As I struggled to color in the lines of the ovals I‘d carefully traced, I wondered what the President of the United States would want with 27 original interpretations of “Jar of Jelly Beans”- in crayon on paper. I knew he got them every year in a big yellow envelope sent to the White House from our first grade teacher.
At seven I didn’t know the president was maxed out at an eight year run. My teacher was like 100 years old and Ronald Reagan was like 100 years old, so I naturally assumed for the last hundred years he got a yellow envelope from my teacher full of jellybeans he couldn’t eat. I was sure mine were the lumpiest-least jellybean shaped-jellybeans ever to be sent to him. I didn’t want the President to think I didn’t love the USA so I decided to only write my first name in the bottom corner of picture – maybe he’d confused me with another Julie somewhere in the world.
I didn’t say much in school. I spoke once in kindergarten. The teacher asked us to pick up an orange crayon to color the Tiger on our coloring page. As I struggled to stay the lines she said “Good. No one here is colorblind. You all see your colors right.”
I asked, without first raising my hand, how she knew no one was colorblind.
“Everyone picked up their orange crayon. No one picked up red or blue or green, so everyone sees the orange crayon is for the orange tiger.”
I mulled this over while trying to keep the head of my crayon confined to the solid black outline of the Tiger.
“What if,” I forgot to raise my hand again “it looks like red to my eyes but I say it’s orange because I think orange is the word for what I really see as red.”
“Stop talking nonsense and focus on staying in the lines. You don’t want to get held back, do you?”
I didn’t say much else that year. When I did I made sure it was something I’d heard my classmates say before. Kindergarten logic wasn’t ready to explore the nature of perception.
I tried again in first grade. NASA and space were the most popular things to talk about. I sat on the reading rug next to a boy was talking about flying a spaceship all over the universe. I asked him which one. He said there was only one universe. I told him I didn’t believe him and he tattled on me.
The teacher asked me to explain myself. I told her that I was here because of everything that already happened to me but if things have been different I wouldn’t be here on the reading rug. But I’d still be me – just in a different universe. I was excited to finally talk about this with a smart grown-up teacher!
Ever since I’d gotten to first grade I daydreamed about climbing into the phone booth in the classroom (yes – it was there) and visiting myself and other universes. I wanted to see how different I was when all the bad stuff didn’t happen. The teacher told me to stop being foolish to stop teasing the boy.
I held back tears and vowed never to speak again in class. My mom bribed me with stickers to get me to raise my hand and answer questions. I only answered what was asked-the curiosity that rattled between my ears never made it past my lips.
I learned about Ryan White through playground gossip. He was a very nice little boy who was sick and got AIDS and it wasn’t even his fault. No of us knew what AIDS was, but it was way worse than cooties. Only really bad people got AIDS, mostly gay people. No one could figure out what gay people were or why the bad ones got AIDS. We all just tried not to get sick like Ryan White-we knew we didn’t want AIDS.
One kid told the teacher his big brother said we could get AIDS from the drinking fountain or if someone spit on us. 27 first graders consumed with fear of catching AIDS, which we each imagined as the worst possible sickness our active little minds could produce, prompted our teacher to address the issue.
We were taught the right and wrong way to drink from the water fountain. (Your mouth doesn’t need to touch the fountain at any point.) Spitting, which had previously been unallowed, was strictly forbidden-even on the playground. The boys would still spit, the girls would tattle and someone was always reduced to hysterics.
I knew that in some other universes I might get AIDS but I was determined not to get it in this one. I would see spit on the sidewalk and cross the street to avoid it. No matter how hard I played at recess or P.E. I never took a drink from the fountain.
I had a loose tooth. My brother kept offering to pull it out-he wanted to try this scientific way involving a string tied to my tooth and a slamming door. I told him to wait until one of his own was loose, I didn’t want him near my tooth.
It came out during recess-pulled from the root by a piece of Banana Laffy Taffy. I freed the tooth and popped the candy back in my mouth. I had a folded up five dollar bill I took from my Dad’s wallet in the Kangaroo pocket of my right sneaker. Luckily the left shoe pocket was empty. I had a dollar in it yesterday but spent it at the candy store. It was really a drug store but it wasn’t til years later I even noticed they sold non-candy items.
With the tooth zipped safely away in my tiny shoe pocket I detected the metallic blood taste invading my banana candy. I wanted to spit out the bloody mass of taffy but hesitated. If someone saw and tattled I’ve have to talk to the teacher. She would punish me for spitting and make me rinse my mouth at the water fountain. I would get AIDS for sure. On the way to recess I witnessed a 2nd grader put his entire mouth over the fountain!
I knew I couldn’t panic. I just had to make it for 30 min after recess until we got our milk break. It was a long time to go without water or spitting but the chocolate milk would wash it all away. Plus I had five whole dollars in my shoe. I could buy an extra carton to make sure no blood taste was left.
I made it through the 30 minutes by daydreaming telephone booth trips to visit myself in other universes. In some verses the Julie still had the tooth. One she spit out the blood. One she rinsed her mouth in the fountain. One she let my brother tie the string to the doorknob.
Every time too much spit built up in my mouth I swallowed it until finally the milk cart arrived. I swished the chocolate milk between my teeth and sucked it down. I had enough credits to get two more cartons-white, not chocolate-without dipping into my shoe money. The blood and spit were gone and I spent the rest of the afternoon poking at the new space with my tongue. It all turned out pretty good.
Bouncing around on the way home I stopped dead in my tracks. I had been so careful to avoid everyone else’s spit, but what about my own? I couldn’t even add up how much spit I swallowed after my tooth fell out I was gonna get AIDS for sure. In my instant panic I puked three cartons of milk and banana Laffy Taffy right there in the middle of the sidewalk.
I sprinted home cutting through back yards and gardens, tears streaming down my cheeks, fear taking over. I hid in my walk-in closet snuggled inside my Care Bear sleeping bag. I knew I would get punished for getting sick with gay AIDS. I didn’t want anyone to find out.
My brother found me hours later-he woke me up to give me his best 3rd grade magician’s sales pitch for tooth removal. I plucked the tooth out of my shoe to show him it was already out and he ran off to warn my parents the tooth fairy would be breaking into our house tonight.
The gay AIDS could wait, besides I was really good at keeping secrets.
I wondered how long it would take before everyone found out about my AIDS. It sounded like times were tough for Ryan White, I didn’t want that too. I didn’t want kids on other playgrounds all over the USA gossiping about how dumb I was to swallow my own spit and get AIDS.
I daydreamed about which universes I had AIDS and which I didn’t. This kept the fear from taking over.
When 2nd grade started I asked my teacher if you could get AIDS from swallowing your own spit. She said I was dumber than a box of rocks and laughed at me. I wouldn’t be speaking in 2nd grade either but I’d already said too much and the teacher bullied me all year.
After winter break we crowed around the AV cart to watch the Space shuttle Challenger explode.
We didn’t have to worry about AIDS anymore. Spitting and water fountain etiquette were back to their old ways. Boys were downgraded to simpler cooties. Our little minds couldn’t manage so much fear so we picked the one we understood. We still didn’t exactly know what gay and AIDS was-our minds could replay the Challenger explosion over and over. The choice of what to fear was easy.
AIDS had come and gone in our little world. We had more scars from chicken pox. Gay would grow in popularity as a taunting name call but AIDS rarely came up. It wasn’t even as scary as cooties anymore.