometimes they just don't want you to end up on A Current Affair! Then I took my seat next to Lori.
“What did your note say?” Lori asked, running her fingers through her flaxen locks and breathing like a muppet.
“My mom doesn't want me talking to any old people.”
“Why?” she asked, absently doodling on her desk in pencil, which I felt was a direct affront to the rules of the class.
“She thinks it's weird.”
By lunchtime, everybody knew I wasn't allowed to participate in the impressive history of Lake Ronkonkoma. A few kids asked me why and I responded with a shrug, hoping my aloofness might generate some mystery that would make them want to be my friend, even though everyone I went to school with struck me as a complete idiot. It seemed uncanny that out of an entire classroom of twenty-five children, I would be the only intelligent person. What if the whole world was full of idiots? What if the rest of my life was spent battling the terrible ideas of other people who didn't understand the way the world really worked? My head started to hurt just thinking about it, and I asked to see the school nurse, Mrs. Keizel, who sent everyone away with a sandwich baggie of ice, no matter how severe or life-threatening their injury was.
I started getting migraines in the second grade, and when I realized I didn't have to go to school when I was sick, I would make up phantom stomach aches. Sometimes, if it seemed doubtful that I would be able to leave school in the middle of the day, I would nervously allude to diarrhea, an affliction that no school nurse will ever question. The second grade seemed pretty useless anyway. I was stuck being deskmates with Lori for the rest of the year, even though she chewed the erasers off all of her pencils and didn't know how to read. In our science unit, we were learning about the lifecycle of mealworms, a parasite that turns from egg to worm to chewed-up-piece-of-Winterfresh-gum to beetle. Each student had a petri dish of mealworms taped to his or her desk. I did the bulk of the work for both me and Lori while she chattered on about how her mom's new boyfriend was buying her a horse for her birthday and gnawed the end of her pencil. The mealworms crawled around in Quaker Oats, eating them, burrowing in them, crapping in them, and eventually dying in them. I stared at the mealworms, climbing over each other in the oatmeal, eating and moving around in a giant circle, ignoring the dead one off to the side, and I started to get another headache. I raised my hand.
“Can I go to the nurse?”
Mrs. Keizel called my mother to take me home again because the jury was still out on whether I was actually afflicted with a nervous disorder or just knew how to work the system. Before she picked me up, I made the slow walk back to my classroom to collect my books and jacket.
“Oh,” Mrs. Man said, handing me a list of homework, “don't forget to take your mealworms. Everyone gets to bring them home today.”
I stared at the clear petri dish taped to my desk. I looked back at Mrs. Man. “Go on,” she said, like she was doing me a serious mitzvah. “They're yours now to keep.”
I gathered up the serving-sized container of bugs and put them in my backpack. I knew this wasn't going to go over well, but I had to take it one step at a time. First, make it home, then the Big Reveal. It seemed logical. A part of me really wanted Mrs. Man to be right, though. I wanted nothing more than for an authority figure to know what they were doing, to nudge me in the direction of truth and universal light, for it to make sense that I was taking home a flask of live insects.
“Oh, HELL no,” my mom said when I busted out the mealworms in our kitchen and explained that they were now mine. “What kind of person would send bugs home in a kid's backpack? Does she want to infest the whole goddam town? Is this some kind of a sick joke? Can these teachers get their heads out of their asses and make a good decision? What are they teaching you in this school? Is this what my tax dollars are going to?”
I knew these weren't questions for me to answer, that I should just nod thoughtfully or shrug when it seemed right. When Artie came home, my parents discussed the mealworms for a long time behind their closed door while I held a drinking glass to my ear to better hear them, a trick I learned from one of the books I had read. I spent a long weekend with the mealworms, watching them ignore each other in their little plastic world, pooping and eating and tunneling with a listless apathy for one's fellow mealworm. And when Monday finally came around, I put them on Mrs. Man's desk along with the note from my mother.
“My mom says I'm not allowed to have them.” I tried to sound like I was on her side, like I really wanted to keep the mealworms, but the unjustness of my life was beyond my control.
Later in the day, our class set them free outside. We watched them crawl through the sand into the grass until they disappeared, hobbling off on a hundred brown legs into an uncertain future, to be picked off by birds or bigger insects, to never again enjoy the comfort of a flavorless dehydrated oat. Then we all went back to our desks and I rubbed my temples, feeling another big one coming on.