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Twelve is Too Old

‘The Playground’ we called it, was the high school two doors down from my house. It was a large blonde brick building that took up half of the entire block it’s black hardtop playground included basketball courts, a baseball diamond with batters cage, hopscotch board, and a scaled down football field ,all marked with thick white paint.

Mr. Gianelli was the head security guard there. An elderly man with thick black eyebrows, a year round tan and wavy white hair that looked like a rippling silver lake tamed neatly on his large head. Mr. G was constantly haunting the hallways and patrolling the playground from morning till evening with his cluster of silvery keys jingling from his belt loop.

I’d known him all of my life. I fancied him like a grandfather, replacing the two I had lost. He was a gruff man who scared other kids with his loud voice when you disobeyed a rule, wrote on a bench or threw your gum on the ground, but I liked him. He was a good whistler; that has always been, for me, an intriguing talent to posses. I thought he had a soft spot for me too. He started my nickname that followed me through my entire life in Jersey, ‘Little Lyons‘.

I grew up in this house next door to the playground for fourteen years. There, we played hopscotch, baseball, basketball, knock-hockey, ping pong and more. After school let out and on weekends, the high school was a recreation center.For my mother with five children, it was a blessing. As the youngest of the five, Ipractically LIVED there. It was staffed with a teacher who would host arts and crafts sessions. There in the wooden floored rooms of the school’s basement, we sewed ,painted and pinched clay pots. I was as familiar with the inside of that school as the high school students that went there every day. I was comfortable in the basement ,which alwayssmelled like an odd mixture of floor wax, paint and sweat.

During the summer these rooms would also serve as practice grounds for the annual Summer Show. Any kid over five years old could be in it. The teachers, along with student aids, would help the kids rehearse and make costumes for months .When I finally turned five I was thrilled to finally be in the summer show.

After working hard on my songs and dances, I stood there on the stage looking out at the crowd. It suddenly dawned on me that I wouldn’t get to see the show! My mother was out on the bleachers waving and smiling. All I could think of was how I wanted to be there with her ,watching. I broke free from the chorus line and ran to my mother crying. When the

Show was over, the crowd applauded. I got an uncomfortable stretching feeling in my stomach. Tears teetered on the rims of my eyelashes. I should have stayed up there, then everyone would be clapping for ME too. A clear case of the grass looking greener on the other side.

The following year I did not make the same mistake .I dedicated myself ,once again, to learning the songs and dance routines. Thereafter, every summer I waited for the time when the big black piano would be rolled into the erstwhile art room and we would rehearse our songs for the show. Tap- toe -heel, shuffle -ball change, and step and turn and wave and kick. At night Iheard it over and over in my mind; falling asleep with the fan at the end of my bed stirring up the hot air and blowing it on my tired back.

The summer of my twelfth year I was not the same girl who danced across the stage the previous years. The obvious difference was the change in my body. I went from a baseball playing twig of a tom boy, to a lip gloss wearing tween with a budding assets.

What I did at the playground , then, was more like hanging out . I was more content watching the boys play baseball than playing myself. Sitting on the cement wall against the fence chewing a wad of gum, I giggled with friends about which boys we thought were cute.

The announcement was made that rehearsals were starting for the show and I went downstairs to the basement with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. I started learning the dances, but felt strangely awkward. The moves seemed stupid, hokey ~definitely UN-cool. The boys didn’t help my awkwardness. They had found a new game ~ peeking through the windows, pointing and laughing at us during practice.

I told the teacher that I did not want to be in the show this year and went outside leaving them to their shuffle hop steps. Because I had quit the show, a few other girls did too. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but I was glad my friends chose to hang out with me and pursue more lofty interests~like boys.

Mr. G. stopped whistling when he saw me. For the first time I felt I’d crossed him, after being so careful not to all my life. He made no bones about it. He said I shouldn’t have taken the others with me, and didn’t believe me when I said it was their own choice . He stopped calling me Little Lyons. My decision had caused me to grow up instantaneously.

I sat in the audience for the first time in seven years. Everyone seemed to be asking me why I wasn’t in the show this year. Parents, teenagers, other kids, all wondered why I was not up on the stage. I told them I was ‘too old’. To which I got that typical Jersey face: pursed lips, curled up on each end ,slit eyes and a wrinkled nose ~ as if something in the room stinks and it’s you.

But as I sat there watching the summer show going on without me I felt that familiar tug in my stomach. I could see Mr. G sitting in his seat avoiding eye contact with me. His disappointment in me was like a band aid being ripped off of thin flesh. So I sat there watching the performance, a portion of my past, knowing there was no going back.

I would never be applauded by a crowd again for merely being adorable.. This time I could not reverse my decision and run toward my change of heart. I was weighted down with my choice. I could never go back , could never admit to my remorse.

No do-overs for me.

Watching the show through guilty eyes, I chose to act tough, chewing my wad of gum, popping a few obnoxious bubbles… trying to convince myself that I was too old . Yes, twelve was way too old for that. I blew a huge bubble and bit down hard. POP!

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2 Comments

  1. Ellen,

    You are really getting something out of these exercises. It’s great to see.

    Your description of Mr. G. in paragraph two is spot-on. Not that I’ve ever seen the guy — but the writing there is so vivid that I feel like I’ve known him all my life. Strong descriptions like these really help you connect with a reader, pull him/her right into the narrative. Well done.

    Among the other highlights here is the description of your “blossoming”: “I went from a baseball playing twig of a tom boy, to a lip gloss wearing tween with a budding assets,” and I thoroughly enjoyed picturing the “typical Jersey face.” It’s quite clear that your childhood setting plays a large role in your writing — Jersey is still with you. It informs everything that you write … even, I would suspect, writings that aren’t even set there.

    One question: What the hell is “knock-hockey”?

  2. David, Thankyou for your input. I really am digging the workshop. I really appreciate it.

    And Knock -Hockey is a game alot like air hockey, only sans electricity. the board was a wooden “hockey rink” that was placed on a bench longways, creating a little seat at each end for the two individual players. A cute little wooden hockey stick was used to knock the wooden ‘puck’ into your oppponents goal. The goals had little nets to catch the puck, but after a while they broke and or were torn off, creating the new game of SLAP hockey , where you hit the HELL out of that puck and attempted to sting the inner thighs of your bench straddling opponent!~ OUCH! I can still feel it!


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