Clutching My Buster Browns
My first real memories are of love – well actually love and deception. When I say real memories I am referring to the kind of events that you can recall like a movie and not just a snapshot; you know, a recollection of emotions, images, and characters that move and change across a certain span of time – often unfolding against some tumultuous and/or historic backdrop. Think Gone with the Wind. Okay, now stop thinking Gone with the Wind, because for me this particular span of time was a measly few years that started on my first day of Kindergarten – a September morning in 1968 – and ended before I finished elementary school. The tumultuous and/or historic backdrop? Pre-pubescence. Wait. Now that I think about it, I shouldn’t completely downplay all comparison to Margaret Mitchell’s classic romance. After all, my narrative here is also focused on a heart-wrenching love story, and, if I tell it just right, there will also be a sweeping, destructive flame before it’s over.
(*Note to self: “A Sweeping Destructive Flame” might actually be a better title for this blog.)
Callahan Elementary had two Kindergarten classrooms. I stood alone outside room #2 and watched as my Best Friend’s mom said goodbye to him outside of room #1. My BF and his mom were neighbors of ours and she had offered to bring us to school on our very first day – which I’m sure was a great help to my mother who was working at the time. As I looked longingly on, I remember feeling a great deal of concern because my BF was crying. His mom did what she could to help calm his fear, but eventually she went away and my BF disappeared into room #1 with his teacher. I wanted more than anything to go with him, but my teacher, Mrs. King, called me into room #2 where I was instructed to sit “Indian style” on the floor, surrounded by a bunch of kids I didn’t know.
“I want everyone who’s five years old to raise their hand,” Mrs. King requested. The soft tone of her voice well matched her caring face.
I watched as little hands rose up into the air all around me. Some rose quickly, and others more tentatively, as budding personality types began to emerge. Before long, every child in the room had one arm reaching toward the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. Every child, that is, except for me. It was only early September and I wouldn’t officially turn five until late November. Curses! I was only four and three quarters.
In retrospect, in our area of the San Fernando Valley in the late 1960s there was probably very little to differentiate the homogenous litter of Kindergarteners that I was in that day. We were likely all cut from a very similar socio-economic cloth, and that cloth was unmistakably white. With only one question from the teacher, however, it became a room divided. On one side: a wide-eyed pack of pale five-year-olds, with one hand raised high in the air. On the other side: one heartsick four-and-three-quarters-year-old, with both hands still clutching his Buster Browns. The discomfort of feeling set apart must have been too much to bear, because before I could help myself – I raised my hand too.
“Jimmy…?” Mrs. King’s careful inflection was elongated, and her soft tone now stretched dangerously close to accusatory. “You’re not five, are you?”
Crap. If I were writing a screenplay, this is where the camera would do that funky zoom effect, you know, where everything around me goes rushing by in a swoosh, and I’m left alone in an awkward, dizzy close-up.
Slowly I brought my hand back down, but the damage was done. Just like that I’d been caught. Singled out. Every pair of five-year-old eyes in room #2 was turned on me. And they all knew. I was different. And maybe worse – I had been caught trying to pretend that I wasn’t.
At this point in the love story, I need to make clear that I was reared in the epic, Disney, cartoon romance era when every princess had a prince. With that in mind, it should not be so surprising that the following October – still not quite five-years-old – I convinced my parents to let me dress up as Cinderella for Halloween. Honestly, my memory of the costume request, and the trick-or-treating that followed, is not as clear as other sections of the narrative, but there is a picture that has survived. It’s a snapshot of me in a short, blue, puffy, crinoline dress with cap sleeves, and a multi-looped string of plastic pearls. In the photograph, I’m standing in our living room next to my older sister who is sporting a mustache and dressed as a pirate. The gender bending that Hollow’s Eve would have made Shakespeare proud, and the smile on my heavily blushed face is unmistakably genuine, so my guess is that it was a good night all in all.
So the two principal players are cast: a four-year-old, wanna be, drag princess, and his five-year-old, BF, neighbor. Like many a great and timeless love story, however, this one is headed for a not so fairy tale ending.