A tale of two units

April 13, 1989

Ah, the carefree days of youth. Hopping through the forest, chasing moths, beaning squirrels with slingshot and steelie, and basically doing things any man would be ashamed to do. Immaturity -- what a refuge.

Things were generally good up to the sixth grade. Our main enemy then was boredom, and even that wasn't much of a problem. Since we still has the attentions spans of gnats, there was always something to distract us, whether water stains or shadows. Even the towering tedium of my first-grade teacher Mrs. Kratevell (known to many an urchin as "Mrs. Crocodile," a gentle understatement), and her daily lecture on the value of silence in the classroom, could be overcome.

Insects (and there were plenty of them in Wisconsin) provided release in the fall and spring. The fat, slow flies of September would launch kamikaze attacks on the Crocodile, for even their tiny little brains recognized boredom as clearly as moldy cheese. They'd cruise in from across the room, swoop down upon her, and strafe her graying bouffant like a divine bluebottle wind. Looking back, I think they were attracted to her hairspray more than her verbosity.

In wintertime, we'd listen to her knees creak.

In those early years, few of us children were aware of the many social and class distinctions that would later reduce us to cringing toadies and pompous geese. Even then we had a had the occasional playground Mussolini and a handful of untouchables, yes, but the caste system was far more casual back then. Farmer kids had not yet learned to loathe the athletic townies. Few children had any inkling of how much their parents earned, so economic distinctions hadn't yet cropped up. The young proto-burnouts, later to become the dealers and pariahs of the rest of the kids, were still in the early stages of gasoline-sniffing. Their brain cells were still growing then.

After the nearly egalitarian days of the fifth grade, we were still unaware of the distinctions between us -- only that vague feeling that you were somehow better off than the kid across the aisle and that the one in front of you had some cringing and scraping due. According to the division of labor in the Rice Lake school system, we fifth-graders had reached the limit of what could be done for us at Hilltop Elementary School, and it was time to shuffle off to the Rice Lake Middle School.

The two schools were attached, but they stood worlds apart. The sixth-through-eighth-graders had always been kept a safe distance away from us by a long corridor leading past the sweaty gymnasium and the principal's bunker. We encountered those older monsters during the long bus hauls to and from school, and we wanted no part of them. I regarded the possibility of becoming one of them with suspicion, dread, and a glimmer of excitement.

But, like it or not, we were banished to the twilight side of the school building. We weren't even on the hill. We were more like serfs of the snowbank, where our eighth-grade masters charitably washed our faces.

The eighth-graders scrubbed our faces with frosty abandon, but our new teachers took to brainwashing. Ours were fresh, barely wrinkled brains, ready to be parboiled, rinsed, and put through the wringer. But first, the laundry had to be separated.

In the spirit of tumble-dry behavior modification, the sixth grade was divided into two groups. Unit One and Unit Two. The two units were placed at opposite ends of yet another corridor, but, since building a second gym for the sole purpose of keeping a bunch of 11-year-olds apart wouldn't fly past the school board, a teachers' lounge had to fulfill the symbolic function of the Berlin Wall in keeping the two units separate. There's no better no-man's-land than a teachers' lounge. The East German's could've used one around 1961.

As near as I can tell, we were separated into two units for some bizarre social experiment too cruel for monkeys and too sophisticated for pigeons. All this theorizing of mine is just hindsight, of course. At the time, we could no more figure out what was happening to us than a mouse could understand why all those barriers were placed between it and the cheddar.

Upon entering the sixth grade, we were cut off from half the kids we knew, and thrown in with parochial school refugees from St. Joseph's School. The parochial program extended through the eighth grade, but a few kids trickled out every year to broaden their horizons in the godless world of secular education. Fellow Roman Catholics like myself tried to reduce the shock for them, but I was at a loss to explain the bicameral system of sixth-grade education. All I could tell them was that they didn't have to pray, but it was a good idea.

Unit One was the penal colony of the sixth grade. Unit Two, we were constantly reminded by our instructors, contained the good children who didn't have to be punished. Fifth-graders who received the better grades were generally sent to Unit Two, but enough of them were tossed into Unit One to ensure a healthy feeling of inferiority among the inmates and ensure wicked grading curves resembling pregnant, headless boa constrictors. Many of the inmates had been known troublemakers, but a few goody-two-shoes were tossed in at random to provide good examples for the rest of the class. The rest of us were the average sort who had fallen victim to some mysterious sorting system and wound up in the Gulag Alphabetical.

The relative anarchy of playground society hardened into a prison pecking order. Steve, a Kennedyesque young snipe, pecked his way to the top and kept hold of his roost through high school. A gaggle of dukes, earls, and princesses fell in place beneath him, and at the bottom a mass of peasants and snitches congealed. Steve was king in those days, but he was a puppet ruler, propped up by the teachers and protected from competition. He had a winning smile and a clean record, and those were clear enough qualifications for office.

A few weeks into the school year, a spelling bee was held. It was the usual process of elimination. The kids all stood in a line, and one by one were given a word they hadn't had much business with before. The Latin legal terms were my favorites. Each kid would stand in sweaty anticipation, receive a word, repeat it, try using it in a sentence ("I had a habeus corpusfor lunch today," for example)and then botch the spelling horribly. The kid would then sit down in half-humiliation, half-relief, and watch the rest of the lot continue the process. Most of us dropped like flies, but Steve and I hung on -- I because of an addiction to Perry Mason ("I think you killed her with a modus operandi,Mr. Blake") and Steve because of a knack for Latin terms such as cat, rabbit,and Steve.In the end, Steve won, and I felt like the district attorney Perry used to decimate every week.

Unit Two developed its own aristocracy, a more or less benevolent dictatorship. Because it included the best and the brightest of the sixth grade, it grew a bit top-heavy. There weren't enough serfs at the bottom to hold it up.

Theirs was a society based on pep. Pep was power. Cheerleaders reigned in a tyranny of enthusiasm. It was a sort of optimist's paradise, where a positive attitude could win friends, influence people, and tear out the bowels of any who dared stand in its way.

The two hierarchies regarded each other with suspicion. The two units were fairly alien to one another; what little we knew of Unit Two was from comparisons our teachers made and the occasional run-in with the privileged toadies to and from lunch (they got first pickings). Maybe the little snipes were lying to us, but we were sure they dined on cake and ice cream and whatever it was that our lunch used to be called before we got it. They were the enemy.

Our teachers seemed to revel in the comparisons. I think a lot of it had to do with the end-of-the-year sports competition between units one and two. They groomed us like pit-bull trainers, dragging out the old trophy and recounting bitter and bloody victories won against insurmountable odds and with great physical injury. We were slow, undeserving discipline cases, but we usually won, by cracky, and we would again. We were mutts, but they were poodles. When the games finally came around, we chewed up the permed rats. The teachers took us from the pit, patched our ears, and threw us bones.

The next fall, both experimental groups were tossed into the same cage. Immediately, I knew who was from Unit One, and who was the enemy. There was no mistaking the signs -- that cake-fed plumpness, that more-or-less intact self-esteem, and that scar above the eye from the battleball competition.

By the end of high school, the battleball scars and torn ears had more or less healed. But most of us were still little units at heart. We still remembered our days in the gulag and the stories of cake and ice cream just past the teachers' lounge. My friends and I, oppressed ones all, tried to see our old enemies as comrades, fellow victims in a devious experiment, but nothing would distract us from the old animosity. Not even flies.

© 1989 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on April 13, 1989