“Hey, Big Guy! Ready for your first day of school?”
My mom packed my Star Wars lunchbox. It was 1979. I was only 4 years old, starting kindergarten a year earlier than most because I was so advanced. Every kid needed to be able to write their name, recite the alphabet, and count to 10. I was reciting Robert Louis Stevenson poetry at age two, and had memorized all 50 United States and their locations on the map.
It felt good to have all the answers when Mrs. Sherrow would ask questions. Sometimes I forgot to raise my hand before answering. “Stephen Newman, what did I say about raising your hand before speaking? Go to the principal’s office, right now, and explain to him why you can’t follow instructions.”
I didn’t want to go. I had heard about the principal’s paddle. The story about how it was spelled “principal,” not “principle,” because the principal is your “pal,” hardly seemed to apply.
I stood outside the classroom, looking at the principal’s office, afraid of Mr. Bass, afraid to take a step further. But Mrs. Sherrow found me, and walked me to his office. Mr. Bass showed me his paddle. It had spikes on it. He told me how much the last kid cried when he used it on him. And he made me promise to never again speak in class without first raising my hand. Now I understood why the kids always said, “Mr. Bass is an Ass.”
Even though the school was just a block away from my house, it was still an adventure when I would walk to school. Scott Cross, a big kid, would stop me halfway, and always threaten to beat me up. When I rode my bike, I remember him kicking my tires, asking me what I was going to do about it. Then when I got to school, Justin, the quarter thief, would make me give him my milk money. (When I was 14, our high school had an assembly and ceremony to honor Scott Cross’s life. He had been killed in an automobile accident a few days prior. Grief counselors were available for the students. I didn’t need them).
I was in Mr. Geivet’s class, who everyone said was gay, but I didn’t know what “gay” meant when I was seven. The kids called him “Gary Gay Geivet,” which had a nice ring to it, so I laughed, but didn’t know why it was funny.
For an hour a day, I had to go to Ms. Rowell’s class (with the older kids) because I was so advanced in reading. One day, during reading hour, I peed my pants. Ms. Rowell wrote a note, pinned it to my shirt, and sent me back to my original class. Mr. Geivet saw the note, and began reading it outloud: “Stephen peed his pants and so I sent him back to your classroom.” All the kids were laughing. The school couldn’t reach my mom, but they called my friend Ian’s mom, Jana. She brought me a dry pair of Ian’s pants, and I wore them for the rest of the day.
I began taking piano lessons with Mrs. Smith, who lived halfway between my house and the school. Mrs. Smith’s house served a dual purpose that year. When the kids would chase me home after school, and I’d run as fast as I could, I was able to seek refuge on Mrs. Smith’s porch. Often, they would have caught me before I got all the way home, but Mrs. Smith’s house became my own personal Embassy.
I was racing bicycles, with my friend Omar, down the footbridge crossing the Santa Ana River. When I awoke, some strange man was talking to me. I had just grown in my permanent two front teeth, weeks prior, and I noticed they were both broken from what was obviously a bike crash. “Those were my favorite teeth,” I said to the man who rescued me.
In the hospital bed, the doctor told me to remember three words: Red, Book, Window. I had a bad concussion and a bloody face. I never remembered the crash. But for whatever reason, I landed on my face instead of on my arms and hands.
I was in bed, recovering, when Omar brought me a Get Well Soon card. It said, “you’re probably not going to want to ride bikes again.” He also brought me a remote control truck.
This was also the year we filmed our fourth grade play. It had a Hawaiian theme and I had a small part. I still have the VHS tape of it in my parents’ attic. Mrs. Sholley, our teacher, loved Hawaii, and gave us a Luau in the class, complete with pineapple, poi, and other authentic Hawaiian goodies. Sadly, I wouldn’t have my first Mai Tai for 12 more years.
This was the roughest year. I was reunited with Mr. Geivet, who now taught fifth grade. We had the school olympics, and we were all supposed to release our balloons simultaneously during the opening ceremony. A kid kicked me in the balls, and I doubled over in pain, releasing my balloon early. Mr. Geivet yelled at me for not following directions. My success with the hurdles wasn’t much better. Rule of thumb: fat kids should avoid track and field.
Once, when Mr. Geivet left the room, kids threw me onto the floor and began kicking my ribs. I was lying on the floor in pain, as Mr. Geivet returned, yelling at me for being on the floor.
A “Be Nice To Stephen Day” was created by the school psychologist. For one day, all the kids were required to be nice to me. Mr. Geivet whited-out all the mean stuff the kids wrote in my yearbook.
I had planned to go to Ian’s house after school, but Ian’s mom decided at the last minute that I couldn’t come over. I was upset, so I drew a thumb pointing down, complete with the thumbnail and a couple knuckles. I wrote, “Give this to your mom, Ian. BOO!!” I wanted to give her the thumbs down to express my displeasure. Mr. Geivet saw my note, took me to the principal (still not my pal), and called my parents. I was grounded for two weeks and didn’t understand why. A week later, my parents realized I had drawn a thumb. Mr. Geivet was convinced that I had drawn a penis, and wanted to give that to Ian’s mom. I never was a very good artist.
Categories: Stephen Newman