That's me in first grade. Notice the hunched shoulders, overbite holding a trembling lip still and big brown eyes moist with the tears of a thousand stresses. This is one stressed out little kid about to lose his proverbial (and quite probably literal) shit. How can a kid with two loving parents, a roof over his head and plenty of food on the table be this stressed? Glad you asked. Let me tell you about the day this kid had been through.
Back in the mid-seventies, there was no such thing as all-day kindergarten. You were either an AM or a PM. I was a PM, meaning school started about noon and went until about three. Mornings I was free to sleep in, watch cartoons and be a general pain-in-the-ass to my mom. I liked school but was comfortable with my three hour a day afternoon shift. So, when first grade came around and the bus picked you up at 7:45, it threw a major monkey wrench into my sedentary lifestyle. Now, I had to be up at seven, washed-up, breakfast eaten and teeth brushed within forty-five minutes. Nearly impossible under normal circumstances. On this day, however, being picture day, a shower had to be thrown in as well. Although I highly doubt I missed the bus - even then I had an anal-retentiveness that forbade such things - I have to imagine 876 Oriole Dr. was an utterly chaotic scene that morning. Stress level rising.
I realize it's pretty easy to second guess, but looking back at picture day at Southview Elementary, I have to question the strategy of the administrators. They always started with the fifth graders, lining them up first thing in the morning for photos and then moved their way down grade by grade until they got to the first graders in the late afternoon. I would think common logic would show that the younger the child, the greater potential for jelly faces, boogers on the collar, dirt on the shirt, etc., so you would want those photos taken first. Instead, the first graders were expected to remain clean and presentable throughout the day, which was a nearly impossible mission. I had an early history of screwing up picture day. In Kindergarten, my mom took me to the Sears Roebuck Outlet Store in the morning of the day I was to have my pictures taken. She picked out a nice pair of corduroy pants with a matching turtleneck and accentuating sweater vest. I was looking sharp and naturally insisted I wear the outfit out of the store. I also naturally insisted I be awarded with a piece of gum for my excellent behavior during the shopping outing (I had to be bribed to go shopping - still do, although now it's with beer and not gum). Needless to say, by the time we had gotten home, the entire outfit as well as my hair had somehow become infused with Fruit Stripe. Consequently, my kindergarten picture features me in too small clothing and a suspicious chunk of hair missing. Anyways, back to first grade. With recent history in mind, my mom shooed me out the door with the following instructions: "Whatever you do, stay clean until you get your picture taken." Then, as I was hopping on the bus, she yelled "AND DON'T HUNCH YOUR SHOULDERS!" - which I had a strange tendency to do. Stress level continuing to rise.
As if the stress and pressure of picture day weren't enough, the powers that be of Southview Elementary decided to fill the morning with a grade wide spelling bee. As Apple Valley was a booming suburb by this time, we had three first grade classes in the school. The contest started within each classroom, with the top five from each class advancing to a big spell-off in the gym. I was a pretty talented speller in first grade and didn't have too much difficulty flying through the preliminary round, snickering as kids messed up on gimmes like book or cat. Before I knew it I was in the top five of the class and preparing to take on the other first grade chumps. Shortly before lunch the entire first grade gathered in the gym. At the time, I imagined my peers to all be spellbound (no pun intended) by my dazzling spelling skills. In retrospect, however, I imagine they were bored out of their minds counting the minutes until lunch and recess. The fifteen finalists were lined up in the front of the gym ready to compete when the principal informed us that the top three overall winners would be advancing to a regional competition to face the winners of the other elementary schools in the area. Holy crap. The thought of traveling to Rosemount, Burnsville or (ohmygod) Bloomington was too much to handle. I froze. Luckily, most of the other kids did too. They were dropping like flies, getting more wrong than right. I slipped through the first round - stuggling through "pillow"- and soon realized there were only five of us left. I only had to outlast two more schmucks to be on my way to fame and glory. When my turn came, I was ecstatic to hear them say "nickel". Nickel? Please. Piece of cake. I smiled broadly and nearly shouted, "Nickel. N-I-C-K-L-E. Nickel." It was all I could do to contain myself from yelling "See ya suckas!". When I looked to Ms. Dilworth, expecting to see a proud smile spread across her face, I saw her slowly shaking her head. I had blown it. My one shot at fame, fortune and happiness gone because of a stupid L-E mix-up. To this day, I refuse keep nickles (yes, NICKLES) in my pockets. Stress level high.
Oh well, at least I had recess to calm me down before pictures. I, like most kids, was a huge fan of recess and figured I would be able to compose myself through a solid thirty minutes of basketball. Even in first grade, I was obsessed with shooting baskets and would invariably spend each recess either playing pickup basketball or just shooting hoops on my own. The vast majority of the other kids were obsessed with kickball, which to me meant getting one turn "at bat", which lasted 20 seconds, and spending the other 29 plus minutes thinking about how bored you were. No thanks, I'll stick to basketball. On a typical day, there was always a crate of standard issue red rubber balls for use at recess. I always made sure to rush through lunch as fast as possible so that I could be one of the first out for recess and have my choice of balls to use. In another case of questionable judgement (or perhaps it's sadism?) Southview Elementary chose on this day to only have two balls available. I applauded my good judgement on choking down my lunch when I secured one of the precious orbs. I took off to the hoops and began futile after futile attempt of hitting a free throw. As the other kids trickled out for recess, I began to notice quite a few fifth graders watching and pointing at me. Uh-oh. Sure as shit, within minutes I was surrounded, the ball was pried from my fingers and headed over to the kickball diamond. I was pissed and determined to see justice. I marched over to the playground aide and through snot and tears emphatically explained the gross injustice I had just experienced. He yawned (in hindsight, he may have been stifling a laugh) and said, "well, there's more of them so they get the ball". He then went over and acted as umpire for their kickball game. No trial, no appeal, no justice. Stress level was now through the roof.
By the time pictures came, I was a hot mess. The disruption of my morning routine, the devastating spelling bee loss and the unpunished mistreatment I had suffered at recess (you can see the puffiness under my eyes from crying) combined to make it the worst day ever. I had hit rock bottom - or so I thought. As I neared the front of the line, I realized with horror that the process wasn't as simple as sitting in a chair, smiling, and being sent on your way. This was before digital photography allowed bad photos to be simply deleted and a new photo taken. Each and every photo had to count. So, before you ever got to the chair, you had to get past Mrs. Baumerkirsch. Mrs. Baumerkirsch was normally the school nurse, but today her job was to ensure that each child was ready for their big moment. She would take the child in the on-deck circle, forcibly sit them down, then run a plastic comb through their hair, straighten their clothes, attempt to rub out a stain if needed and send them onto the stage. Then, and to an only slightly lesser extent now, I had huge issues with strangers pawing at me. When my turn came, Mrs. Baumerkirsch grabbed me by the shoulders, placed me in the chair, whipped out the comb and got to work. To expound my misery, the day was hot and humid, which caused my hair to fuzz out in every conceivable direction. Mrs. Baumerkirsch raked the comb through my hair several dozen times to no avail - my hair was not cooperating. She leaned back, sighed, and then did something which to this day I have not been able to forget. I can still see her, in slow-motion no-less, dropping her jowly chin, sticking out her thick pink tongue and licking the comb. She then took the comb, now dripping with her saliva and went back to work on my hair. I went catatonic. I remember nothing else about the experience. I have vague flashbacks, usually in the dead of the night, of people yelling "don't hunch", "smile" and "nickel", but I can't recall any cognizant details of the experience from that point onward.
When we got the pictures back several weeks later I was terrified to show my parents. To their credit, they feigned anger but could only laugh. Retakes were out of the question as they not only cost a lot but my parents weren't interested in the coorelating therapy bills that would have gone with them. So, to finally get to the point of my story - whenever my stress level over the past seven weeks gets to the boiling point, I simply pull out the photo album and look back to my first grade picture. Put in perspective, things really aren't all that bad.
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