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First Grade Fail


July 25, 2013 by Andy Lester

As a direct cause of a boy mercilessly teasing his sister, he loses a prized possession, only to regain it through an unwarranted kindness leaving him with a lifelong sense of rationalized guilt.

As a first grader in Queens, New York I pleaded with my mother to buy me this awesome cap – a grey newsboy style with a brim, like the tough kids of the Bowery wore. It was expensive and a sacrifice for our family because we were far from well-off in our basement apartment but somehow the money was found. Strutting around the schoolyard, “too cool for school” I knew I could be important and led the charge in teasing my sister, who was two years older than me and idolized Mary Tyler Moore. We’d all watch the show as a family and I knew she loved Mary. I began to mimic her hero in the opening sequence when Mary twirled and tossed her hat in the air – and sing, “Who can turn the world on with a smile…” then spin and throw my own cap in the air, kicking up my heels. I had no clue how ridiculous I looked and sounded, “Who can take a nothing date, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?” and yes, I had the lyrics wrong – it’s “a nothing day”, not “date”. Too bad, because it was pretty cool of Mary Tyler Moore to go easy on a guy who might be a “nothing date”. My sister would walk away and I would follow, stand near her in the school yard singing and tossing “Well it’s you girl and you should know it, with each glance and every-little-movement, you show it“. Spinning and flinging, “Love is all around…” and more kids would gather at the spectacle. Loud and brash I sang louder “You’re going to make it… after all…” wait for it – and with a flick of my hand, I tossed my cap skyward – nothing but air!

The warning bell rang and I gloated at having ruined morning recess for my sister. With the last toss, the cap went up and… it never came down. Looking up I saw it disappear from sight. For me, it may as well have been an alien abduction into outer space because the roof was just as far away. A wave of hot fell over me like a jaundiced breath in my seven year old face and I felt desperation. Having to say “I lost it” when a special sacrifice was made so I could get the grey, tweed newsboy cap – was not – anything I could imagine. My jaw trembled and it sunk in that I would be caught – the teasing and the throwing. The nuns would probably make me re-enact it in front of the school. It would be on my “permanent record”. As the schoolyard emptied I stood, looking up at the Catholic bricks and felt sick. The late bell rang. My expression was when your face is all screwed up like a nut and you know you’re going to cry. It was over. I sat down and twisting my palms into the pavement, scraped the heels of my hand to get my cap back. The dirt on my reddened palms looked surreal. Two large 6th grade boys approached me, “Kid you better get inside unless you want detention. Hey, what’s the matter?” “My hat went on the roof – I can’t lose my hat”. It was only a hat now. The boys said “Where?” I pointed without making eye contact. The two exchanged a nod and one crouched and clasped his hands while the other stepped right up onto his hands, then shoulders and the next thing he was on the flat roof! “Hey kid, is this is it?” He held up a silhouette and against the beautiful sun was the cap from the movies. I was raised up as the Samaritan Spiderman tossed it down to me. I didn’t catch it but scrambled to retrieve it and gratefully thanked the boys. What just happened? The boys felt bad for me and helped me when I didn’t deserve it. Now, I felt happy but oddly, only on my skin. What was this feeling? It was guilt. I felt excited and energized and powerful when I was getting the better of my sister who was smarter, older and got to do more stuff. I felt scared and horrible when my cap went on the roof. I got lucky but I had no idea why, or how long the nagging feeling of “You Owe Something” would last.

Did I learn something? Yes. It’s not cool to be really mean to your sister. Did I stop? Not for a while.

Later, when the sibling smoke cleared and the wall came down but before we were both forty, my sister told me that as far as bratty brothers go, she had commiserated with her friends often and admitted to me that she had been the envy of one particular friend. This was because “At least when he picks on you, he’s creative and funny – my brother is just mean”.

Wow. I felt pretty good about that, but only on my skin.

Did I mention my first crush was on Mary Tyler Moore and I never wear hats?

Nice shot, Karma.


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