I wasn’t exactly a fashion-forward fourth grader. Or perhaps my complete lack of fashion sense just meant I was incapable of comprehending what a style juggernaut I was.
At any rate, one would think that a nearly-knee-length, brown, corduroy coat, with enormous brown buttons and a matted-dog-fur-esque collar/lapel would have perfectly complimented my favorite pair of pants—off-white polyester with a thin woven black and orange-ish-yellow plaid. But I wasn’t havin’ any of it.
I was used to my wardrobe being largely comprised of hand-me-downs. And, for the most part, those came from my older brothers, so I’d had a preview of what I’d be wearing in upcoming years. In most cases, I was looking forward to the day when those items would become mine–that funky navy/robin’s egg/and white macrame´ vest with the tassels, those polyester pants in sea-foam green with a padded micro-waffle texture…
But that coat. That goddamned coat. Childhood memories are, of course, often comprised of impressions and sensations, with a few points of actual fact. As for the jacket, I think it came from a cousin. I can’t be sure. But I had been looking forward to taking possession of the multi-panel, blue, red, and white, ‘normal’ ski jacket my older brother had, at the same time I would pass my own multi-panel beige, white, and blue ski jacket onto my younger brother.
But by some cruel twist of fate, that brown, corduroy monstrosity had insinuated itself into the orderly transition of jackets. It was an interloper. It did not belong. I lost my ski jacket to my younger brother, but took possession of that…thing.
Nobody wore a coat like that. I mean, for fuck’s sake, people had metallic silver NASA jackets, and puffy, stuffed ski jackets in traffic-cone orange. But a brown, corduroy jacket? What the hell? That thing wasn’t even waterproof. And damned if I wanted to deal with something so stupid and girly as an umbrella to keep me dry (although I did have a really cool, clear, plastic, dome-style umbrella—oh, the sound of rain pounding down on that while pretending to be in a futuristic car or plane with a bubble dome over my own, personal pilot’s compartment. ‘Fuck you, rain. I’m from the future’).
Okay, I didn’t actually say “fuck you” to the rain or anybody/anything else when I was in the fourth grade. But I did have my own arbitrary standards of what I would allow anybody to witness. I walked to school every morning with my younger brother and older sister. And, as with the umbrella, I would put the coat away on approaching the school, and, at the end of the school day, would avoid putting it on until a safe distance from the school grounds and any classmates that might see me.
To avoid the suspicion of my sister (or so I thought), as we approached the school, I would mention a few times how hot I was feeling in that bulky coat. Now, by “put away” I meant I took the coat off and draped it over my arm, or rolled it into a tight bunch, hopefully making it inconspicuous enough that nobody would ask what it was or why I wasn’t wearing it until I could make it to the jacket hooks in my classroom. There, I would abandon the damned thing, hanging it behind other coats already present, and pray nothing would happen that would lead anyone to look at it too closely. My mom had, of course, written my name on the collar tag. All anybody would have to do to see it was mine was flip it open a bit, right where it hung.
To minimize the possibility of anybody accidentally seeing it was my coat, I devised ways of folding the collar down between the hook and the tag, to keep the tag blocked from all but those who would actually go to the trouble of making the effort to move the collar and read the tag…as if that were a thing somebody would do.
I would leave the coat there, hanging. Walking away from it, I would feel a small tinge of guilt at rejecting something that just wanted a chance to keep me warm—and not just rejecting it, but trying to hide its connection to me.
Mornings, before first bell, I would hang out in the classroom, often hovering by, or leaning against, the heater that ran along the length of the far wall. I would pretend to study the calendar or the bulletin board that surrounded it, or look at the bulletin boards near the back wall where student classwork was posted, or even pull a book from the bookshelf and lean against the heater, reading, as if this was the kind of thing people did, warming myself from the chill that would set in during the few blocks I walked sans jacket.
If my best friend at the time, Doug, showed up early enough, we would inevitably draw—I don’t think I was in my souped-up van phase yet. I was probably drawing monsters, while Doug worked at planes and other vehicles with an architect’s precision. At any rate, I would make sure we moved the drawing activities as close to the heaters as possible.
Recesses were a bit trickier. I spent them all in the library—first recess—about 15 minutes around 10:15 a.m.; lunch recess—whatever time was left after our noon lunch, which I took to eating rather slowly; and afternoon recess—15 minutes at 2:15 p.m. There was some sort of ban on spending all of one’s recesses indoors—at least one recess had to be spent outside, to make sure we were getting fresh air and exercise. Although, if you ask me, fresh air and exercise when it is 40 or fewer degrees outside is just about the last thing anybody needs—especially a skinny fourth-grader who refuses to wear his only coat.
So, in one of my earlier acts of rebellion and coercion, I convinced Doug to blow off the oppressive guidelines that said we had to go outside, and hang out in the library with me where we strategically re-positioned ourselves from recess to recess, playing chess, drawing, listening to old “Jack Benny Show” cassettes on bulky headphones, or, of course, reading.
This went on for several weeks before we were confronted about any of it.
But in the meantime, something else happened. One morning, on the way to school, I realized I had left a homework assignment at home. Now, the forgotten homework assignment did not occur to me until after I had gone through my ritual of claiming I was too hot to wear my coat, and had taken it off. When the thought of the homework struck me, I thrust my coat at my sister, asking her to hold it, while I dug through my bag to confirm what I was already certain of…that I had left my homework papers on my desk at home.
I contemplated taking off with my book bag—after all, if I didn’t have it, what was I going to do with my homework once I retrieved it? But it could only slow me down. I checked my brown, Timex watch and calculated whether I could make it home and back in time for first bell, and weighed which was worse—arriving at school without my homework, or maybe arriving late. I decided I should go for it. Leaving my bag and coat with my sister, I took off, in a dead sprint all the way home through the suburban streets.
Despite my sense of self that says I was never athletic, I was fast—at least at short-distance running. Soon, I arrived home, burst in through the front door, charged upstairs and flew across my bedroom to grab my homework. Of course, this wasn’t the kind of thing that would have escaped my mother. On my way back down and out, mom stopped me to ask if everything was okay. I breathlessly told her I forgot my homework, but everything was fine—I could make it to school in time. Not being one to not notice such things, my mother asked what happened with my coat.
I have no recollection of what I actually said, but in my built-up remembrance of the story, I said that I had made it to my classroom, took off my coat, realized I didn’t have my homework, and so ran home, not thinking about the coat, or anything other than that I needed to get my homework turned in. I am convinced that I was a big enough nerd/worrier that my mother would have totally accepted this answer.
Perhaps at this point I would do well to lay out exactly what my real problem with the coat was. Brown corduroy, fuzzy lapels, and giant buttons were only a part of the problem. Certainly, they were a problem in the face of metallic silver and traffic-cone-orange fabrics. Brown corduroy could not compete with that. In fact, a brown corduroy coat was probably just as weird as metallic silver or puffy traffic-cone-orange pants would have been, while brown corduroy pants wouldn’t have drawn any attention at all. But what was really problematic for me was that the coat reached nearly to my knees. I thought it looked like an ugly dress. I was afraid that I would be insulted for being girly. By this time in my life, between my curly hair, penchant for school work and art, pronounced interest in stuffed animals, and general lack of interest in sports, I had been accused of being girly enough that I realized it was a ‘bad’ thing. In fact, I had even mostly given up on engaging in one of my sister’s favorite pasttimes for me—putting on her emerald green costume dress and wandering through the living room when we had company.
So, I did my damnedest to try and plough through to the other side of winter without having to wear that damned coat anywhere that any of my classmates might see me, so they wouldn’t add it to the heap of things that suggested I was less-than-masculine.
On that particular occasion, I made it back to the school grounds, which were deserted…at least on the outside. As I entered the far end of the field, I heard the “final” morning bell ring. My heart sunk. I was going to have to go through the humiliation of checking in at the main office. And, I had left my book bag and coat with my sister. I had the stupidest coat ever, and was probably going to have to go to my sister’s classroom to pick it up, where I would not only be forced to apologize profusely for interrupting class, but where I would probably be forced to put on the coat so my sister and her classmates could laugh at me before I returned to my own class, where my classmates could laugh at me, and decide right then and there that I was entirely too girly for anybody to ever be friends with me again.
Instead, I had the brilliant idea to go straight to my classroom and play dumb. What? I’m late? Oh, well, here’s the homework assignment. Gee, it’s cold in here. Can I go sit on the heater while we copy our spelling words for the week?
My teacher, Ms. W, welcomed me to the classroom, and said nothing about me being late. Being a teacher’s pet had its advantages. She brought my book bag over to me, which my sister had thoughtfully dropped off at my classroom. When I realized the implications of the presence of my book bag, I whipped my head around to check the coat rack. There, out in front at one of the first spots, was my coat. I was sure I could read my name on the tag from across the room, and was certain that my classmates had all seen it as well, and had probably already come up with some involved plan for recess wherein I would end up locked in the girls’ bathroom, or wandering the playground in that coat, as people fled from me like I was infected with the plague.
But, due to some sort of weird technicality, I was being set free. My sister had dropped off my things and explained that I had gone back home to retrieve my homework. That was good enough for Ms. W. God, I loved/hated my sister.
Speaking of my sister, there was somewhere in all of this drama where she tried to convince me that the coat was totally acceptable—cool even. How did she do that? Peanuts, of course… She tried to convince me that Snoopy was wearing the same basic coat by showing me a coloring book image with this version of Snoopy in a furry, brown coat.
I wanted to embrace this. But it just wasn’t the same coat. Snoopy was plainly wearing a fur coat that was part of an outfit showcasing his love of football. And, for once, I didn’t give a fuck what Snoopy was doing. Even if he had been wearing the exact same coat, it was stupid, and I hated it. Snoopy should just go back to being naked, and I should get a normal jacket.
The real undoing in the whole coat drama involved my library scheme falling apart. I can picture alternate versions of this scene…one with one of the librarians confronting me (and Doug), one with the other librarian doing the same, a third with both librarians doing the same, and a fourth with my teacher confronting me—although in that version, my imagination always inserts my sixth grade teacher, which makes no sense.
At any rate, the end result was that I had to go outside for at least one recess a day…which I was supposed to have been doing all along.
If I’m remembering correctly, I chose the lunchtime recess, because I could waste time in the cafeteria until the last person was done eating. I even tried to sign up for lunch duty in the hopes of getting stuck wiping down tables instead of going outside. But the cafeteria duty was assigned in a rotating pattern. I couldn’t take over for anybody, no matter how much they would have been happy to have such a thing happen. But even without cafeteria duty, after leaving the lunch room, I could waste time in the classroom, pretending to get ready to go out.
But eventually…I would have to go outside. And I wasn’t going to put that coat on.
Doug and I had invented some sort of (now forgotten) game, based around the monkey bars, which we called “Planet of the Apes.” So, of course, we called them the ape bars. I tried to get back into that game, but I was freezing my face off. I decided I couldn’t survive on the Planet of the Apes, and so ducked into an alcove in an outside wall where a drinking fountain had once been. It wasn’t exactly comfortable or pleasant, and some of the piping that used to connect to the drinking fountain was still poking out of the back wall. But it kept me out of the wind. Doug initially tried to make a game of me being wedged into that alcove, standing in front of me, telling any passers by that there was nothing to see and to move along. Of course, this attracted attention, at least briefly. But like most of the things Doug and I did together, most people just ignored us. It didn’t take Doug long to get bored of hanging out with somebody who was tucked into a hole in the wall.
In my mind, these recesses went on for weeks, in the same way that one’s mind can exaggerate any terrible experience. Each time I was out on the playground, our playground aide, Ms. Volstack, would ask me about my jacket, doing her due dilligence, but would leave it alone when I said I had a coat but was doing just fine without it. In reality, the coatless recesses probably lasted about three days…probably a total of 24 minutes outside. Then Ms. Volstack was out for the day and our Principal, Mr. Scribner, filled in on recess duty.
It was also the day that one of the developmentally delayed kids decided to investigate my presence in the drinking fountain alcove. My mind keeps inserting one of two particular people into the role of that kid, somebody who I didn’t know until the eighth grade, or a friend of mine from the year before, who had moved away, who was not DD. Anyway, this kid was flitting about the playground, arms pulled up into his sleeves, flapping them around and making bird noises.
He had passed by the alcove a few times when he decided a bird attack was in order. He had bird-attacked multiple other people that recess—which consisted of squawking loudly and swatting at the victim with his sleeves). He augmented his usual bird attack by turning his back to me, and slamming into me. With the piping coming out of the wall behind me, this became very unpleasant very fast–well, even more unpleasant than somebody slamming me into a concrete wall that didn’t have pipes sticking out of it. And then Mr. Scribner came into view, checking to see why this kid had become interested in attacking the defunct drinking fountain alcove.
Mr. Scribner shooed the kid away and then began grilling me about just what I was doing wedged into the wall like I was, without a jacket. I insisted, as I had with Ms. Volstack, that I had a coat, I just didn’t need it. Mr. Scribner, though, was not as easily persuaded that all was fine.
See, my mom was a widow, or as one might call her these days, a single mother. And not only a single mother, but one with five sons and one daughter. Women, it was insisted at the time, could not raise sons adequately. And given my exceptional oddness, I’m sure I did nothing to help disabuse people of such a notion.
Fortunately, the bird attack had not taken place until the last few minutes of lunch recess. When the bell rang, despite Mr. Scribner standing there in front of me, I ducked to the side and bolted. Like I said, I was fast.
I wasn’t party to whatever happened next. I assume there was a phone call home. I don’t remember my mother asking me anything about the coat…or I should say, I don’t recall ever being truthful about the coat when speaking to my mother. I am sure I complained about it to her early on, in the way I most often complain, where there is no resolution except for the target of the complaining to go away forever.
My best guess is that my sister explained to my mother what I hated about that coat. And I’m guessing my sister casually extracted that information from me while we were playing 45s in her bedroom. Despite her history of getting me in trouble more than any other person on earth possibly could have, I was open with my sister unlike anybody else. I can imagine that, while switching records between “Help Me Rhonda” and the “Theme from Rockford Files,” I said that the coat was so long it looked like a dress. Bam. Mystery solved. Problem solved…sort of.
The next morning, when I got up, the coat was laid out at one end of the dining room table…along with a strip of about eight inches of fabric my mother had trimmed off the bottom of the coat. She had sewn the bottom of the coat up, so it looked just like a shorter version of the same coat.
As with any of the times that I was confronted with the knowledge that somebody had learned of one of my bizarre schemes, I felt some deep-seated terror that I was in real troubl–that my mom had fixed the problem with the coat, and now I was gonna get it (not that I ever really “got it”—my mom is one of the most level-headed people I’ve ever met). I stiffened up, and took my seat at the table to eat my breakfast…oatmeal and buttered toast.
At some point, my mother entered the dining room and said something along the lines of “I trimmed some of the extra fabric off your coat, so maybe it will fit better.”
I thanked her. I wore the coat to school. I took the big leap of wearing it all the way to class…and on recess, anticipating some fallout from wearing a jacket so ridiculously different from everybody else’s.
There was no fallout.
I suppose there’s some lesson to be learned about asking for help, voicing what you want so you can get the help you need…or at least explaining the specifics of what’s bothering you. But still, even in its altered (and to my mind, less girly) state…I hated that fucking coat.