There are all kinds of punishments for children. Excuse me - corrective measures, positive discipline, incentives. Back in the 60s where I come from, we called it like it was: Punishment. Sitting in the corner, going to bed without dinner, writing “I will not throw spit wads in class” 100 times on the black board, washing your mouth out with soap, missing the Thursday night 8:30 PM to be continued episode of Star Trek (oh man!), even a belt across your backside - all culturally acceptable and highly effective forms of punishment for errant children. I was even paddled by the school principal with a ping pong paddle for being tardy.
I told him I was always late because my mom took my brother to private school before dropping me off (his form of ‘punishment’ for being adverse to public school standards), and I was too little to ride my bike to school. But instead of paddling my mom, Mr. Sands turned me over his knee. I couldn’t wait for second grade to be over with so I could ride my bike to school and be on time! Life’s lessons were often a ritualized endurance of the confusing consequences for getting in trouble.
There were some activities that should have merited punishment, but didn’t. It wasn’t my idea to put salt on the snails that crept innocently out on silver trails from the English ivy patch, but once my brother showed me the cool results, I was an active participant. The terrific bubbling and frothing that instantly ensued was boss. The gruesome casualties of our salty campaign littered the white concrete of our long driveway with sad, empty shells and miserably liquified bodies apart from them. Why we never considered what was being experienced on the snail’s end of things, is regrettable.
We (a loose term for my older brother, the neighbor kid Eric, and yours truly) clipped intricate tunnels in and out of the dense
oleander hedge that bordered the street, leaving a flap of outside branches to cleverly conceal the labyrinth inside. Next, munitions were carefully selected; cumquats nearly fully ripe are heavy enough to throw with considerable force and accuracy for significant distances. Biting the end of the fruit just before the throw was our equivalent of lock and load. If the cumquat was a little more ripe than usual, then the bite was like pulling the pin on a grenade. The splat upon impact was truly beautiful. Our target was the passing automobile. Any car would do. The obvious flaw in our battle strategy was the fact that Jellico Avenue was hardly well-traveled. It was very rare that any car would pass, and even rarer still that it would be someone we didn’t know. Apparently we didn’t think about that, either.
As the only girl in the corps, I was often assigned hazardous duty. This worked swell for the boys, because I was too young to realize I was being manipulated, and too eager to be one of the guys to notice the gross inequality of it. It was 1966, two whole years before the infamous ‘burning bra’ incident after the Miss America contest. I didn’t know I was being suppressed! So out I went, exposed in the street as the “look-out”. Once I alerted the happy crew to an approaching car, we assumed battle station positions within our oleander fortress. Pelting the unsuspecting car with a furious flurry of half-mutilated cumquats was ridiculously rewarding.
One day I dutifully emerged from the hedge to sound the “all clear”, but saw tail lights flash instead. The victim was backing up at a rapid rate, and we were without a contingency plan! I screamed warning and my fellows in arms quickly abandoned me. I flew across our front lawn after them, into the back yard past the garage and the woodpile and hopped the six foot chain link fence in my bare feet as if on wings. We all huddled in Eric’s old barn and breathlessly waited. After some time had elapsed, we guiltily ventured back to the scene of the crime. The target car was gone. But so was my brother’s brand new baseball bat he had left on the lawn. He couldn’t complain about it though, because it would expose our crime. A crime for a crime. He wept bitter tears. It seemed justice had been served, as much as we wished he hadn’t been required to give up his precious bat.
Other crimes were not as easily defined. I was messy.
My bedroom was a disaster zone. It took me forever to find stuff. Unfortunately, the difficulty in locating things correlated exactly to the degree to which I didn’t want to do something else related to it - such as go to school. Therefore, I was often the cause of insanely frustrating searches at the last minute for a book report, a library book or my envelope with the field trip money for my teacher. I tried to get my beagle Lucky to search and point, but he was pretty useless, and apparently not all that lucky, either. My mother was tired of a 5th grader who couldn’t find her school shoes.
The slippers were a Christmas gift. I think. They were not important. They were PINK. And fuzzy. Super fuzzy. Sluffing stupidly along in them was beyond awkward for the very reason of the afore-mentioned fuzziness. It felt like trying to walk with giant Hostess Marshmallow Snowballs on my feet - which would have been preferable; at least you can eat a Hostess Snowball. For a little girl who climbed trees and played army and tied strings to a June bug’s leg to see it fly in a circle, pink, fuzzy slippers were not very high on the list of ‘must haves’.
If I had to wear anything on my feet, it had better be rubber-soled Keds. Y’know, the run faster jump higher kind.
I knew the kid that was on one of the t.v. commercials, honest! You never got to see his face though, which was pretty disappointing. He did all the running and jumping required all right, and lots of close-ups of his amazing bright red Keds, but it ended up being some weird, hyper-active headless torso. I think even back then I had a knack for marketing. I definitely would have recommended that effort feature the kid’s head at least once.
One morning, after the customary search for my shoes was a bust, my mom ordered me into the car wearing the only thing I did have an even-steven pair of - the hideous pink, fuzzy Christmas slippers. This was certain death for a girl who already had too many things going against her: I could fit a nickel between my front teeth, I had freckles, and I was the very last girl picked for square dancing every Friday afternoon. No amount of tears or begging or dramatic conniptions could alter the course of fate; there would be sweet, pink vengeance for my mother, and it would be today. She practically had to kick me out of the Impala station wagon once we were alongside the curb next to the Lorne Street School bike racks. My heart was in my throat. I could see my entire class lined up outside our bungalow. For whatever reason, Mr. Lavin was uncharacteristically late letting them in. And now, just for good measure, I was forced to approach them wearing my pink, fuzzy slippers.
I was out in the open. The enemy was aware of my offensive approach, and they were prepared to receive me. Their laughter echoed between the buildings and carried across the four-square courts to my mortified self They pointed, the kids in the front of the line elbowing the kids in the back until everyone turned and leaned out of line to get a good, long look. Grimly, I trudged on - my school books pressed to my chest, two skinny little chicken legs underneath my drop-waist dress, and the hated slippers fuzzing out cheerfully at the end of my knee socks. I don’t remember if later in the school day my mom brought me my shoes, or if I had to wear the damn slippers for the entire day. It doesn’t matter anymore.
All I do remember for sure is that my closet was always clean and organized after that. And we never threw fruit at our neighbors again, and I think we imposed extinction on the local snail population, which pleased my dad.
The following year I would turn eleven and my mom would take me to the orthodontist and I would face my classmates wearing an ugly headgear, the style with the single band at the back of the neck. I had agreed to wearing it 24/7 because it would drastically decrease time with bands on my teeth. My first night wearing it hurt so bad I cried myself to sleep. I couldn’t eat anything but soup for a number of days. But this was one conflict I would not withdraw from. I was thankful to be getting braces, thankful to be done with my buck teeth I could fit a nickel in between. After the slippers, I felt rather untouchable to the taunts and jeers of kids at school about my very attractive headgear.
I endured. I pretended I was a horse - my favorite animal of all time - and my nasty headgear was sort of a bit and bridle. In my mind I galloped majestically away from the stupid boys who said stupid things, and the mean girls who encouraged them.
Finally, in 7th grade and after what seemed like a life-time of anticipation and always being outside the popular crowd, the day arrived for my braces to be removed. The suffering was over - I was elated! My teeth were perfect! I ran my tongue across them. I bit them gingerly together - testing the occlusion. I looked at my reflection with my mouth open and closed. I could have cried, I was so happy. Everything about me seemed wonderfully different. I couldn’t wait to get back to school after my momentous final appointment with partially deaf Dr. Moffitt.
At the lunch table under the tree by the art room where I met my friends, I tried to act natural and wait for their reaction when they noticed I didn’t have the braces anymore. It took longer than I thought. What seemed screaming, front page news to me was indistinguishable to them. They chatted away, eating balogna or tuna sandwiches and draining their thermos each of cold milk. Finally, and a little disappointed, I had to point it out. “Look!” I said, smiling broadly. “See anything different?” A couple of friends were surprised they hadn’t noticed, and commented approvingly. Things were looking up. Until Mary interjected her two cents. I don’t even know why she was at our table, anyway. She was’t part of our usual lunch group. She was one of nine kids, and tough. “Your teeth look bigger. Too big,” she said. I explained it just appeared that way because the silver bands were not covering them up anymore. “No,” she insisted, louder, “that’s not it. Your teeth are just huge. You look ridiculous. And it’s annoying how you are opening your mouth and smiling a lot on purpose just to show us your big teeth.”
There should be a punishment for that.