Decatur Daredevils

When I was in fifth grade living in Northeast Philadelphia, I attended a pretty standard multi-level brick and cement elementary school called Stephen Decatur Elementary. We didn't have any fields, nor any big toys like swings or slides or a jungle gym and we didn't really have any playground equipment. Perhaps for some, this would mean we also didn't have any fun, but I didn't know any different and I'm sure most of my classmates didn't either.  From what I remember recess was the best time of day outside of PE and consisted mostly of running races and wall-ball with the boys, a little hopscotch and "Miss-Mary-Mack" with the girls, and overall lots and lots of tag-like games. It was the best.

But, I didn't always like Decatur. I started there in second grade and spent the first two months crying. Seriously, two months, ask my mom. Just like all of the other parents, my mom would walk me up to where my class lined up in the morning, and unlike any of my fellow classmates, I'd start bawling just as she'd start to leave. Every day I'd try to be brave and tell myself today was the day; today was the day I wasn't going to cry when my mom said goodbye. My teacher even had a conference with my mom because she said she just didn't know what to do with me, that I cried all day long. And I did, with my head down and face mashed into my folded arms. I'm not quite sure why I cried everyday, nor when or what eventually made me stop, but I can only imagine the relief my poor mom must have felt that first day the tears didn't come and I didn't beg her to take me with her when she tried to leave my side in line.

Gradually, my time at Decatur grew more positive with the exception of a stint in third grade when I figured out that if I told the nurse I had a stomach ache there was very little the school could do for me to "make me better". They would have to call my mom to come pick me up, and I would get to go home. This quickly became my routine. It wasn't until my mom picked me up one afternoon after a few such instances and explained to me that every time I didn't "feel good" she had to leave work to come and get me. She made me understand that if she didn't go to work, then she wouldn't have a job, and how her not having a job was not really an option. She made sure I knew that if I felt really, really, really bad then she would come and get me, but otherwise I had to tough it out. Attendance was never again an issue for me.

Third grade was also when I made my first (and only) attempt at forging my mom's signature. At the time my mom had what I thought was a super sophisticated signature full of squigglies and letters trailing off in small waves. I don't even know if I knew cursive at that time. All I knew was that my parents' signature was required on an assignment in which my showcasing of ability was a pretty shitty showing. I vividly remember lining up an old assignment with my mom's signature right next to the one I was preparing to defile. I made a few attempts with pencil with the intention that I'd trace over in pen once I got it right, but that never happened. The paper became thin and weak at the signature line from all of the erasing. I decided it was now or never. I remember convincing myself that the signature will probably turn out better if I just did it in pen, knowing it would be my only shot. It didn't. Mrs. B-something was so kind. She pulled me aside, told me she knew it was not my mom's signature, and to never do it again. I didn't.

In fourth grade I really hit my stride. I made friends and did well enough in school and didn't in any way have social emotional issues that stood out as different from my classmates. I had a pretty incredible teacher, Mr. Chudoff, who for some reason I remember way more than the majority of my high school teachers. Both he and my parents shared an appreciation for West Side Story. He played the soundtrack on a record player during class and my family used to watch the movie each year it was on TV. It was like kismet.

But fifth grade? Fifth grade was the best. This was the grade that I joined my first school sponsored sports team, jump-roping. I think there were like eight of us and we practiced on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We even performed at a school assembly or two. I know what you're thinking...badass, and you are absolutely right. And, I also bet you're thinking that it couldn't get any better for me, but it did... in the form of Decatur Daredevils.

Decatur Daredevils occurred in PE, in the Spring. The idea was a decathlon of sorts of PE friendly feats of strength, but it was more like a personal achievement as opposed to competing against classmates. I don't remember exactly how many events there were, but you could only become a true "Decatur Daredevil" if you completed all of the events. The most difficult of all the skills was the ropes. There were five ropes hanging down from the gym ceiling. The goal was to climb to the top of the first rope, then come back down half way, then reach out and grab the neighbor rope to make the exchange, essentially monkey climbing from rope to rope to rope until the fifth rope is reached allowing the participant to climb the rest of the way down. [Understand that this would never be allowed today in our schools and there were only thin, fold-out mats strewn underneath.]

I remember playing around with the rope, going up a bit and trying it out. It didn't seem hard at all except I didn't want anyone to see me doing it. Some might say I had (have) a fairly irrational fear of being the center of attention. I knew I could do the ropes, but I kind of didn't want anyone to see me do it. My plan to be inconspicuous worked until someone spotted me at the top of the first rope and told the teacher. I had made it all the way up with no difficulties whatsoever. I automatically froze from the recognition and attention of what seemed like every other classmate in the entire gym. I could feel the heat pulsing up into my face with each exerted breath. I could feel the discomfort in my stomach from them all watching and my hands instantly moistened with sweat. The gym teacher began calling out directions for my remaining steps to complete the task. I'm absolutely sure she thought I was going to drop off like a mosquito hitting a bug zapper.

As soon as I heard her soothing voice telling me what to do, she was like a beacon and it was just as easy coming down and switching from rope to rope as it was when I initially climbed up to the top. Ultimately, I received the ribbon or medal or trophy or whatever was given for competing all the tasks, one of only two girls to have done so up to that point. I had come a long way from crying every day and what I should have done is owned it. I should have climbed to the top and I should have yelled, "I'm on top of the world!".


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