It wasn't long, however, before I was on the road to passably functional socialization. We were all only five years old, so we hadn't learned to hate each other yet. We were rather undiscriminating. Everybody was included in everything and everybody got along. Even when Craig Locante crapped his pants or Matthew MacNevin threatened to blow snot at the girls (he had some sort of medical condition that made him produce phlegm by the bucket load), the incident was soon forgotten and life went on just as before. It was inclusiveness in its truest form.
Even though I demonstrated no natural stage presence or dramatic prowess whatsoever, I was allowed, along with everybody else, to participate in the class play about the four food groups. I was at first dismayed after being assigned to the complex carbohydrates. Bread seemed so dreary, and I really wanted to be in the meat/protein group, which was led by a butcher played by John Rutledge?the funniest person I knew, and on whom I had a massive crush. The leaders of the respective groups?besides the butcher there was a baker, green grocer and dairy maid?were the only real speaking parts. I was much relieved I had been passed over on that count, what with all the added stress. Another benefit of being a lesser company member, as it were, was that I could be whatever food I wanted as long as it qualified as a complex carb. My spirits were greatly lifted upon learning that birthday cake was, indeed, a starch?especially since I thought of the idea first. And so my role was determined. My sole line was, "I am a birthday cake," so I had plenty of time to plan out my costume. On my own birthdays I usually got an ersatz Pepperidge Farm cake in a box. It was flat, brown and square?dumpy and inelegant. It was with this model in mind that I planned my costume. I would be everything that Pepperidge Farm was not.
The show came off splendidly. Some of the kids had quite ornate costumes. John Rutledge wore a real apron and had a plastic hamhock with which he conked himself on the head, knocking himself clear off the stage. All the parents roared with laughter and my heart was won.
My costume was in a completely different class from John's. In my family we had a longstanding tradition: the no-nonsense brown paper bag costume. My dad cut a hole for my head in the top of a Star Market grocery bag, and two on the sides for my arms. I was given crayons, tempera paints, buttons, dry macaroni and a bottle of Elmer's Glue, and then, with Tom Lehrer spinning merrily on my record player, I was put to work. I don't have a precise recollection of what my birthday-cake costume looked like. I only remember that it was made by this quaint fabrication method, the prominent element of which was a shopping bag.
But I'll never forget the glory. There on the stage, I stood apart from the other complex carbohydrate members: crackers, spaghetti and other drab products. I radiated in my splendor from beneath a blaze of candy-striped candles, a gigantic triple-layer yellow cake with pink fluffy frosting, glimmering sprinkles and those tiny silver sugarballs. I barely remembered the stage directions, so I huddled with the baker and our group and, when the time came, diligently introduced myself to the gathering of adults who watched the show from down below on metal folding chairs. And then, as abruptly as it had begun, the spectacle was over.
Times change. The four food groups have been usurped by the USDA's hierarchical schematic, the "Food Pyramid." I even understand that show and tell?besides arts and crafts, my favorite part of public education?has gone the way of the buffalo. A few years ago my friend told me that her five-year-old son had come home from school babbling about something called show 'n' share. I was stunned. Share what? When I was a child, show and tell was about telling. It was an opportunity to get up on the old soapbox and say it like it was. It was wasn't about them, it was about you?your relics, your nonsequiturs.
Even back in the day I was mildly long-winded and fond of spinning a yarn or two, jabbering a blue streak about the oddities of my existence. There were no apologies for not sharing. In show and tell your material had to merit undivided attention. If a presentation was spicy enough, you earned the spotlight.
In Ms. Schlemmer's fourth-grade class, Simon Aronowitz held court over one of the more compelling show-and-tell sessions that I can remember. It happened after he returned from a brief, unexplained absence from school. It seems that Simon's grandfather was a supermarket mogul and that a few days before, both his grandparents had been kidnapped and held for ransom. Simon was one of those asthmatic, gangly children. He had insisted on playing classical guitar in the orchestra, so we had to let him sit with us and share our score in the violin section. (I always wondered why he bothered?his plinking didn't make a damn bit of difference. His show-and-tell presentation was a great success. With eyes on full volume like a couple fried eggs, he gave us the kidnapping's blow by blow, which culminated with the gruesome murder of his grandparents, thus fulfilling the spellbound class' greatest expectations.
While show and tell was more or less free-form?a wonderful forum for pushing the envelope?there were limits. On a number of occasions I had my props confiscated. I once brought in some old bottles and vials I had excavated in the back of my father's secretary's yard. Some of the bottles actually still contained corroded and mealy turn-of-the-century pills that I thought the class would find interesting. The teacher, afraid I'd be tempted to pop them during school, promptly sent my visual aids down to Ms. Tennelly in the principal's office.
Another time I was going to present a samurai sword that my grandfather, who was a major in the Marines during WWII, had poached off some or other battlefield or dead body or something. But the teacher caught wind of the plan and put an end to it. My whoopee cushion, rubber vomit, pig hat and other Jack's Joke Shop paraphernalia were routinely taken away from me. Quite mysteriously, I was not prevented from entertaining my classmates with a motley assortment of blue jays and robins mangled by my cat, Flora, which I brought in for discussion. But before I could present them, the beasts unceremoniously passed away in their wicker basket.
Indeed, throughout my schooling, amidst all the claptrap, clodhoppers, authoritarian posturing and illogical mandates, loopholes were aplenty. Twisted and misfit moments always manage to leak into even the most controlled environments. The order and disorder of school had no rhyme or reason, and I never knew when I'd be squeezing isdom from one of life's closeout moments, or when a bit of learning was going to jump out from behind a corner?wham!
Sometimes it takes decades to sort through all the garbage. My education in the real world continues. I march forward into the eye of the lunacy.