We were waiting for our mom to take us to the park, and I rode my pink-and-purple tricycle across the hardwood floors of my house, a striking palace that has since morphed into a cozy home. My brother stood in the doorway, like a troll guarding the fortress. “Let me pass!” I commanded.
“You’re too young,” he told me. He splayed out his arms and legs in the doorframe, forming the shape of an “x” to keep whatever magic lay behind him to himself.
“I am two years old,” I announced, with the conviction that this fact would alert him of just how mistaken he was.
“You’re wrong,” he replied smugly, knowing already that he had won this battle. “You’re two and a half.”
Upon this realization, I backed away and rode into the kitchen, defeated.
When I was little, my dad and I used to play this game called “Birthday” in my grandfather’s backyard. I would take a walk around the perimeter of the house, a route that only took about two minutes in real time, but at three years old, it was an adventure. I trekked through the piles of fallen leaves in the side yard, weaved through the parked cars in the four-car driveway, and tippy-toed to reach the latch on the final gate before re-entering the backyard’s unlikely paradise. While I looped around the house, my dad would decorate the triumphant path with the full flowers that blossomed each spring in shades of pink. I don’t know what that has to do with birthdays, but it made perfect sense to me back then.
In pre-school, everyone is your best friend, just because. You play with whoever happens to be sitting next to you and you say whatever you’re thinking. When I was four years old and going to pre-school three days a week, I sat next to a girl I had never seen before, or maybe I had and just hadn’t remembered. She took out a doll house and gave me a doll, saying, “We live in this house together and there’s a baby and a doggy and a swimming pool in the backyard.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” she echoed, “but you have to be my friend.”
“Why?” I asked, because as far as I knew, our dolls barely knew each other.
It turned out she was talking about real life.
In kindergarten, each of us took turns being “Student of the Week,” a special week dedicated to learning more about each of our classmates. The week began with an interview. The first student picked was a small Asian girl with a thick yellow sweater and Pocahontas braids. She sat on the stool, beaming with pride because her Popsicle stick was the first to be drawn.
“What do you like to do?”
She hesitated. “Go to the beach,” she finally replied.
“Good one,” the teacher told her. “Anything else?”
She continued with her list, and then with the rest of the interview.
Every week after that, each new Student of the Week proceeded to list “go to the beach” as the first thing that they liked to do.
The first step to making Chinese lanterns in my first grade class was to draw a picture, any picture you wanted, on a flat piece of paper. Having limited artistic ability, I drew the most romantic and beautiful scene I could think of: a sunny day in a blossoming orchard, where vibrant flowers sprouted out of the ground and tree branches grew tall enough to graze the clouds. The next step was to cut slits into our drawing, which would later be rolled up to form a lantern. One of my parallel slits fell right on top of a perfectly vertical tree, slicing the trunk into two perfect halves. Inexplicably delighted, I held up my pseudo-lantern, announcing to my tablemates through hysterical laughter, “I cut the tree in half!” All of the adults in the classroom thought that I was crying, and immediately ran over to console me.
Whenever it was a classmate’s birthday, their parents would bring in a treat to share with the entire class. The rule was that we had to wait until all the treats had been passed out, at which point my second grade teacher would say, “Bon appetite, you may eat,” and everyone would dig in. During one classmate’s birthday, my teacher passed out all of the treats, but was then distracted by a conversation with the birthday boy’s mother. To no one’s protest, the rest of the class began to eat. I sat with a boy named William as we giggled in our own self-satisfaction until our teacher noticed us and realized that she had not yet said the magic words, commending us for our patience. I cannot tell you how proud we were.
On the first day of third grade, my teacher nominated me to show the new students around school. I was ecstatic, until I realized I didn’t really know where the bathrooms were.
On the first day of fourth grade, I was the last student left in the classroom after the final bell had rung. “I like your t-shirt,” my new teacher said to me, trying to make conversation with a quiet girl he knew almost nothing about. “Tie-dye is really cool.” He smiled at me, and every day for the rest of fourth grade, I wore one of my six tie-dye t-shirts to school because I thought that was what he wanted.
For the last couple months of fifth grade, I sat next to a boy who I, like pretty much every other girl in my class, was basically in love with. It was his fault, really. He jokingly stole gum out of my backpack and said our science teacher’s name in funny voices and wrote “hi” all over the side of my desk, which I erased as I bit my lip to keep from smiling.
Childhood is strange, but the more I think about it, so is “adulthood.” I still feel the power of my brother the fortress troll, I still do dumb things to please people, and I still don’t really ever use the bathrooms at school.
My nine-year-old girl cousin loves to antagonize my brother, simply because he’s a boy and boys are weird. A couple weeks ago, we were laughing at him for no reason in particular, and he says to us, “You guys are both weird.” And without missing a beat, she replies, “If we’re both weird, and you’re not, then you’re the one who’s weird.” Tell me that doesn’t make perfect sense.