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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shadow Boxing in the Dark

The following story is 85% true.  8% has been amended to protect the guilty (and because they paid me). 5% was altered to allow for a certain poetic license with the details and 2% is an extra helping of mayhem I added at the last minute.  Guys, I hope you like it.

I could barely keep my eyes open.  The Hawk, seated at her desk was droning on about participles; or maybe it was particles.  What were we studying now, grammar or science?  No, we had the Beast for science, so this must be grammar.  But I didn’t really care anyway. 

The spring weather had just started to turn warm and it was muggy in our classroom as the afternoon sun pounded the windows.  Our attention to the Hawk was often stretched even under the best of circumstances, so in looking around the classroom I wasn’t surprised to see several faces gazing out the window. 

Whether our astute teacher had sensed the obvious or if simply by the happenstance of fortune she closed her book firmly and said, “Class, you may have a 10 minute break.  Use the restroom or the water fountain, but please be respectful of the other classes as you walk down the hallway.”

Her announcement awoke me from my daze and I looked up at the clock – little hand at the one, big hand pointed at the six.  I quickly scanned a mental schedule and then my eyes searched for confirmation from the guys.  I found it from Daniel and Boz.  Kenny, Richard and Tom soon caught our glance.  Richard removed his eyeglasses and put them in his case. As Tom and the rest of the class moved quickly to take advantage of the break, five boys rose slowly. 

We took our time moving toward the door.  If anyone had reason to look at us, it’d be beyond obvious that we were up to something.  To all appearances, we looked like a miniature group of Alpha Beta frat brothers with one exception – we had the purposeful blank face of boys trying to hide something.  No adult could look at us and not laugh in recognition, but thankfully the Hawk did not look.

Until recently in Ste. Genevieve, the 6th grade classes were still included in the elementary school and the Junior High was for grades 7 & 8.  When we were finally 6th graders - ready to be the kings of the elementary - we were shuffled off to the annex basement of the Junior High.  Rather than ruling like kings, we spent our days as the denizens of our dungeon.

Moving slowly down the hallway, we took a careful look into the other classrooms.  Two other 6th grade classrooms were positioned across the hall from ours.   Seeing that both classes were engrossed in their studies, we continued down the hall.  One more classroom sat at the end of the hall next to the restrooms and water fountain.  Mr. C was the High School basketball coach and taught freshman year Biology.  For whatever reason, the annex basement was the location of his classroom.  Perhaps it was a statement of the tepid support for the basketball program at the school.  Mr. C, possibly feeling the same way, would be gone before we ever had the chance to play for him.

His last class of the day ended 30 minutes ago.  By this time, it was assured that his high school students would be in their next class back at their building and long gone from our little dungeon.  A quick glance in the room showed no students and no Mr. C.  That being our last hurdle, the five of us steeled our nerves for what lay before us.

Approaching the water fountain, I did a mental checklist of the other boys from our classroom.  By my tally, only Charlie and Tom were in the boy’s bathroom.  We each took our turn at the fountain.  Charlie came out the door and headed back towards class.  Sheila, standing by the water fountain, began to ask a question, but we ignored her.  Daniel opened the bathroom door and motioned for us to follow.

Rather than the doorways that are open perpetually, this bathroom had a door that fully closed and even had a bolt lock on it.  A closed door, a lock and a light switch were all we needed for our “task”.  It’s probably good that doors, locks and even light switches are disappearing from the school bathrooms, but they were our “accomplices” this day.

As we walked in, Tom was at the sink combing his hair.  Boz walked over and stood right behind him.  Tom was by far the smaller of the boys standing in the bathroom, while Boz was the biggest.  Putting on his tough guy voice, Boz said, “Nice comb.”

Tom tensed up, but didn’t say anything.  So Boz continued, “Why don’t you take it and go comb your hair somewhere else, before we do something else with your nice comb.”

Tom turned and taking his cue from the rest of us, stood on his tip toes and in an exaggerated Scarface-like accent, “Wat? You min dis comb?  You gonna tik dis comb and do wat?”

We were already starting to laugh, but we lost it when he finished with, “Say hello to mah little friend.”, then Tom popped Boz with a light punch to his mid-section.  He looked over at Daniel who was standing by the door. 

“Everyone ready?”

Tom gave Daniel the signal and he locked the door.  We all took a good look around and we couldn’t help but smile.  Six best friends who would do anything to protect the others.  We had been together since we were five years old.  In another six years, we would all stand together to receive our diploma.  To try and explain to our 11 year old selves, the brotherly love that existed between us that day would have been a futile exercise.  But we were brothers.

Then Daniel whispered, “Here we go!” and the room went dark.

We were the good boys.  Not better than others, we just didn’t get into trouble.  The six of us probably made it through High School without even a hint of detention. After graduation, we all went different directions.  Today, Kenny, Daniel, Boz and I now live, either in town or nearby.  Tom and Richard are farther away in body, if not in spirit.  My childhood is filled with memories of these boys.  Their homes and their parents all played a part in who we are.  But then, we were still boys with all the stupidity that boys will have at that age.

Boys are little balls of physical violence, often failing to control their urges as they seek to conform to cultural expectations.  Fisticuffs are generally frowned upon, but boys have an inner need to hit.  We were no different.  Earlier in the school year, we had made an important discovery.  Due to the secluded nature of the annex basement, the six of us would find ourselves alone in the bathroom on many occasions.  Thanks to the lock on the door, our potential to break the rules became greatly elevated in there.

The bathroom was a simple setup of one stall with a door and two urinals on the right side and two sinks with mirrors on the left.  One day, Kenny came in while the rest of us were there.  He flipped the light switch, tossing us into darkness.  I can’t say how it happened or who started it, but when Kenny turned that switch off, it was like turning a switch on in us.  We just started flinging punches wildly. 

Pitch black, we couldn’t see whom or what we were hitting.  But neither could any of us see by whom we had been hit.  In the old Batman TV show, the words "BAM!" and "KAPOW!" would show on the screen.  In the dark, the sound of those words took shape around us.

After a few minutes, I told the guys, “Hey, that’s enough guys.  Stop, stop, stop. I’m gonna turn the light back on, so stop.”  Thinking of what would happen to us if anyone was hurt badly; I wanted to have a look.  I paused for a few seconds then I flipped the lights on.

Huffing and puffing, sweaty and disheveled, the six of us looked at each other.  Seeing no one hurt, we began to laugh.

“Oh my God, that was awesome!” exclaimed Daniel.

Kenny said, “We have to do that again.”

All I could add was, “Wow!”

Boz and Tom started discussing that we needed to be careful.  “Next time we lock the door.”

“I don’t want to get in trouble.  We can’t do it when the other classes are on break too.”

“Yeah, only when it’s just us – no one else.  Richard, take your glasses off next time.  We don’t want to break them.”

“Next time…Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Richard asked.

Kenny answered, “Don’t worry.  It’ll be fine.”

“We just can’t do it all the time.” Tom added.

Daniel opened the door.  “We better get back to class before she comes looking for us.”

We straightened ourselves up, tried to right our hair and headed back to class looking no worse than after recess.

It was a couple weeks later before the opportunity presented itself again.  Even then I understood why we liked it.  The anonymity provided by throwing punches in the dark, allowed us to vent our primal urges without bringing any of the normal anger or ill feelings that normally follow such actions.  We weren’t hitting each other in there.  We were simply lashing out blindly at the walls that contained us.

We continued to pummel each other in the dark every week or so for several more months.  Kenny’s bloody nose gave us a pretty good scare just before Christmas.  Somehow he convinced the Hawk that is was from the dry winter air.  Perhaps her eyesight wasn’t what it once was when she acquired her nickname.

The Hawk retired following us.  I’m not surprised; we were a handful.  It’s now been about 10 years since she passed away.  My wife and I are good friends with her widower.  Jim is a good man with whom I always enjoy spending time.  He has a terrific sense of humor, but I can feel the emptiness inside from the loss of his soul mate.  I’ve never told him of our nickname for his wife, but I don’t know that he would disagree with us.  Jim knew his wife as well as us, after all.

By this spring day, we had yet to tire of our “shadow boxing”.  After Daniel turned the lights off, we went at each other.  With as much frenzy as we could muster, we punched and hit; the sound of the strikes loud enough to be painful to our ears.  But then I heard an unexpected sound.

“Boys!  Turn that light back on right now.” said a strange man’s voice.

It took a minute to register.  Then the voice said it again, “Boys, turn the lights on!”  I’m not sure about the others, but it finally dawned on me that I was hearing Mr. C’s voice.  My heart sank as I realized how much trouble we would be in.  We all started whispering to each other in the dark.

“What are we gonna do?”

“Let’s get out of here”

I turned too quick and ran into the wall causing me to fall.  I wasn’t alone as I helped someone else back to their feet.  The squeak of sneakers could be heard as others were zig-zagging in failed attempts to decide whether to leave or stay.  Mr C was still talking, but I couldn’t even think any longer.  I think I heard Boz and Richard start to cry (their parents worked at the school).  Even in the dark, everything can become a blur.

“Boys, you better turn those lights back on right this second!”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know.”

The lights came on and I saw Daniel by the switch.  But I didn’t see Mr. C.  We all just stood there awkwardly, in shock, holding our breath, waiting…..waiting….

The door to the one stall opened slowly.  My heart was pumping harder than ever before.  Time stood still as we peered inside.  In the stall was Mr. C – he was sitting on the toilet, pants around his ankles with a newspaper in one hand and a coffee cup in the other.  As he sat there, he looked at our faces.  Then he leaned forward on the toilet with a smile that really wasn’t, and he asked, “What the heck are you guys doing out there?”

We just stood there in a daze, unable to respond.  I don’t even know how to respond to what I’m looking at, so I wouldn’t even try.  Finally, Kenny answers with a mumbled response to say that we were just goofing around.   We awaken from our stupor to back up Kenny by shaking our heads in confirmation.  The enigmatic face continues to look at us all, then he said, “Well, get back to class and leave that light alone.”

Off we scurried.  Back in class we refused to even look at each other.  Some part of us was still waiting for the hammer to drop on us.  But it never came.  Mr. C didn’t report the incident or ever ask about it.  A long time passed before we even discussed it amongst ourselves.

Even now, I don’t know if he thought worse or better of us that day.  Maybe he just realized that boys are boys and this incident wasn’t worth reporting.  Personally, I think he just wanted to be rid of us.  When one is forced to share the dungeon with a hundred 11 year olds, an enjoyable bowel movement just might be the highlight of your day.

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