Because I Was Eight
...because I was eight
Walking down the school halls, I see them look at me, the girls snickering and giggling, hushing to a quiet, coquettish smile only at the point of passing by me.
I am eight years old and I want to fit in.
The boys point from a distance, snickering with tones of gamesmanship and one-upmanship, with no efforts made towards subtlety when walking past me.
I am eight years old and I want to be invisible.
It is March 1985 and I've spent my Monday morning preening for school, making sure what is left of my bangs are feathered just right and my socks are folded with precision so that the trim of the lace meets the tops of my white Converse shoes. My ruffled socks will never make me as feminine as my older sister. My Converse shoes will never make me as athletic as my older brothers. My entire foot ensemble will never compliment my white stubby legs that stick out from my favorite white and blue striped dress from Ross.
I am eight years old and I want to be somebody, anybody.
Walking the halls of Sellers Elementary School, I head back to my third-grade classroom in this homogeneous suburb that sits on the edge of diverse Los Angeles County in an even more diverse state of California. Reagan is in office. I have the privilege of growing up in this white, wealthy suburb where people appear friendly and I should be basking in the waterfall of trickle-down economics. But lunch was too long. The snickering got louder and teachers kept their distance.
I am eight years old and I want to feel safe.
Safety on this school day comes in the form of a public school classroom with an odd bird as a teacher. Mrs. Iddings is 5"10". She dons a light brown Bob Ross man-fro. She tries to blend in with the classroom, her skirts and shoes always sporting hues of brown and beige. I should rethink my white and blue dress.
I am eight years old and I am thankful my teacher is a distraction.
Mrs. Iddings oscillates in teaching styles. Today, she begins in front of the class, the blackboard her background, multiplication tables filling the front wall.
Thankful for the break from awkward encounters with students and teachers alike, I dive into my workbook, smiling with delight as my recent one-on-one tutoring has resulted in my conquering equation after equation, factorial after factorial.
Lost in my work, I am brought back to my eight-year-old, no-better-than-average senses with an excited screech as bad as fingernails on a chalkboard, that of a stiff metal school desk on a cold linoleum floor.
I didn’t notice my classmates' reactions as they passed my desk. But now I catch every last glance, sneer, and snicker as I belatedly join my class in the back of the room at the puppet theatre.
When not speaking in a booming voice from the front of the classroom, or helping us practice self-discipline by “sleeping” at her desk and expecting us to quietly work without tattling on her unprofessional transgressions, Mrs. Iddings teaches burgeoning writers and historians through the mouths of puppets from behind a handcrafted, wood playhouse.
I am eight years old and I am really thankful for the distraction that is Mrs. Iddings. Really.
Unfortunately, eyes do not remain on the majesty of puppetry. No, the snickering escalates because our teacher is in her own world.
I am eight years old and I wish I could shapeshift into a shag carpet.
The volume comes to a crescendo when a second-grade teacher bursts into the classroom. Without hesitation, she marches to where James Sullivan sits and pulls him out of the classroom by the ear.
The entire classroom, barring the much engaged Mrs. Iddings, scurries out of room 306, following Mrs. Carter down the concrete hallway into an open doorway.
I am eight years old and I am part of something!
Drama, excitement, adrenaline.
Wait. I am in the middle of a boys bathroom with my entire third-grade class, my former second-grade teacher, and James Sullivan who is still being held by the ear.
Why am I in a boys bathroom? I don't know and I am not sure I even care. I am lost in the crowd and everyone is looking at Mrs. Carter and James Sullivan. Not me.
We are looking at a bathroom stall wall.
Beside James Sullivan, on the stall wall, etched out for eternity, reads the fresh graffiti:
Karen's Face Returns
How did we get here? How did I get here?
It’s January 1985, my family and I are just finishing our first family trip. Breakfasts are spent playing Keno at a buffet style casino restaurant and days are spent graduating from bunny slopes to greater feats. Lake Tahoe has everything an eight-year-old or aging portly man could want.
At the crack of dawn, the wood-paneled station wagon is packed. Blankets, pillows, cards, and Mad Libs are spread out in the back for the umpteen hours of driving ahead of us. Kids file in, first my older brothers, then my older sister and I in the seats directly behind our parents.
I don't know how quickly I doze off. I do know that I fall asleep using my Teddy Ruxpin-like bear as a pillow wedged up against the window. I also know that I wake up about two weeks later while being rolled on a gurney onto a helicopter that flies me from St. Mary's Hospital in Reno, Nevada to the Los Angeles Children's Hospital.
Mid-way on our ride down the mountain two weeks earlier, a young doctor, just coming off a 24-hour shift, fell asleep at the wheel. My father spotted the car driving erratically and swerved to avoid the truck.
Unfortunately, the doctor, with much precision, hit our car in the exact spot where my teddy bear was acting as a pillow to my fragile head. My mother scanned the scene. My dad was shaken but ok. My sister was in shock but not seriously injured. My brothers were tossed around in the back, but apparently, a copious amount of linens work as good as seatbelts in the old wood-paneled wagons.
My mother then hoisted herself up to look at me directly behind the passenger seat. She jumped over, grabbed a pillow, and held my head together.
Thanks to the wealthy that had car consoles that doubled as car phones. Thanks to the medical team in the helicopter that lifted me from the side of the mountain to the operating room of St. Mary's Hospital. And thanks to the neurosurgeon who visited my hospital bedside daily for the two weeks that I was in a coma, yelling at me to squeeze his hand goddamnit.
I continued in hospitalized recovery for another 5 weeks.
The damage: Collar bone broken, upper and lower jawbones broken, tracheotomy needed inserting, skull fracture, minor brain damage (who really even uses the whole thing anyway), a face held together with subdermal wiring and an eye sewn shut in hopes of recovering eyesight.
I am eight years old and I am hanging on for dear life.
Returning home I go to physical therapy and a private tutor to help me sharpen my fine motor skills and to catch up on what I’ve missed.
Until Sunday, March 10th, 1985.
I decide, why should I have to stay home? Why should I have to learn new subjects all by myself? I want to go back to school. I want to return to normal life.
My parents are out by the pool, enjoying the warm sunny Spring day while I was inside thumbing through the phone book, locating my tutor's phone number.
"Mrs. Collins? Yes, this is Karen McKernan."
"Yes, dear. What is it?"
"Um, Mrs. Collins, I am just calling because my parents and I have decided that I am ready to go back to school. We thank you for helping me get to this point, but tomorrow I will be returning to school."
I'm not clear how the phone call ends. But, I am eight. So, I am sure it’s something like, "Um, ok bye."
I am eight years old and I might tell a white lie now and then.
After dinner, I help clean up dishes when the phone rings. My tutor calls my mom and congratulates her on our joint decision to return to school.
"Yes, how brave of her," I hear my mom say. Hanging up the phone, my mom continues cleaning up from dinner. I keep my mouth shut and help clean up dishes. My mom eventually says, "So you're going to school tomorrow." Was that a question? "Yes, I am going to school tomorrow," I respond emphatically.
...Shivering, I remember being in the middle of a boys bathroom. All eyes now shifting from the graffiti to me, back to the graffiti.
I am eight years old and I'd settle for shapeshifting into a grey bathroom stall wall.
"Mr. James Sullivan, we will have none of this at Sellers Elementary School." Mrs. Carter, still holding James by the ear, startled us all. "There is nothing for any of us to see here."
We followed, meeting Mrs. Iddings halfway back to the classroom.
James did not return to class...
Today is my second day back at school. I've learned James will not be back. The snickering, whispering, and pointing has stopped.
But life is not back to normal. I still have a partially shaved head, a tracheotomy coming out of my neck, and more scars than freckles on my face. But, I am number one in math.
Courage can manifest itself in simple ways, be it walking to class on your second day back.
Was my head held high? Who knows. Most importantly, I put one foot in front of the other.