Joan Sledge by Barry B. Wright

Holding Hands SilhouetteI

Spring had arrived early and, along with it, hopes that our home team, the Milwaukee Braves, would take the World Series again. Last year was the first time they had won the pennant since moving from Boston in 1953.

A cornucopia of scent wafted through the open window. Riding its gentle warm breeze like sweetness from heaven were spicy dianthus, the heavy scent of gardenia, nicotiana, lily-of-the-valley and lilac. My mom had taught me well and as she had promised, identifying those blossoms and more had become as easy as printing and writing my name.

This was my senior year and I felt especially grown up. Graduation was two months off. Though next year meant travelling to another school to complete grade eight, it was not without some degree of trepidation. Still, for the most part, I eagerly looked forward to it.

Chin saddled against the heel of my hand, I was locked in a daydream. Baseball tryouts were still a month away and the newly formed Duffield Baseball League portended tougher competition. So, when the snow had melted and the ground barely dry, I eagerly began to practice with my Indian rubber ball. I was always amazed by its speed as it coursed its way through the uncut grass. Agility in catching and accuracy in throwing were paramount as the ball bounced off the narrow section of wall beside the dining-room picture window. A nasty hop the other day left me with a shiner. Boy, did I get a ribbing from my friends when they found out.

Mister Roberts was one heck of a great teacher but somehow today his voice was surreal and did not resonate with me.  Dipping the nib of my pen into the ink well, I neatly scratched his notes into my notebook from the chalkboard. I casually glanced around. My peers’ expressions said it all. I was not alone in my mental truancy.

Mister Roberts stopped teaching. Bracing himself against the front edge of his desk, he faced us with his usual toothy smile. “No sense me trying to teach you science when you’re not thinking about it. Huh? So let’s stir things up.” He glanced out the window. “What a beautiful day. Real learning begins out there.”

My attention suddenly piqued.  The collective mental slothfulness of the class began to evaporate like falling dominoes.

He picked up a book from his desk and began to read:

“Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.”

Tilting his head slightly, he asked: “Hmmm…Now, what does this poem by Christina Rossetti have to do with science?”

The class shared a dumbfounded collective except Karen who waved her hand wildly in the air.

“Go ahead, Karen,” he said.

“Observation,” she replied.

“You’re right, the first step in the Scientific Method.”

He went to the back of the classroom and returned with a large brown empty cardboard box from the supply cupboard and placed it in the middle of his desk. “Soon we will be going outside.”

The energy level in the class jumped a few notches.

“Quiet down and listen,” he instructed half laughing and beaming a large smile.

Suddenly, a frown etched across his face; his demeanor became unusually stiff as his attention was directed behind us.

I could feel the energy being sucked out of the room.

The class turned.

Time and backbones noticeably became rigid.

The principal stood in the open doorway. His stern and uncompromising appearance sent a chill up and down my spine. An unpleasant twist gathered in my gut.

Conditioned on how to acknowledge his presence, the class in unison said: “Good morning, Mister Monkman.” He barely acknowledged our greeting.  And, without so much as either a smile or an apology for interrupting the class, he waved our teacher over to him.

Beside Mr. Monkman stood the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. To say that I was mesmerized did not do that moment justice.

“Finish copying the notes from the board, class,” Mr. Roberts said, joining them in the doorway. “Once done, write down and explain the skills and tools you will need to do an effective job in observation.”

The three of them stepped out and closed the door behind them.

Every guy’s gaze—that’s fifty percent of the class—was fixed on the window in the door. That’s fifteen pairs of eyes including my own vying to be noticed by her. But, I was sure she was looking at me. I smiled and nodded. She returned it. I gave a circumspect wave. She did the same.

A ball of paper ricocheted off the side of my head and rolled onto my desk. This ticked me off. I knew it came from Alison. Lately, her favorite pastime was bonking me on the head. Once, every day for a solid week, she had left a yucky clump of her hair on my desk. I cringed with the thought of what came next. And I didn’t have to wait long.

Straddled between her desk and Diane Dawson’s, Alison performed a bizarre series of acrobatics. My glare was assailed by a screwed up face and a rude thrust of her tongue.

Ignoring her, I drew a bead line between my nemesis, Harry Brewer, who continued to smile, nod and wave, and the door. One conclusion resulted. And, it did not favor me.

Miffed, I had barely about faced to cocoon myself in a huff when a cacophonous sound of cascading desks followed by a resounding thump turned the room into chaos.

The pain was immediate. The desk beside me had wedged itself against my ankle.  Everyone around me scampered to the door.

Splayed out on the floor between overturned tables and empty ink wells was Alison in a puddle of ink. Her red hair had turned a weird color of blue. Each time she  wiped the tears from her face, she increasingly took on the appearance of a boxer who had been severely pummeled in the ring.

Not without great effort I restrained myself from giggling as I could feel Mr. Monkman’s cold stare squarely on me.

“Don’t move, Alison. Stop touching your face,” urged Mr. Roberts. “Someone, get the nurse.” He retrieved a bundle of paper towels from the back cupboard and fastidiously layered them around her to sponge up the ink. “Now, Alison, please remain still while I clear away these tables.”

Mr. Roberts’ tall muscular frame made easy work of uprighting the topsy-turvy desks on top and around her. I felt a great deal of relief when he removed the desk against me.

“You alright?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

I turned towards its source. Her face was so close to me that I was swimming in the deep blueness of her eyes. I had lost my words.

I felt flush with embarrassment when she used the back of her hand to lift my jaw into the closed position.

“A fight?” she asked pointing to my eye.

“Ah-huh.” I lied without hesitation. There are lies and there are dumb lies. This was the dumbest. But, at that moment, I felt a need to puff myself up. Some might say like a peacock during mating season, and, quite honestly, they would have been correct.  “I’ll tell you about it if you’ll let me walk you home today.”

She smiled. “Okay.”

“What’s your name?”

“Joan…Joan Sledge.”

A low hum settled over the class. The nurse had arrived and was examining Alison. A few minutes later she gave the class thumbs up. Alison was A-1 okay. Nevertheless, she and Mr. Monkman escorted her to the school dispensary. A full week would pass before we saw her again.

By the time graduation rolled around, I had fallen head over heels in love with Joan as she with me.

Time seemed to sprout wings as grade seven ended. And, like a spring board, we were launched into summer. Little did I know at the time that heartache and mystery awaited me at its end.