My kindergarten classmates were disorderly and rambunctious, and the wildest of all was my friend Donnie Beck. Even before we entered kindergarten in 1962, Donnie and I were best friends – full-fledged, pinky-swear pals. Because our mothers were lifelong friends, each other’s maid and matron of honor, we thought we should be eternal comrades, too.
Donnie and I made our pinky-swear while crouching under the back porch at my house. In its murky, spider-webbed utopia, Donnie and I found our special place. We jumped forward to yell, “Boo” at the people coming up or down the steps, but mostly we told ghost stories and made up bizarre tales about faraway lands. Donnie and I shared an eager, but perhaps disturbing imagination.
At school, Donnie and I stuck together like the proverbial glue. However, in about twenty minutes, we would witness an event that would shape our lives forever and send us in separate directions. The dark affair would affect all 41 kindergartners at St. Mark’s school, but none as much as Donnie.
Miss Lynda blew the two-minute-warning whistle on the playground as the sun throbbed high overhead. Lynda liked being the whistle-blower; it suited her strict, military style of discipline in controlling her flock of five-year-olds. Two minutes from the warning sound, she would herd us inside to do the “Pick-Up Dance” for end-of-day cleanup.
We called Miss Lynda “Miss Beach Ball.” She was easily twice the size of a normal woman, with Michelin-man rolls of fat on her arms and legs, and one thick tire-tube roll that suggested breasts. Her face sunk into dimples like a hog’s face, with the four chins of an Italian opera singer. An ebony forest of peach-fuzz covered her jaw and upper lip. It didn’t help that she “wasn’t one for fixin’ herself up for company,” as my Daddy said. Uncombed poofs of black hair ended in a banner of frizz over her apple-round body. Lynda buckled strappy white-leather sandals over elephantine ankles and wore a wide, flowery tent-dress – polyester, of course, the latest miracle fabric.
Once I heard Mom say, “Bless her heart, she’ll never marry.”
The kids made jokes about Miss Lynda rolling down a hill like a beach ball, bouncing off boulders and crashing at the bottom. Pretending we were her, we played the game “Look Out Below!” when rolling down the hill on the playground’s side yard.
It was a Tuesday and a sweltering day in East Tennessee, 92 degrees and 87 percent humidity. Sweat from Miss Lynda’s upper lip rolled into her mouth and seeing the liquid salt on its path, I tasted the grit of the liquid salt myself. As I watched, Lynda caught the eye of young Charlene, a temporary teacher who didn’t always follow kindergarten rules. Lynda motioned as if to say, “I’m going in.” Then, not caring who it was, she called the kid standing closest to her.
“Donnie!” she cried. He tried to avoid her eyes, but she waved him forward. Donnie cringed and began a slow walk to our fat, sweaty teacher. None of us liked her, especially her way of talking to us, as if we were soldiers. Too much marching. Not just strict, Miss Lynda could be flat-out mean.
“Come with me, Donnie. The two of us will get started early,” she said. With her pudgy hands on both of Donnie’s shoulders, she turned him to the door and propelled him forward. She whispered in Donnie’s ear and I became suspicious. Though I wished I could have gone inside with them, to “supervise,” I ran around the building to the one window with a view of the playroom. On this hot day, the window was open and four fans blew.
Miss Lynda laughed on the way in as if she was trying to joke with Donnie. Donnie’s scowl made it obvious he wasn’t interested in joking with fat Miss Lynda, even though it appeared she was in a good mood. She suggested a cleanup game. “To make it more fun,” she said.
A suspicious-looking Donnie asked, “What game?”