Our teachers warned us about the coral snakes; the petite black, red and yellow striped serpents whose venom (second only to the deadly black mamba) can paralyze a victim’s lungs and halt all breathing in a few short hours. They were supposedly hiding in the sandy shade under the portable classrooms where we sweated all afternoon, our bare legs glued to our seats. During recess when we tired of kickball, we’d sit on the wooden stoop and watch the anoles and lizards disappear into the darkness down there.
Living on the edge of the Everglades, we were constantly in danger. Malaria infested mosquitoes swarmed in droves among the creeping mangroves. Drainage canals formed the boundaries of our neighborhoods like veins running through everyone’s back yard. We’d heard the stories of gators cruising the canals, snatching up lap dogs and crawling babies from blankets where they’d been left to play. The crabgrass in our yards grew wild and knotty and caught our toes to trip us in the middle of a mad dash across the lawn during flashlight tag.
But we didn’t care. The water surrounded us everywhere enticing us like a sea anemone waving its mesmerizing tentacles to lure unsuspecting fish close enough to stun them before swallowing them whole. We ignored the warnings and played along the water’s edge anyway. My youngest brother Greg had a fishing pole with red and white bobbers. Novice anglers, we chucked the line from a concrete bridge to catch the blue gill grouped in the cooler water under the bridge. After pulling the hooks from their gaping mouths, we’d keep them in a bucket near the bridge until it got late. Then, we tossed them like empty pop bottles back into the murky water before riding our bicycles home, just in time, before the sun gave way to the grey evening dusk.
Right behind our house, my sister, Amy, and I rescued three mallard hatchlings from a golden retriever that chased the mother away. We hid them in a box in our garage covered by a beach towel until one of them died. Our stepdad made us take them back to the water where we knew, without a doubt, the other two would soon perish as well. On the days it didn’t rain, all three of us waded up to our knees in the muck catching minnows and frogs in empty plastic cottage cheese containers and milk cartons with the tops cut off. No one knew where we went or what we did. No one could keep us safe.
Moving to Coral Springs was an experiment. The doctors recommended a warmer climate as a possible remedy for my mother’s chronic bronchial infections, the result of a nasty bout of Whooping cough as a child and a mother who smoked a pack and a half of Benson & Hedges a day. So we left the cold wet winters of Cincinnati, our friends, most of our extended family and my real dad. We rented a house with its own furniture until ours arrived two months later. My oldest brother Randy rode the bus an hour and a half to the high school in Coconut Grove. The rest of us rode our bikes to Coral Springs Elementary, a collection of portable classrooms arranged in rows like army barracks inside a sandy fenced in field.
The desks in our third grade classroom were sandwiched so close together, I could smell the salty sweaty musk of Ronald’s corn-rowed hair resting on my desktop whenever he leaned back in his chair. Which he did, and often. He knew it bothered me. I wanted to poke him with the eraser end of my pencil, but didn’t want to get in trouble so I held my nose instead. Ms. Robinson scanned the room, always on alert for this kind of thing. When we worked our math problems, she squeezed up and down, between the rows, her brown skirt holding her healthy thighs in check. She had warned us against “funny business.” We weren’t there to have fun.
The incident, as it happened, was totally out of my control. There was nothing I could do. It occurred just after lunch. We always ate what we brought from home at our desks because the school had no cafeteria. When Ms. Robinson announced that lunch was over and it was time for reading, everyone finished up their final bites, balled up their trash and took it to the can in the corner.
We’d been assigned our reading groups alphabetically (by first name), not by reading ability like at some schools. Ronald, Roger, Sammy, Tyron and I made up a group; all boys and then me. We sat in a circle (as best we could among the close set desks). There was already snickering going on among the boys. Tyron’s dusty dry cheeks were puffed to full with something (probably his lunch). He tried to chew the mass in his mouth, but was having a tough time of it.
I don’t know how she knew, but Ms. Robinson telepathically called on Tyron first to read the next section of Charlotte’s Web, a book we’d been working on for two weeks, a book I’d finished reading the second day. He froze with his mouth still, lips sealed tight. She asked him again, but he didn’t make a sound. He couldn’t. She moved around behind him, the warmth of her sheer size beating down on him, and poked him with a sharp finger. Tyron slowly, let his mouth fall open. A sticky ball of bread and peanut butter fell into the crack of his opened reader. Tyron watched indifferently as the gooey mass rolled off the book to the floor. I couldn’t hold it in. I busted out laughing and the rest of the class erupted.
Ms. Robinson glared at me now and I knew without a doubt that I was in for it. I put my hand over my mouth to stop the giggles, but they kept spilling out past my fingers, like creek mud that gushes up between your toes even when you squeeze them tight together to keep it down there. In a split second, Ms. Robinson hooked my arm with her thick palm and had me standing and stumbling to the front of the classroom. Tyron dangled from her other arm. We both were silent now. In fact, the whole class bit their tongues waiting to see what she would do. She placed our hands on the chalk ledge and told us to be still. Tyron had his upper lip fixed tight over his teeth like a ball cap pulled down over your eyes, like he was hiding something he didn’t want anyone to see.
Ms. Robinson started with Tyron. She bared her teeth and lifted the flat side of a wooden ruler bringing it down with a smart smack on his dirty grey knuckles. He winced. The sight of his squinting eyes made me wish she’d done me first. I watched him take the fifth and final whack. I counted. When Ms. Robinson hitched her skirt, readjusting her panty hose, I turned my head. I wasn’t about to look at her or watch what she was about to do. My fingers already ached where I gripped the wooden chalk ledge, so I barely felt the first whack. But I felt the sting of the second one and the third. I pinched the tears back and grit my teeth anticipating the next lash, but it never came. “Girls get three; boys get five,” Ms Robinson announced.
Taking our shoulders, she steered us away from the chalkboard and directed us back to our seats. Tyron’s head hung like an overripe coconut. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I was pretty sure he was crying, or about to. “You two are just gonna stay here for recess and keep me company,” she added tight lipped and self-righteous. I slipped into my desk and buried my head deep in my arms. I could hear the other kids getting up to go outside. I refused to look up at anyone. No one could make me.