School Daze

In beautiful Guatemala where poinsettia bushes grew as big as Volkswagens and wild quetzales flew in the sky, I attended grade school. The open-air classrooms were nestled on a large, lushly landscaped piece of land, but it was a deceptively idyllic setting where the school’s principal and her minions doled out the three R’s in a style worthy of the Spanish inquisitors.

In a gazebo set apart from the other classrooms, we learned English grammar from a corpulent kinky-haired old crone who scared the peepee out of us.  She commanded our skittish attention by clutching our skinny 10-year-old arms with her knotty fingers, while through crooked brown teeth she mocked us for our unforgiveable stupidity.

Amazingly, she was able to pull this off without getting out of her seat. Innocent as lambs and obedient as dogs, we trotted forward as our names were called and stood quaking before that frightful old hag, yielding to the taloned grip and stuttering out whatever daily lessons had been drilled into our empty little heads.

At recess, we played “mata bol.” In a big round dusty field, our nemesis was a pair of inseparable (and large) twin girls who, in spite of their obvious devotion to each other, always split up and competed on opposing teams.  This tactic confused us, and it took us a few painful games of this Guatemalan version of dodge ball before the sun broke through and we received the epiphany: It wasn’t healthy sibling rivalry that prompted the strange strategy, but a clever alliance to ensure that the interchangeable twosome would clinch a victory no matter which side won.

Gesturing and shouting aloud to each other in some incomprehensible Spanish secret twin gibberish, “tipi-tapa-tipi-tapa-tipi tapa,“ they cued each other across the battle lines. First pointing at their victims, they rocketed the ball back and forth across the field with brute force and stinging accuracy, systematically eliminating one cringing, chicken-hearted, lily-livered opponent at a time.

The “dodge” aspect of dodge ball eluded the more dim-witted of us who, out of sheer self-preservation hopped around with our eyes squeezed shut and our hands covering our heads. In the unlikely event that one of us actually caught the ball, the odds of us smacking one of the twins with it were pretty slim, because in spite of their girth they were nimble, like a pair of dancing hippos. After clearing the field by knocking us all out of our shoes, the demonic duo skipped away arm-in-arm in their identical and still-spotless dresses, giggling, “tipi-tapa-tipi-tapa…”

Striving to regain a bit of dignity following the humiliating defeat in “mata bol,” one of us might be heard to shout out, “LET’S PLAY WAR!” In this sickeningly melodramatic game, beautiful brave nurses tenderly administered to handsome heroic soldiers wounded on the battlefield. The limp and broken bodies of the fallen were draped across the teeter-totters and monkey bars, and we seemingly invulnerable nurses carried out miraculous rescues under heavy fire in enemy territory.

Through the RAT-A-TAT-TAT! and POW-POW-POW! sound effects provided by the boys, we dragged the bullet-riddled and unconscious men over the treacherous terrain of the graveled playground; set their broken bones, bandaged their bloody wounds and then sent them back out to be blown up, KA-BOOM! and sewn up all over again.

Once, in an extemporaneous bit of acting, my nurse character ran into the path of a stray bullet and fell into a bush. She lay there for a while, moaning loudly and hoping that some brave and handsome soldier would come to her rescue; but she lay waiting in vain, because it was a different time then and that’s not the way the game was played.

In that rich, romantic world of our childish imaginings, we were wild and beautiful, strong, and heroic. All too soon, though, the old gorgon of an English teacher stood on the school steps, ringing the big brass hand bell, CLANG-A-CLANG-A-CLANG-A! We rose from the battlefield, shaking the dust from our clothes and the fluff from our heads and schlumped back to our classrooms, heroes no more.

2 comments on “School Daze”

  1. So look forward to your descriptions of growing up.

  2. Nostalgic tears on Sunday afternoon.. Your writing really put me right there on the battlefield with you…


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