At Blue Plains Elementary School, the teachers expected the kids to line up in an orderly fashion during lunch break. We would be herded like cattle into a small, narrow corridor and told to wait quietly for our turn. Those who tried to rush through the hallway got forcefully redirected to the principal’s office at the other end of the school.
A doorway guarded each end of the corridor. One, the entrance from the outside, and the other, the sacred passageway leading into the cafeteria. But none of us could get in without being checked off by the fat lady sitting at the desk, situated directly next to the door. She sat in all the glory of St. Paul at the pearly gates, holding the fate of our appetites in the swing of her pen. Her menacing glare staved off any hungry children who dared cross the threshold without her permission.
On scorching summer days, the asphalt outside would heat up to a hellish temperature, enough to roast all the schoolchildren alive. It made the inside of the corridor swelter into a disgusting mass of heat, sweat, and incessant chatter. Groups of tittering girls chatted and giggled in turns, pigtails drooping in the heat. The boys—they just scowled, sweat soaking through their T-shirts and dripping off their chins.
It was hot, and it was lunchtime. There was nothing to do while we stood waiting in the cafeteria line, squashed into a corridor with rivulets of sweat running down our backs.
The boys needed a distraction.
I stood just behind my 4th grade classmates, and saw them begin to nudge each other knowingly.
One of them, the best handball player in our grade, suddenly stuck a chubby finger at me.
“Hey, look, it’s Sam Doogins,” Coley called out. “Back away, everyone. This guy has germs.”
The boys began to laugh.
The girls squealed. They pressed back against the whitewashed walls and half-turned in my direction. Excitement and 100 degrees Fahrenheit flushed their cheeks. I hastily followed them, discreetly scooting out of the way of Coley’s damning finger. He kept his hand steady, directed at someone beyond where I had been standing. I saw now that the kids at the front of the line were craning their heads to look back; I shrank further into the mass of children.
None of them spared me a glance. They were too busy ogling at the boy who’d just joined the end of the line.
Sam Doogins had arrived.
I could tell right away it was him, not just because of Coley’s well-timed announcement, but because the lunch line began to writhe. The kids recoiled from him like he was a disease. The Mad Cow disease, or the Swine Flu that all the adults talked about these days. They scrunched up in tight groups, repelled by the presence of Sam Doogins. It was fascinating. The line never deformed in such a way without him around, like the tongue of a snake that splits at two ends.
He had these buggy eyeballs that constantly rolled this way and that, the whites of his eyes always much too visible. His buck teeth hung prominently from his upper lip. The way his neck stretched up and forward reminded me of a horse, or some type of awkward giraffe, whose head is much too small for his body. His blond hair had been cropped short—so short, in fact, that he may as well have been bald. Certainly, his pale skin blended perfectly with the color of his hair, prominently displaying the dent on the right side of his skull.
In all my years in the same class as him, I’d never heard him speak more than a dozen words. When he did speak, his voice slurred, making him sound like a dumb brute. Even now, I could feel a frown of distaste on my face.
“H-hi,” Sam mumbled, eyes ever shifting. He crossed his arms, uncrossed them, put them at his side, then brought them up again. I wished he’d just keep still. We were all looking at him—couldn’t he manage to stand a bit more smartly?
A collar of sweat had formed on his shirt’s neckline. I heard one girl say the word “gross.”
A smile played on Coley’s lips. An amused smile. Like he’d just gotten the latest model of the Hot Wheels toy cars.
“Hey, Sam. Why don’t you join us up here? We’ll let you cut in line.”
Nobody said anything. Not even Sam. But everybody knew that Sam would take the offer.
He shuffled forward, worn sneakers squeaking on the tiles. As he passed through his staring peers, the children began to crowd in again. The kids in the back inched forward, but made sure to maintain distance. It was a game—how close could you get without actually getting close?
The heat didn’t matter much right now. Here was the best entertainment of the day.
Sam Doogins looked pretty happy himself. A grin, almost eager, had plastered itself onto his narrow chin. After all, Coley had invited him to join. Coley was pretty popular.
I moved aside to let Sam pass, stealing furtive glances from him to the other boys. I knew this wasn’t the end of it. The lunch line still had a long way to go.
Sure enough, as soon as Sam Doogins got to the front, another boy yelled out, “watch out, everyone, don’t step on the floor tiles Sam walked on! You’ll catch his germs!”
A roar of laughter came from the back of the line. I heard some girls yell out, “Really!? Oh no!” while another boy hurriedly began to identify the specific tiles. The ones that had been defiled by Sam’s shoes.
These things had to be noted quickly, before we forgot which one was which. They all looked the same, after all—plain white panels 8 inches wide. It made it hard to tell.
“That one, right? And this one? Definitely these two over here!” he pointed out each square, shouting loud and clear for the benefit of those who couldn’t see.
Then, came the contest.
If before we had been a scattering mass of ants, now we became a flurry of hopping fleas, all eager to jump this dangerous zone. The braver boys went first, leaping over the tiles in one big pounce to land on the other side in triumph. Flawless. Some of the other boys whistled in awe.
Then went the girls. Most of them weren’t as athletic, so they’d hop-skip around, avoiding the forbidden squares while jumping from one clean tile to the next. Julia, who could beat every girl in school at hopscotch, leapt through beautifully, earning herself a round of applause.
As one after another, the children passed the obstacle course and went to grab their lunches, I stood there, looking at Sam. He didn’t look at me. Some others standing behind me began to nudge at my back, impatient.
“Hurry up,” said a girl, “You’re holding up the line.”
I ignored them, and stared at Sam Doogins for a moment longer. He had an unreadable expression on his face. He didn’t look angry or embarrassed. He didn’t seem to be ashamed or in tears. He just stood, bony shoulder pressed against the wall, his eyes boring into the white tile floor. I followed his gaze and studied the tiles. Black spots speckled the smooth panels.
I looked back up, but not at Sam.
Fixing my eyes on Coley, I asked, “Which ones were the bad ones again?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Sam for a reaction. He didn’t give any.
Coley answered me graciously. “These two here, and that one. Be careful for this one, because he stayed on it a little longer than the others.”
I nodded. “Got it.”
Gingerly, I stepped over the designated tiles and lightly leaped over the last two. It was quite a good leap—I wished the remaining kids would clap for me too.
All I got was a crooked grin from Coley.
I lingered a moment longer, but saw that my two seconds of spotlight were over. With a slight twinge of disappointment, I moved on past the lunch lady, who squinted as I passed, and gravitated toward the salad bar. Behind me, I heard the others eagerly take their turns. Some of the girls who’d gone ahead of me now stood by the open pizza boxes, chatting idly about which My Little Pony was their favorite in last week’s episode. A few of Coley’s friends rushed by me to grab a table, yelling as they went:
“I’ll be winning handball today!”
“Not a chance, dude. It’s all me!”
“You? You suck at slicies. Just stay out today, why don’t you?”
Grabbing a plastic tray from the pile, I finally chanced a glance back toward the line. Coley had moved on, his boredom relieved and his stomach grumbling. Joining his buddies at the biggest table in the cafeteria, he began a lively conversation about next week’s soccer game. One by one, the kids in my class brushed by Sam and passed through the cafeteria entrance. None of them bothered to notice that they were cutting in front of him. The boy didn’t attempt to come into the cafeteria. I looked at him, perhaps willing him to meet my stare.
He never looked up, eyes fixed on the white tiles.