Saturday, March 23, 2013

Life Is What Happens To You

Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy making other plans…
           John Lennon   “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”

In the fall of my seventh year, my parents bought their first home and I was forced to switch schools a month into second grade.  I loved my old school, even though I did try to run away when I was in first grade.  I have never made friends easily, and have always been a bit of a loner.  My original school was the school of my father, mother, and dozens of aunts and uncles, some only a few years older than me.  There was family tradition and history in the red brick walls of Our Lady of Peace Catholic School, and I had to leave it all behind.

There was nothing inviting about my new school.  Now I was a complete outsider—no friends, no connections, no joy.  I arrived in Mrs. Vinette’s class a stranger in a strange land.  She was a woman in the final years of her teaching career, dried up, bitter, tough and severe.  The school principal was a similarly pinched and mean nun named Sister Benedict Joseph.  We called her “Sister Billy Jack” after the lead character in a series of hokey karate movies popular at the time.  In the films, Billy Jack solved most of his problems with a smartly placed kick to the face of his enemy.  Sister B.J. did no such thing; however, she was very good at seeing through my charade of a stomach ache every day when I tried to escape and go home.

Without fanfare, I was unceremoniously dumped into Mrs. Vinette’s class already in progress one Monday morning, and the transition was done.  Now I had to live with the consequences.  To lessen the sting, my parents bought me my first Timex wrist watch in honor of my ability to tell time.  I loved the watch, which had a calendar feature on the face, and I quickly fixated on the glow-in-the-dark dial, checking it incessantly a hundred times a day in the hopes someone would notice.  Therefore, I missed many of Mrs. Vinette’s intricately plotted lessons.

Before long however, I found my new watch much less interesting.  Her name was Magdalena and she was the prettiest girl in my new class:  light brown hair in a bob, green eyes, and olive skin.  In the weeks before I arrived, all of the students had made posters celebrating their ethnic heritage.  Hers was Portuguese-Irish.  She sat two seats ahead of me right in front of Mrs. Vinette’s desk.  I quickly noticed she was the smartest kid in the class.  I fell in love, but other than the eye contact we made when I was introduced on my first day, she paid me no attention, even with my shiny new Timex.

Out on the playground one day during recess, I saw Mrs. Vinette talking with Magdalena.  This seemed like a good opportunity to impress my young love and my new teacher with my timepiece.  I summoned my courage and made my approach.  “Mrs. Vinette, look at my new watch.  Do you want to know what time it is?”

Magdalena turned and ran off to join some other girls in jump rope.  Mrs. Vinette looked at me with plain irritation on her face.  “What’s so great about a watch?” she said.  “Lots of students have watches.”

Things went from bad to worse in my new class.  We started learning cursive writing, and Mrs. Vinette quickly discovered that I was left-handed, and as she said aloud to the class, I held my pen “weird.”  Every afternoon, we copied our letters into our tablets.  My hand ached with cramp because I gripped the pen tightly and pressed too hard on the paper.  It is a problem that has followed me through life.  I had trouble controlling my swirls and loops, so my penmanship was illegible.  Of course, this should have made me a candidate for medical school, but Mrs. Vinette wasted no time in calling me to the board for a one-on-one public tutorial.

In addition, the pace of the class was faster than my previous school and I struggled to keep up.  They had blown through addition and subtraction before I arrived, and I was still using my fingers and occasionally, my toes.  When I was called to the board to solve a problem, my fellow students were quick to point out that my lips moved as I counted up the answer in my head.  This led to big laughs.  Magdalena just looked disappointed.  The one area where I excelled, privately, was reading.  At home in the evenings, I was swallowing Matt Christopher sports novels by the truckload, often at the expense of my other homework.  My mother took me to the public library where I cleared the shelves.  One obsession was ghosts; I found a book of photographs of alleged portraits of spirits, and immediately started having nightmares.  But I could not put the book down.  I checked it out over and over again.

After a while, I eased into the groove in the new class.  I was an average student, unremarkable and rather dull.  I continued to love Magdalena from afar, and I started dreaming about how in future grades I would woo her and maybe by sixth grade, we could be boyfriend and girlfriend.  By then I would be able to do something spectacular to get her attention.  But it was not to be.

There came a day when Mrs. Vinette called Magdalena to the front of the room.  A strange woman entered the classroom with a large Tupperware container filled with cupcakes.  It was Magdalena’s mother who brought treats for the class to celebrate her daughter’s birthday.  We sang songs and wished her well, and one of the girls in the class presented her with a giant card her friends had made the day before during recess.  Mrs. Vinette had allowed them to stay behind in the classroom so Magdalena would not see.  Then, Magdalena grew sad and the party darkened.  “Thank you,” she said, and began to cry.

Mrs. Vinette stepped in.  “Boys and girls, this is Magdalena’s last week in our class.  She and her family are moving to Arizona because her father has a new job.  So even though we will miss her terribly, we must say goodbye and wish her the best of luck in the rest of her life.”  The class was silent, and I heard sniffles.

“We will come to visit,” her mother said, smiling through tears.  “I’m sure Magdalena will never forget all of you.”

She would, I was sure, forget me, because she did not know me.  I was the new kid in the back of the room near the window who was always dreaming of ghosts and heroes who saved the game.  She did not know she was the love of my life.

Almost as soon as Magdalena left, it began to rain and she was quickly forgotten in the torrent.  Usually, fall in Los Angeles meant fires in the hills, smoke on the horizon, and ashes on cars in the driveways all across suburbia.  But that year, the rains came with a vengeance.

In an unusual confluence of things, rain poured down, my mother went into the hospital, and my school prepared for its annual carnival.  I did not understand it then, but my mother had gotten pregnant and suffered a miscarriage with complications.  My father was no substitute for my mother.  All he wanted was for us to leave him in peace to drink beer and watch football, which meant we did what we wanted.  I gladly skipped homework and waited until I heard him snoring down the hall before snapping on my bed light and reading late into the evening while the rain battered the windows.  I had discovered Beverly Cleary books, especially The Mouse and the Motorcycle.  I was quickly working my way through her shelf in the public library.

On the Friday the carnival was to start, the rain started up again with thunder and lightning.  My mother had made arrangements with a friend to pick me up from school, and as we ran to the woman’s car, the saturated earth refused to absorb any more water.  The streets became raging rivers, and the sky split open with electric fire.  All the rides and booths had been set up for the carnival, but as the wind kicked up, it appeared most of the work would be undone by the storm.  The clouds made the sky black in places, yet we could also see laser beams of sunlight streaming through across the valley.  It was weird, exhilarating weather.  By the kickoff of the carnival at six o’clock that evening, the storm abated leaving a soaked playground of red-flagged booths, a Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris Wheel, and a converted tractor-trailer rig called Uncle Funderburk’s Madhouse.

My father took me and my three year old brother to see my mother in the hospital.  She was weak and pale, but she kissed each of us and told us to have fun at the carnival.  After a stop at McDonald’s, we arrived at the brightly lit and colorful school playground to have some fun.  My father was stuck with the stroller and my brother, so I rode many of the rides by myself.  I felt a little queasy after the Tilt-A-Whirl, but I managed to keep my dinner down.  As we walked around the different attractions, the temperature dropped and clouds stacked ominously on the horizon.  I felt strange and electrified as we walked.

We came at last to Uncle Funderburk’s Madhouse.  One entered through a curtained door at the back of the trailer and exited out a corresponding door at the front.  I could only speculate what might be in between those doors.  My father bought a ticket for me and urged me to go.  He had to stay behind with my brother.  I stared up at the dark door in the white trailer with the gigantic psychotic male face in spastic contortions painted on the side, all of it silhouetted against the menacing sky, and realized I didn’t want to go in.  I turned to look back at my father.  “C’mon,” he shouted, “just go.”  I could tell he was losing his patience.  I mounted the metal stairs and pushed through the curtain.

Inside, I found profound darkness.  I waved my hand in front of my face, but could see nothing.  I stumbled down a hallway filled with screams.  Bodies brushed against me, pushing me into side aisles and I felt smothering layers of cloth and what felt like netting.  Someone grabbed my right arm and jerked down, nearly pulling me off my feet.  I took an elbow to the face and slammed up against a wall.  The screaming intensified in the pitch black darkness, and I sensed people running and pushing.  I have always been claustrophobic, and suddenly, I felt the panic kick in with frightening intensity.  I ran back the way I thought I had come, but I kept running into walls.  I struck out against a human body and began clawing my way through the flesh.  The person shoved me away.  I lost my mind and punched out against every solid object.  Some of the blows landed against muscle and bone, and people yelled into my face and hit back.  My face hit the floor and I instinctively rolled away and continued crawling toward where I thought the door might be.  My eyes detected a lighter darkness ahead and I leapt to my feet.  With rubbery legs I launched myself toward the break in the darkness and suddenly I burst out into the night, nearly falling head-first down the iron stairs.

My father had not moved.  He stood staring off at the Ferris Wheel, gently rolling the stroller back and forth.  I ran to him sobbing and buried my face in his stomach.  “What happened?” he asked, bewildered.

“I…couldn’t get…out,” I choked.

“That scared you?  It’s just a fun house.”

He took me over to a food booth and bought me a Coke.  I was crying too hard to drink, and I felt again as if I would throw up.

“Stop crying,” he said with anger.  “Don’t be a baby.”

“I couldn’t find my way.”

“You should’ve just kept going.  You would’ve found the door eventually.”

At home, after a hot shower, I fell into a dreamless sleep, and the next morning, Saturday, I got up early to watch cartoons—Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Elmer Fudd, who I always thought looked just like my father.  Later that day, we picked my mother up from the hospital and I tried to tell her what had happened at the carnival, but she was very tired.

The weeks ran away and Thanksgiving approached.  I continued to read Beverly Cleary books and when I could summon the courage, I’d return to the ghost book and stare at the photographs of mists on staircases, ghostly hands on bannisters, and orbs of light that floated over graves on dark nights.  My cursive improved, as did my grades, and Mrs. Vinette did not seem to hate me so much.  She did keep me in the seat near the back next to the window, but I did not mind.  It was a good seat for dreaming.  I also continued to have problems with Sister Benedict Joseph—Billy Jack.  Once, I convinced Mrs. Vinette that I had severe stomach pains and loped out of the room on my way to the office to have the secretary call my mother to pick me up.  I came around a corner and slid right into black polyester.

“Young man, what in Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s name are you doing out of class?”

I stared up into her thin, bony face boxed in white and black.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.  “I’m sick.”

“You’re not sick!”  In a deft move, she spun me and launched my body back to the door of Grade Two.  “You’re perfectly fine,” she called after me.  “Get back to class.”

That was the last time I played sick to get out of school.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we spent the last minutes of the school day practicing our handwriting.  We had graduated from copying letters from the strip above the board to writing full sentences and composing our own stories.  I looped and whirled through an adventure of a boy who was always brave and always saved the day.  Even when danger lurked, he kept going.  I sensed something was amiss and glanced up to see Sister Benedict Joseph and the parish priest standing in the classroom doorway.  We all jumped to our feet.

“Good afternoon, Sister Benedict Joseph and Father Lyons,” we shouted in monotone.  Sister B.J. motioned for us to sit back down.

“Okay, students, put down your pens and pencils,” Mrs. Vinette said.  “Clear your desks and fold your hands.”

We assumed the required position and waited.  When Sister visited our classroom, she often talked about our First Holy Communion scheduled to take place that spring.  But once we were seated and quiet, the three adults didn’t say anything.  They just stood there.  Sister glared at us—her usual demeanor—and Father Lyons, who actually looked like a red-headed lion, studied our history posters hanging on the bulletin board.  Mrs. Vinette looked at her two superiors as if waiting for a special signal.  When none came, she turned to face us and clasped her hands in front of her.

“Boys and girls, we have an announcement,” she started.  “A terrible thing has happened.  A terrible, awful, unimaginable thing.”  Her face began to turn red.  “There are things God gives us.  Or takes from us.  And we do not know why.  But we must trust him, and pray.”

Mrs. Vinette did not look good, and I could see from the back of the room that her hands were shaking.  Father continued to look at the bulletin boards.  Sister Benedict Joseph was now looking down.  The situation contained almost unbearable tension, and the class was silent, collectively holding its breath.  But I felt drawn away, out the window, to the bare tree branches scraping against the glass in the cold breeze.  A bird landed on the waving stick of tree and bobbed there, up and down.  It was an English sparrow.  I recognized it from a book in the library on birds of California.  Mrs. Vinette cleared her throat, pulling me back to the surreal scene at the front of the room.

“We have just received word,” she said.  “We have just received word, that Magdalena, her mother and father, her little brother, were called home to Jesus.”  No one moved.  The branch scraped against the window.  Mrs. Vinette appeared to want a response, but when none came, she cleared her throat again.  “Poor little Magdalena and her whole family were killed on a highway in a terrible car accident on the way to Arizona.”

“Father Lyons will lead us in prayer now for the souls of Magdalena and her family,” Sister said in a voice I did not recognize for its softness.

I looked around the room as we prayed.  All the students, Mrs. Vinette, Sister, and Father Lyons, everyone had their eyes closed in concentration, except me.  I glanced in the corners of the room, looking for mists or orbs of light, or a faint smile and green eyes with wisps of soft, brown hair.  I tried to picture Magdalena’s face, but it was already slipping from memory.  I was drawn instead back to the window, the grey sky, the already bare branches of the tree outside the classroom.

Mrs. Vinette’s announcement had no meaning.  It simply wasn’t true.  Magdalena was not dead.  No, she was still very much alive, on her way to Arizona and the rest of her life.  She would finish school, become a ballerina, maybe, or a doctor who cares for children in Africa.  She would fall in love with someone, marry, have children, grow rich.  She would be happy in her life; she would never grow old, and she would never die.

Or, if only I could make time go backward.  Magdalena would still be in our class in her now empty desk.  I could tell her one of the stories I was writing.  Maybe she would fall in love with me, but most important, she would still be alive.  If only she had not gone to Arizona.

When you are in second grade in the fall of your seventh year, things happen, and then you must go on.  Sometimes that is all that you can do.


  1. A wonderful story; and how ironic and delightful that the person who best knew that child would be the one entrusted to relay it, to a readers many decades later, recalling similar rough beginnings, classroom humiliations, wrong turns that spit you out crying and having nightmares, yet, going on, always still somehow able to find the way back to the home one cherishes, even if it's not a real place and can't be found on any map. Thank you for this glimpse into that small boy's then life, his father's words come true: we keep going, we find our way, eventually. Thank you for this wonderful little story.

  2. Thanks, Annie. I hope all is well. I have news which I will share with you by email. Thanks for reading.

  3. A beautiful story. You have the gift of narrative & you have made these characters from your real life real to me. Thanks so much for sharing your gift with readers like myself. As ideas start reeling in my head, I feel, right now, the influence of your writing on my own.

    J. Guy

  4. Thanks so much for your comment. We influence and inspire each other. And of course, we encourage, which you have done for me here. Your words mean a lot. Take care.


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