I MUST NOT
Kindergarten was held on the North Country Road in an old converted chapel with a vague resemblance to The Alamo. A bell tower capped the front façade. The exterior walls were sandy-pink stucco. A narrow, shamefully unkempt front yard led to the arched entranceway where Miss Elgar greeted us with gentle pats on our heads. Miss Elgar was fat with thick white calves sticking out from her dresses and soft doughy ankles pressing over the sides of her shoes.
Inside, we hung our coats on hooks lining the vestibule. Above the coat hooks, narrow compartments held our Rest Time blankets. The classroom occupied the space where pews once lined the floor. In one corner a semi-circle of pink plastic desks, with pink plastic chairs attached, faced a pair of tripod easels with trays on which enormous pads rested. One pad was yellow and ruled with thick, solid green lines and narrow, dotted green lines—these were for letters and numbers. The other, plain white, was for drawings and finger paintings. The sheets folded back over the top. It was fun to go behind the pads and look at last week’s house, yesterday’s driveway, the morning session’s family, the daddy bigger than the car, and the mommy, unsmiling, holding the hand of the little boy whose eyes rested on the dog or the wagon or the bicycle.
Out back the recess yard was outfitted with a sandbox, a seesaw, a glider, and swings. Two swing-seats were solid wood; these could give splinters. Two swings were rubber straps; these sank under your weight. Beyond the swings: woods, no fence, and a slope that led down into a forest we imagined must once have been thick and old enough to have hosted great battles, its trees filled with snipers or camouflaged forts that housed runaways.
Miss Elgar often remained by the sandbox, oblivious to the carnage we wreaked in the yard or the fantasies we conjured for the forest. It was easy to slip into the upper reaches of that forest and silently observe activities from behind its nearby trees: Miss Elgar seated on the edge of the sandbox, her knees akimbo; Miss Elgar bent at the waist officiating a sandbox altercation, her dress rising sometimes to her garters; Miss Elgar gently pushing someone on the swings, soft breezes billowing her skirts and slips over her fatty knees.
Often we played “The Alamo.” We were Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and Colonel William Travis and the rest of that motley crew of fringe-jacketed, coonskin-capped “Texicans.” The John Wayne movie, currently at the drive-in, provided many of our lines. “It was like I was empty,” we might say, completely out of context, or “There’s right and there’s wrong.” In deference to the historical record, or at least the Hollywood record, the speakers of those lines were required to die well before the end of recess, but the role of corpse, no matter how much creativity is invested, does not allow for the fullest discharge of energies.
The girls, when we could get them to join us, played the Mexicans—appropriately, since they were despised, and since the Mexican leader, Santa Ana, was in possession of an odiously feminized name. In our recess recreations, we, the Texicans, may have rewritten history a bit. We won—at great costs, which we would acknowledge with flourishes like pronounced limps or erratic gasps. Defeat—the defeat we knew was our debt to history—would not occur until every girl was down, and recess officially over.
“That’s not the way it ends,” the girls would complain.
True, we’d agree, but Miss Elgar had blown the whistle signaling recess’s conclusion. We could only promise to expedite the siege, the subsequent massacre and the enemy victory during the next recess.
Snacks were milk and cookies, milk and Ring Dings, milk and Scooter Pies. Some kids ate apples or bananas or oranges, their rancid odors pinching our nostrils, corrupting the experience of chocolate and sugar melting in our mouths. Mental notes were filed away: which houses to skip trick-or-treating on Halloween (the houses that later fell victim to vicious onslaughts of eggs, shave cream, and spray paint).
After snacks, most of us grumbled about the twenty-minute Rest Time. We retrieved our blankets from the vestibule and found places to spread them on the floor. Rest Time wasn’t Nap Time, Miss Elgar explained over our daily protests; no one was required to sleep, she reminded us, and yes, of course, she understood that none of us was even remotely tired. We could use the time, she suggested, to think of nice things to do for others: family, friends, or people with whom we might come in contact—a mailman, perhaps, or Darryl, the school custodian.
The fuzzy wool blankets itched if you wore no clothes, but for Rest Time we removed only our shoes, which we left in the compartments that held our blankets. My blanket was blue, my favorite color. I held it in both arms and pretended to look for a floor space while secretly watching where Miss Elgar chose to sit. When she sat, I’d find a place for my Rest Time that would afford an unobstructed view up her dress and between her knees. Her knees were fat, her thighs fatter. Against the wooden seat her thighs spread wide and flat, forced her knees apart, and squished softly together. You could imagine your hand up there, or your ears, lost in the thick fleshy rolls. At first, I would come to rest on my fuzzy wool blanket facing the direction away from Miss Elgar. If she sat at her desk, I faced the wall. If she sat at the wall, I faced the windows. Then, as the room grew quiet and everyone found their positions, I would turn to find her just a yard or two away. Sometimes I would look right into Miss Elgar’s chubby round face and it would smile. Miss Elgar liked me, I believed, because I was good with colors, the names of states, and the alphabet. When we did Dick and Jane, my hand was up as often as the fruit eaters’ hands. If she smiled, I would smile back. When she returned to her work, her knitting or reading or coloring, I would look between her legs, the dimples around her knees, the fleshy sacks of her thighs. Snaps fastened her stockings to her girdle. Flesh squished around the elastic. Sometimes she would rearrange the flesh where the elastic had dug in uncomfortable pink grooves. What would it feel like for Miss Elgar, I wondered, if lightly I trailed my fingers over those pink grooves?
Those were my targets, the things I always looked for, but when I found them, and even after I’d stared at them for some time, I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew I wanted to see it. I’d get a funny feeling before I looked, and even funnier when I looked. Eventually I came to understand that feeling as wanting something, wanting it bad, but not knowing exactly what that something was. Sometimes I lifted slightly at the waist and rested the bones of my pelvis against my palms. In the long slow moments before Miss Elgar announced the end of Rest Time, my heart thumped and my stomach felt hollow. And even though I grumbled along with the others at each afternoon’s announcement of Rest Time, I was always secretly disappointed when it was over.
One day my mother asked me if I liked kindergarten.
I told her it was okay. I told her about the Alamo, and how the girls were the Mexicans, and how some kids ate fruit at snack time.
“What about Nap Time?” Mom asked. She was ironing. From an ashtray at the edge of the ironing board, smoke climbed from the end of a Chesterfield. She smoked Chesterfields because their packs came with coupons she saved but never redeemed.
I told her that it wasn’t Nap Time, it was Rest Time, and that we were supposed to rest, not nap, but some of the kids, the kids who ate fruit, often fell asleep.
“What about Miss Elgar?” she asked.
I told her Miss Elgar didn’t take Rest Time, she was the teacher, but that she watched us when we did.
“No, of course,” she said, “but do you like her? Miss Elgar?”
I said, “She’s OK, I guess.”
“You don’t think she’s beautiful?”
“Beautiful? She’s fat!”
“And you don’t like her as, say, a girlfriend?”
I said, “A what?”
The next day, I spread out on my blanket and faced the direction opposite Miss Elgar. When the room grew quiet, I turned my head toward her fat fleshy knees. But she was gone. I craned my neck in every direction. I discovered her all the way behind me, behind my feet. She saw me looking. Did she see how confused I was? Did she see how disappointed? She folded her hands together like a prayer and tilted her cheek against them. She encouraged me to do the same.
Every Rest Time following I turned to face an empty chair. Never again was she seated where I could see her, see her fat white thighs grooved pink from the elastic garters.
The leaves fell and the drive-in closed for the season and when it got cold we remained inside and played games that I never really enjoyed. Later, it was not uncommon for me to be the last person to wake from Rest Time.
In first grade Rest Time was only ten minutes. Miss Thornhill wasn’t fat like Miss Elgar;
she was skinny, and her legs looked like the legs of a chicken. And she was old. Her skin looked tough, like a baseball glove left in the rain. She wore her hair in a braid pinned in a circle around her head. It looked like the scalloped edge of a Scooter Pie. When she sat at Rest Time, her thighs didn’t touch as far up her skirts as I could see. Maybe they came together at her neck.
In Kindergarten Miss Elgar taught us words. In first grade Miss Thornhill taught us how words went together. She taught us sentences. She taught us writing:
I must not
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