On the George Washington Bridge Project: Adventures in Fifth-Grade Despair and Redemption

26Feb09

In which The Gay Recluse becomes increasingly obsessed with the George Washington Bridge.

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My fifth grade teacher, Mr. W, was a large, macho man with a mustache and a tight perm. (You could actually be macho and have a perm in 1978.) He liked to aggressively talk about boys and girls “dating” and “kissing,” and professed his intention to treat us “like adults,” which all bothered me for reasons I couldn’t quite ascertain. (Beyond the fact that this was the first year we were going without recess.) He wore lots of cologne and had a big butt he covered with shiny black polyester-blend dress pants and thick, wide shoulders and a hairy chest he stuffed into wide-collared dress shirts. He seemed very stupid to me — he couldn’t spell “recipe” — and considered himself a “disciplinarian,” which meant that he liked to yell at the class a lot, if say, he surprised us with a quiz and (most) everyone failed or if people hadn’t done the reading. I’m not sure why I took it personally: I always did every scrap of homework, was one of the fastest runners in my grade — this counted for a lot among students and faculty — and was always at or near the top of my class in every subject. I had also played hockey for six years by this point, too, so it wasn’t like I was a stranger to large, macho men who yelled a lot. But I knew I hated him, and — though I could barely understand this at the time — it seemed like there was only solution to my problem: I needed to kill myself.

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Because I was only ten at the time, and like some junior-varsity version of Harold — I had seen the movie — I wasn’t exactly adept at the art of suicide. For example, I spent an hour or so after school one day cutting the top of my wrist instead of the bottom, which only resulted in a nasty gash I covered with a band-aid or two and which eventually scarred over without too much difficulty. (When my mother asked about it, I explained that I had cut myself by accident on a rock while running through the leaves.) One night after watching Fantasy Island and Love Boat I decided to drink the cleaning supplies, but I couldn’t manage more than a sip before I relented and returned to bed, where I liked to stay up late reading Lord of the Rings or maybe Dune. I secretly wrote long suicide notes in red pen encouraging all of my (much older) siblings to follow their dreams and become famous and — for those who played hockey — to “go Division 1.” I reassured my parents that none of this was their fault.

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For their part, my parents didn’t know what to do with me. Later I found out that they arranged meetings with the principal and the hated teacher himself, both of whom seemed very perplexed given that I was basically a model student who gave them no real problems to speak of (except for a crazy, desperate mother who was in their faces at these meetings, presenting them with a vision of her son that had nothing to do with the kid they knew). We didn’t have grades at this point, but I had never received an “unsatisfactory” in any of the fifty-thousand or so categories that made up our quarterly report cards.

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I managed to survive to Christmas, when all of my siblings descended for a few days of bliss and celebration; but when they flew away, my depression reached a new low and I declared myself incapable of getting out of bed (which I had in the meantime stocked with more knives, carefully hidden under the covers, as if I might be able to complete in my sleep what I lacked the courage to do while awake). My mother — her eyes rimmed red with frustration — paced the hallways and finally my father came in to have “a talk” with me.

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He explained that life was often hard, but that I needed to be a fighter and not a quitter. He brought up the example of my older brothers — fearless giants in my young eyes — and explained that they too had suffered in ways that I could not yet imagine, but they had proved themselves incapable of being brought down. In short, it was time for me to pull myself together and “be a man.” I did not laugh or cry as a result of this speech, but nodded and agreed that what he said made sense. I promised to do better.

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As it turned out, the talk had the desired effect. The following day I got out of bed, (secretly) returned the knives to the drawers and resigned myself to returning to school.

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We had new seats following the break, and it so happened that I was placed near two girls in my class to whom I had never paid much attention; they were neither popular or unpopular; they never raised their hands or talked unless Mr. W called on them. I obviously knew their names, but I had never said more than a few words to them “after school.” One day, however, I noticed during a break that they were calling each other by strange names: one was “Cardo” and the other “Lombardo”*: furthermore, I managed to catch a glimpse of a note being prepared by one in which a list was being prepared declaring who was or wasn’t a “Cheddaball,” which I soon gathered was a slightly pejorative term whose parameters were maddeningly (to my ten-year-old brain) mysterious, so that one person might be a Cheddaball one day but not the next. Once or twice, they informed me with appropriate sorrow that I was a Cheddaball, but that it wouldn’t necessarily last forever, and in fact, the following day I was relieved to be told that I had been safely (if not permanently, they warned) removed from the list. I had to figure it out!

*My memory is patchy here, and the names may not be exact.

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In the days and weeks that followed, I also learned something even more incredible: there were at least two other girls in this secret society, about which I and — as far as knew — all of the rest of the students knew nothing. (Those designated Cheddaballs were — except for me — never informed but only silently mocked.) Nobody suspected the existence of this important underground conspiracy, least of all the hated Mr. W, who was often the biggest Cheddaball of all.

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One day, I was informed that an exception to the society rules had been allowed, and I was going to be made a member. Accordingly, I was given a name of my own: “Jobardo.” At the same time, I learned that what determined whether you were or were not a Cheddaball was nothing more complicated than a color of your clothing, picked in advance by Cardo (or in her absence, Lombardo) so that none of the other society members would wear it on the following day and suffer the indignity.

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It was not as if I lacked for friends before this point in time, but at this point — in this class, with this teacher — the friendship of these girls and their mysterious society was the salve I needed to cope, if not survive; the girls saved me from drowning in something I had yet to fathom. It was not as if I now loved fifth grade, but the aggravation — somewhat ill-defined to begin with — seemed bearable; moreover I had allies in my hatred of authority.

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We remained friends for several years, until I left for boarding school and we inevitably drifted apart. (I grew more than a little embarrassed of my fifth-grade self, even as I confronted bigger versions of the same demons.)

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I haven’t spoken to any of them in twenty-five years, but one of them recently “friended” me on Facebook. We didn’t discuss our past in too much detail, though; just a lil “Wall-To-Wall” on which we briefly alluded to our imaginary society.

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These days when I wake up and get dressed, I can’t help but wonder if Cardo is somewhere out there, and if — by dint of her designation — I’m a Cheddaball until further notice; often it seems likely, but perhaps even more now than I did then, I understand that there could be much worse fates.

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10 Responses to “On the George Washington Bridge Project: Adventures in Fifth-Grade Despair and Redemption”

  1. 1 c.

    Dark, with a couple chuckles underneath.

    “…the friendship of these girls and their mysterious society was the salve I needed to cope, if not survive.”

    Friendship, when it can be found, often is a salvation.

    So, though, obviously, were your inner resources.

  2. Ah, fifth grade! It all seems so innocent now, though it seemed pretty awful at the time. Wish I’d had a group of girls to befriend ME! You had a pretty weird teacher in Mr. W, however. In my own fifth grade (back in 1951), the teachers were nothing like that. In fact, it was odd to encounter any male teaching elementary school.

  3. “I managed to catch a glimpse of a note being prepared by one in which a list was being prepared declaring who was or wasn’t a “Cheddaball,” which I soon gathered was a slightly pejorative term ”

    There was a girl on my school bus who used to yell ‘you ain’t got no biscuit!’ to fellow students she didn’t like. I remember this being incredibly cutting at the time, and since I was a member of the be-bussed ingroup, being thankful that I had biscuits.

    • Thanks, Rottin! What was interesting about my crew was that they kept it to themselves, so that I felt like I was entering another world when I was around them.

  4. Fifth grade was the beginning of the worst years of my life… it really didn’t become awful until sixth grade though. But when I started fifth grade, I was determined to slough off my old teacher’s pet image, so I decided to be, um, bad. I taught myself to swear, starting with “damn.” And I ended up getting in trouble in most of my classes, including having to spend the year in music class sitting by myself on the other side of the room from the rest of the class, which in fact allowed me to make fun of the music teacher without being seen. And my social studies teacher, Miss Bendix, used to corner my mother in the grocery store and cry, complaining that I was the ringleader of the class. None of which had any affect on my schoolmates’ view of me – I remained a wussy little teacher’s pet to them no matter what I did.

    • Thanks for the comment, Francis — there’s obv something really agonizing about the beginning of adolescence for most people, but it’s particularly traumatic when you start to understand that your non-hetero leanings will place you beyond the ability to make people like you. I think your reaction makes as much sense as mine…ultimately it goes to show how damaged the ‘lil gayz’ are by the oppressive weight of societal expectation (and how we overcompensate to the point of self-destruction).

  5. 7 Alex G DeWitt

    Ahhh. Fifth grade. Growing up in Westchestuh. I had a wonderful teacher. Mrs. Howard. We had “slam books.” These instruments of torture were made up of a single 3-hole-punched page for each person in the class (around 30) and carefully attached with those little brass doo-dads that expand/pull apart when you put them through the hole (too thick for staples.) After the title page [SLAM BOOK–Class 5C] followed the student pages, names centered on top, in alphabetical order. The book secretly went around the class and everyone wrote the worst things they could think of about each of their fellow students. Naturally, one could see what everyone else thought of you (sort of a precursor to an anonymous facebook wall) and you had the opportunity to “slam” your colleagues in revengeful ink. I was the tallest and one of the brightest in my class–my page was filled with ‘fckn faggot,’ ‘homo,’ ‘sissy,’ etc. Words of hate meant to demean and hurt.

    40 years later…This Valentine’s Day I was away from my partner on business. I went into an iHop to eat with a gay colleague. Our waiter was an undergrad freshman or sophomore, this being a college town. We ordered. He brought our food. When we stood up to leave after paying the check he smiled broadly at us and sweetly said, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” He clearly thought we were a couple.

    It takes time, but how far we’ve come…

    P.S. The teachers invariably found the slam books and confiscated them…one assumes they read them. What did they ever do with this pre-pubescent information?

    • Thanks for the comment, AGD. I feel like there should be a museum filled with hate-filled artifacts like this to demonstrate to the world exactly how often geighs are impacted/terrorized/shamed by those around them at a very young and vulnerable age.

  6. 9 Jim

    I recall slam books also being called slang books — in kentucky in 1959. they were usually stenographer’s notebooks, as they were then called, and consisted of a sign-in page followed by a series of questions, one per page, questions such as “who’s your favorite” this or that, “who has the worst” this or that — you get the picture. they were usually designed by the most popular girls, who tended to be very mean. and i remember a guy in jr high [who later came out and moved away] who “published” a book of virgins — certain girls were terrified that they weren’t on it.

  7. 10 c.

    Alex G DeWitt wrote above:

    “P.S. The teachers invariably found the slam books and confiscated them…one assumes they read them. What did they ever do with this pre-pubescent information?”
    If they were anything like the adults during my public school education, they pretended nothing was wrong, and threw the books away.


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