"A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato"
Like everywhere in America, school was an important part of our lives. The first through sixth graders in my neighborhood attended a small Catholic school a few blocks away.
The most valuable form of currency that kids could carry around in their pockets at Cristo Rey Elementary was an array of marbles. Every year with the coming of spring, the marble craze started up again and I was on my knees out on the playground with hordes of boys and a handful of girls drawing circles in the dirt.
“Hey, who’s in?” shouted Miguel as he traced a crude circle with an old tree branch.
“Me and Elvis,” answered Rudy as we came running up to the playground.
The goal was to knock your opponent’s marble out of a circle. If you did so, you claimed his marble. However, if your marble ended up inside of the circle, in an attempt to knock his out, you forfeited it.
“Okay, then,” said Miguel and he drew a line about 10 feet away from a circle he had just made.
“I’m shooting first,” he declared and he stuffed a plump, dirty hand into the front pocket of his jeans that was bulging with his stash. He carefully sorted through it until he found his lucky cat’s eye that always assured victory.
Just then, skinny Vincent came running up and begged, “Have you guys started yet? Come on, let me in the game.”
I looked at Miguel and he shrugged his shoulders indicating that Vincent was in. This is how it went day after day, recess after recess, all we could think about were marbles lost and won in the heat of mortal combat.
In another popular game, you could claim your opponent’s marble simply by hitting it with your own. This game could stretch all over the playground and sometimes lasted for hours. A more finesse type of competition consisted of drawing a line in the dirt with all of the competitors standing about ten feet away. We shot our marbles toward the line with the goal being to have our marble stop closest to the line without going past it. Whoever came closest won all of the marbles that had been shot during the game.
Some marbles were considered more valuable than others. Cat’s eyes were common fare unless they were a unique color. A “cleary” was valued more because of its transparent quality. “Boulders” were oversized marbles and considered quite desirable. A “steely” was made of shiny, silver metal and was identical to a ball bearing.
A common conversation you might hear on the playground sounded something like this:
“I’ll trade you two orange cat’s eyes for a cleary.”
No way! This cleary is rare, vato. Look at the color when you hold it up to the sun. It has blue streaks. I never saw one like it.”
“Okay, okay, then how about two orange cat’s eyes, and a boulder?” Check this one out man; it’s twice as big as the other boulders.”
“I don’t know ese. How about you throw in a steely?”
“No way! This is my lucky steely. I wouldn’t trade this for ten clearies.”
This type of bartering went on constantly and I’m sure that many future stock brokers could trace their beginnings to transactions such as these.
It seemed that there was always a new fad or craze sweeping our tiny elementary school. For a while, the big thing might be yo-yos. The kids who could make their yo-yo “sleep” or “go around the world” or “walk the dog” were greatly admired. As hard as I practiced, I could never enter into this exalted company. The next week, we might all come to school with hula hoops and begin holding competitions to see who could swing their hips the fastest and make the hula hoop roll around their waist the longest.
The swing set was an intense field of competition as well. A contestant’s goal was to swing as high as possible and at the height of the ascent, jump off and fly through the air further than anyone else. Daredevils measured their distance to determine the day’s champion. This game led to a fair share of skinned knees and even a few broken arms and ankles. However, reckless abandon took precedence over caution in our go-for-broke world of the playground.
I marveled at the girls who strapped their sweaters around the monkey bars and spun in circles at breakneck speed for amazing stretches of time without ever getting dizzy or sick. I couldn’t imagine how they did this, especially right after lunch.
The lunch hour at Cristo Rey was typical fare for our 100 or so students. The lunch room was a large, boxy pre-fab metal building with large windows. About 20 gray, Formica tables filled the room with cooks situated on the far end of the building behind shiny, steel counters with glass partitions.
We were herded in lines according to grade, with the first graders eating earliest and the sixth graders receiving their meals last. We began lunch by picking up brightly-colored plastic trays and silverware. Then we trekked to the next section for a napkin and a carton of milk. Finally, we approached the metal counters where lunch ladies heaped spoonfuls of steaming food onto our waiting trays that we slid along a smooth surface. At each food bin, a new lunch lady portioned out a helping from each of the USDA’s essential food groups.
There was always a main course that a particular day was named after. For example, Wednesdays were always “hamburger day” and Fridays were “fish day” due to the fact that as good Catholic children, we could not eat meat on Friday. Other days were randomly selected and given names like “pizza day” or “taco day.” The one day that I did not look forward to was “chef’s surprise day.” This usually meant that there was leftover food stuff that had to be used up before it went bad and it was combined into unrecognizable concoctions. Along with the main course, lunch consisted of a small, stale salad and a dessert choice of jello, a pale, yellow pudding, or hard, dark fudge.
Overall, the effect of this dining experience led to quite a few upset stomachs and kept the school janitor quite busy in the afternoon sprinkling his magical green flakes on the school floors which allowed him to incomprehensively sweep up vomit with a push broom and never even have to get on his knees to clean up the mess.
Perhaps the main culprit responsible for afternoon digestive problems was the merry-go-round. The inventor of this piece of recreational equipment had surely envisioned well-behaved, laughing children spinning around at a moderate speed with cooperation being the rule when fellow riders wanted to hop off or climb aboard. However, in reality this was not exactly how things worked at my school. The “unmerry-go-round” quickly became an instrument of sadism and torture. Especially for the biggest bully at Cristo Rey, a big, fat sixth grader named Eugene. He delighted in tormenting kids smaller and younger than himself, unfortunately this included just about everybody. One of his favorite pastimes was inflicting what he called “Indian sunburn.” He would grab his prey and force them to hold out an arm, then he would wring the screeching child’s wrist or sometimes forearm if it was a younger, smaller victim (he did not discriminate according to age or gender). The friction caused by this act that resembled opening the lid of a jar that was stuck, left a red, stinging welt and delighted Eugene to no end. He also was particularly fond of ears, especially in cold weather. A red, exposed ear was the perfect target for his vengeful forefinger that he flicked with the power of a steel spring. This inevitably sent the unfortunate soul into painful hysterics. His ringing laugh could be heard echoing across the playground. Whenever we heard this sound it was a signal that someone was suffering.
Eugene was the Marque de Sade of the merry-go-round. Unhappy victims who happened to be caught in the spiraling web of cold, hard steel were twirled around faster and faster until the merry-go-round was flying at warp speed with terrified, pleading passengers holding on for dear life, shutting their eyes, and hoping against hope that they would not lose their sweaty grip and go catapulting from the wheel of tears.
“Have you had enough yet?” he loved to ask his captive riders.
They pleaded “Yes, yes please stop!”
He would snort and reply, “Well, let me think about it. Nahh, I don’t like the way you asked me. Try it again and call me sir.”
“Please sir, stop, I think I’m getting sick!”
“That’s better but I still don’t feel like you really mean it.”
This usually went on for quite some time until Eugene got arm-weary or a child actually vomited and Eugene turned away in disgust. Where the nuns were who were supposed to be patrolling the playground while all this was happening was always a mystery. They always seemed to be hovering around whenever we were guilty of the slightest infraction but nowhere in sight when Eugene was committing mayhem.
Another cruel playground trick that was sure to illicit shrieks of laughter but thankfully was beneath Eugene’s dignity, was for one child to jump off his end of the teeter-totter when he reached the bottom of his descent, causing the victim on the other end who was at the top, to plummet to the ground with a startling impact that made sitting in a hard wooden desk an ordeal beyond description for the rest of the afternoon.
Aside from our juvenile inhumanity, our little school was idyllic in many ways. This did not mean that we were immune from the inevitable twists and turns of fate. For the majority of students at Cristo Rey, the passage of time was marked by a steady progression of grade levels and other signposts such as the baseball World Series or national events like NASA space flights and presidential elections. However, not everyone was fortunate enough to have such a carefree destiny.
One of my classmates was a vivacious, green-eyed girl with long, brown hair named Cindy Valdez. She was an extraordinary student in just about every way. The daughter of a dentist, she was perennially at the top of her class. She was sensitive and kind beyond her years. She led school book drives for poor children in Latin America, started a Cristo Rey Humane Society Chapter, and she was consistently her homeroom teacher’s right-hand assistant.
I had a secret crush on this radiant, pixie spirit but I was too shy to ever let on. Whenever I was around her, I became flustered and ran away as quickly as possible. However, I had my eye on Cindy and I found myself gazing in her direction often during warm spring afternoons.
I was surprised and a little concerned when during the winter of third grade, Cindy was absent from school for a couple of weeks. Every morning I would disappointedly scope out Cindy’s empty desk at the front of the room. I was too self-conscious to ask our teacher why Cindy had disappeared but I hoped she hadn’t moved away.
One morning about a month after Cindy had stopped coming to school, Sister Marion announced,
“I want you all to go to the art supply box and gather some construction paper, scissors, and crayons. We’re going to be making get-well cards for Cindy. She’s in the hospital and the cards will help cheer her up until she’s ready to return.”
I diligently went about the business of constructing a card. I abandoned my usual reserve and drew in a few hearts at the bottom. However, Cindy never came back to school that year. Life went on but every now and then I thought about Cindy and wondered about how she was doing.
After our summer vacation, we returned to school as fourth graders, top dogs, and we were filled with energy and anticipation. Brother Marvin was our new teacher and he was considered by students to be the best in the whole school. He stood in stark contrast to the strict, doleful nuns. His classes came alive with his cheerful, vibrant personality. He realized that children needed to move and be engaged in learning. His teaching method included lots of games, field trips, and classroom participation.
On our first day, Brother Marvin appeared somewhat somber as we walked into the classroom and selected our desks. After we had settled down, he asked us to bow our heads for a moment of silence.
He spoke in a deep and resonant voice:
“Dear Father, please bless us as we begin a new school year. Look over and protect us and always remind us of the perfection of your will. Let us never forget that our purpose is to worship and obey you and accept our destiny as part of your great plan.
Lord, bestow a special blessing on one of our own who passed away this summer after a courageous battle with cancer. Cindy Valdez has joined you to become one of your angels. Have mercy on her eternal soul. In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”
The class answered with a hushed “Amen.”
We sat in silence in stark contrast to the cocky exuberance we’d displayed a few moments earlier. I felt a hard lump in my throat as I sat trying to gather my bewildered thoughts and emotions.
I couldn’t understand.
“How could Cindy be gone?”
She was too full of life, too real, too much a part of my reality. I could see this happening somewhere else or even to someone else, but Cindy? It wasn’t possible. She did everything right. She was better at everything than any of us. People like Cindy didn’t die!
The day proceeded and we gradually shook off our grief and shock and engaged ourselves in the excitement of being fourth graders. However, the feeling was bittersweet. For a long time, I thought about Cindy. Every day I half-expected her to walk into the classroom and laugh the way she used to with her sparkling green eyes and tell us it was all a big joke.