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chris elementary playground
In fourth grade, Scott Costello was the kid nobody wanted to cross. It wasn’t because he was exceptionally big. He was skinny like me and perhaps only an inch or two taller. His pale complexion made him look fragile and delicate, actually. He just had a temper. A nasty, unforgiving one. And if you pissed off Scott, he never let it slide. Stories of the fights he got into were legendary. Right when you were about to discredit the storyteller as an exaggerator, a lover of fiction and urban myth, there would enter Scott with a welt under one eye, a scabby cut across the bridge of his nose, or a Band-Aid on his jaw. He wore these wounds like badges of honor, walking around as if they didn’t hurt and never had. If you asked, he would have attested to this.

But we never asked. Rumors told us these injuries were from scuffles with sixth graders on the playground after school or at the park, and it was commonly held the other guy always looked worse.

Scott was exceptionally athletic. He cut his teeth playing baseball and football with kids twice his size. We heard stories of a brother already in high school who allowed Scott to play with him and his friends. So Scott was used to having to prove himself. Among us smaller kids, he had nothing to prove. I remember thinking he’d make a great addition to a team in my little league but never brought it up. Scott didn’t exude the camaraderie of organized sports. It was hard to picture him on a team of any kind. Generally, I tried not to speak to him, lest I say the wrong thing and get on his bad side.

Being the best player on the field must have been frustrating for him, and Scott was quick to tell others when he felt they weren’t playing up to the level of his expectations. Not a game went by that didn’t feature Scott yelling at someone over something trivial. Many of us considered ourselves competitive, but next to Scott, we may as well have been blissfully ignorant of what it meant to win or lose. Whenever he went off on a tirade, I stared down at the asphalt blacktop with its painted base paths chipping and flaking away. I’d allow my gaze to travel upwards past the fences to the tops of the trees that grew along the perimeter of our playground, wanting to remind whoever would listen that the arena in which we contested our strengths was nothing but a slowly decaying, insignificant corner of a tiny world.

I remember one day walking back to class after lunch ended and seeing Scott lingering at the backstop, refusing to move. The rest of us were walking back to class for a social studies lesson. But instead of directing us to open our textbooks when we returned, Mr. Fogle went to the file cabinet and took out an old mimeographed article. Scott trickled in the room last, long after most had settled into their chairs. As soon as he slumped into his seat, Mr. Fogle placed the paper in front of him. A hush immediately filled the room as we all anticipated some kind of punishment.

Scott was asked, told really, to read aloud what he had been given. His voice squeaked and cracked, unsure. I cringed in my seat and stared at the carpet, feeling the solitude of the lone voice carrying the room, trying to make itself clear. Scott read a story about a little league baseball game full of bickering parents and angry children. As the connections to the afternoon deepened, Scott’s voice grew more unsteady until all that remained was the sound of something scratching glass.

He continued, “Umpire Albert Krause died from injuries sustained after being struck in the head by a thrown bat.”

I didn’t dare look at Scott, but I could tell he was crying. At one point no one knew if the story had ended or if there was more on the page that Scott couldn’t bring himself to read.

Mr. Fogle had made his point.

Maybe those who had been picked on or threatened felt vindicated by the teacher putting the bully in his place, but we didn’t feel a sense of victory, and we never forgave Mr. Fogle. We weren’t quite ten years old, but we knew about scrapes and scars. We knew the story behind a welt or bruise might only be part of the story, and we knew how winning felt necessary when the insignificant arena was the only place you believed you mattered.

Our little daily battles on the playground didn’t amount to anything. It was hollow competition for a moment’s worth of crowing. We were all playing the same game, and as much as we detested Scott, he was still one of us, seeking a glory as tangible as a wisp of smoke drifting out beyond those fences and treetops, dissipating into a space of incredible emptiness.

Christian Cerone was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.  After a boring stint in the corporate world, including a few good years at the Los Angeles Times, Cerone was hired as a language arts/social studies teacher in the LA Unified School District, where he survived a year and a half at a middle school and eight years at El Camino Real High School. After spending a few years away from teaching in Portland, he enjoyed a one-year stint at Taipei American School in Taiwan. He has since settled with his family in Seattle and teaches language arts at Renton High School. He has a wife, two children, and a nagging desire to figure out what he wants to be when he gets older.

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