By John Affleck
In the morning, the light changes from blue to gray, and I know if it’s snowed even before I look out the window, which is the first thing I do every day. Spider-web frost across the panes means it’s cold, and the chances of heavy snow are small. If it’s storming, the panes are just wet or have a thick frost on them. Today, the ice is thin. I scrape it and take a peek down from my second-floor bedroom at the crabapple tree, praying its branches will be doubled over. No such luck. Just an inch or two overnight, nothing for upstate New York. I’m gonna have to go to school, and I don’t want to do that, ever. Not even today, when there’s actually something to look forward to.
The morning routine is like this. I put on my clothes: Kmart underpants with a green stripe around the waistband, black socks, blue corduroys, white shirt and purple tie. Then, down the stairs for a breakfast of cereal and a couple of slices of underdone bacon. Brush my teeth, grab my books and stuff my gym clothes for floor hockey into a brown grocery bag. Just touching my gym uniform today gives me butterflies.
Dad’s leaving. He sees me as he’s closing the door and keeps going. My sister is in junior high and she’s already gone, has to be in early for something most days. I dig in the closet for my boots. It’s wet in there from the ice melting off our shoes, and my socks get damp. Where are those boots? I say a quick prayer to St. Anthony, the finder of lost objects, and bingo, there they are, black rubber zip-ons. I slide into my shoes and then put plastic bags over them, so they’ll slip into my boots easier. Then put on my coat, an olive green parka, and Buffalo Sabres knit cap with a ball of blue and yellow yarn on top.
It’s just barely daylight at the bus stop. Must be about 12 degrees out. Glad it’s not windy. I wait with four other kids, all older. They talk among themselves. We wait, five minutes. Eight. Nine. The index and middle fingers on my right hand start to go numb. The bus arrives. Our buses are named after saints. Our bus is the St. Vincent bus. The floors are filthy and the seats, once the color of my coat, have darkened from years of kid dirt. It’s overheated, and we go from freezing outside to sweating in our parkas.
I like the seat with the hump — you know, the one over the back wheel — because it’s different. But it’s three seats from the back of the bus, and that’s where the bullies sit. So I take a window seat in the third row. Some first-grader gets on and sits next to me. Snot covers his lips. He smiles. I look out the window and think about gym class. I imagine knocking the crap out of the kids from the other third-grade section. It takes a long time to get to our school, which is Catholic, because we drive all around town picking up kids who go there.
We pull into the parking lot at last. Off the bus and into school. We say an Our Father, the Pledge and sit at our desks, five rows of six, me in the fourth row, fourth seat back. I look out the window and fight the urge to cry. Outside, under a gunmetal sky, is a huge, unbroken field of snow. We can’t go out there. They never let us out at lunch. Am I the only one who realizes we’ve been sentenced to eight years here? So far we’ve done 2½, and I know how long that’s been, exactly. One hundred eighty school days plus one hundred eighty school days plus one hundred seventeen school days equals four hundred seventy-seven. I calculate how many school days to go until graduation. Then I try to figure out how many days I’ve been alive and whether the amount of time I’ll be here is greater or less than the amount of time I’ve been alive. Little projects like that make the time go by while I wait. For gym class, for Christmas vacation, for summer.
Another thing, call me a nerd, call me a psycho, everybody else does, but am I the only who notices something about the math problems here? Sister Caroline writes the numbers on the chalkboard (31 + 55 = ?) and makes someone get up and solve it. Patrick walks to the front of the room and gets this one wrong. I knew the answer was 86. Without looking. And the next will be 123. Caroline uses the same notebook every day.
To waste some more time, I rerun our floor hockey match in my mind. The game is between the boys from our section of the third grade, 3B, against the other section, 3A. We go to gym three times a month, and each class this month is one period of the big hockey game. It’s the only thing we’ve talked about with each other. Mr. King, the teacher, let us kids pick the starters, and I got to play defense on the first line. The reason? Everybody knows if I get ticked off enough, I’ll fight. And you want a guy on defense who’s crazy. I was so proud when they took me.
The game started well, and Danny Kavanaugh scored to put us up 1–0. But then, on the face-off after the goal, somebody took a slap at the puck, and it hit me in the eye. Mr. King made me go to the nurse’s office.
The next week, other kids got a chance to play, and I had to sit out with the rest of my line. We watched as 3A took a 5–2 lead.
Which brings us to today. The first team is back in, and when it’s finally time for gym class — the second-to-last last period of the day, before reading — we huddle and agree to bring the puck down the sides of the gym and then flip it to our center, that’s Danny, at the last second. His job is to take quick shots. It’s cool to be in the huddle with everybody cheering, and then the plan works. First one goal, then another. With a few minutes left, Danny ties it up, 5–5. We’ve come all the way back. The kids in the bleachers are stamping their feet.
Finally, 3A makes a charge at us. Their kids rush down the floor. I get between their center and our goal, marked by two folding chairs used for bingo night, and block his shot with my body. Cool. Here we go. Now I have the puck. I look up and see an opening. I could take this thing right down the floor and score. A huge rush of energy runs through me. I’m gonna do it. Then, it’s hard to describe this in some flowery way, so I’ll just say it. As I stick-handle the puck, I actually hit it — backward, into our own goal. It’s 6–5, for 3A, and those jerks are jumping all over each other. Mr. King blows his whistle. The game is over. We lose, because of me. Our goalie drops his stick and starts bawling his head off right there on the gym floor. The other guys just walk away in all directions, stunned. Danny uses a curse word I’ve only heard maybe five times. Nobody else says anything, except the goalie, who sobs: “Why did you do that?” I can’t answer. I don’t want to cry, but I know tears are leaking out of my eyes, too.
We march back to class. One of their kids, Billy Barkus, stands in the doorway of 3A and calls us “nippers” as we go by. “Nice game, nippers.” We have these desks with kind of heavy tops that lift up, so I raise mine and hide behind it until reading is over and they call the St. Vincent bus to take us home. I wish I was somewhere else. I wish I was someone else. There’s no way I’m coming back here tomorrow. I’m scratching it off my days to graduation right now.
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John Affleck is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State. Before that he was a national editor in news and then sports at The Associated Press. He covered everything from presidential politics to the World Cup, and even served a short stint in the AP’s Baghdad bureau. Offered a chance to be the full-time war editor on his return home, John decided that, on balance, he prefers sports as a metaphor for war. Read more about him here.