Tuesday, September 30, 2014


When I was in the fifth grade, I took an aptitude test, as did the rest of my classmates. One day after lunch, we were brought onto the gymnasium-slash-auditorium's stage (which was also the Music and French room -- it was a small school*),  and told we were writing a test. Private desks were arranged neatly and far enough between one another to discourage cheating. The exact date, the name of the test, and its purpose eludes me now, but I do recall two things: 1) there was no preparation for this test, and, 2) I got a very high score.

What my actual score was was never disclosed. I can't imagine that I got 100% on an impromptu test that included math, my weakest subject, but maybe I did. When it comes to multiple choice questions, there's always a chance that blind guesses can beat the odds, like a person hitting the lottery. Unlikely, but possible.

I was selected to attend an enrichment school. I didn't understand what that meant exactly, but I got the gist. I was deemed "smart." This was weird to me. I've never considered myself stupid or even of average intelligence, but neither have I -- not then, not now -- thought of myself as "gifted." It's one thing to be thought of as intelligent, but it's another to be perceived as a prodigy, which I knew I wasn't, and I didn't want to pretend I was one.

I think my mother would have been ecstatic for me to attend a school for gifted children. What parent wouldn't be proud that their child was among the best of their peers? But, god bless her, she left the final decision to me.

I'm not sure how much thought I put into my choice, whether I considered the pros and cons carefully and weighed each. I don't think I did. A ten-year-old doesn't have a lot of wisdom to work with, nor can he predict the outcome of his actions. I know this now, twenty-six years later, but at the time I chose to stay where I was. Because I was already being enriched by my deskmates.

There were twenty students in Ms. Hawthorne's fifth-grade class, and ten or so sixth graders whom, for whatever reason (school budget, learning difficulties, over attendance; you got me), would pop in and out daily. We sat at personal desks at the start of the year, then moved to four round tables, each comprised of five students, after Christmas break. I didn't think much about it then, but I realize now that each group of five was seated according to the students' learning level.

I and my four deskmates were the top of the class. I knew this because our shared desk was the closest to the bathroom, Ms. Hawthorne's desk, and the "cubby-holes," where we stored our boots, lunch bags, and all the other detritus kids of that age lug around.

We couldn't have been an easy bunch to put up with, each one of us special in his or her own way, all of us smart and starting to pick up the locomotion of adolescence. Ms. Hawthorne was a first-year teacher, and while we were never rude or vicious, we were kids, and kids can be cruel, even when they don't mean to be. A long time has passed since then, and now I can admit that we were often little jerks.

Except for Penelope.

Penelope Phillips was the only girl at our table. She wore thick-rimmed glasses and had a haircut two decades out of style. It might be in style now, for all I know. She talked in a subdued monotone that conveyed her intelligence and her reticence. She might have been classified as a nerd, then and now, but we never thought about her that way. I was ten, going on eleven, and preoccupied with being "cool," but for me and the rest of the boys at our shared desk, Penelope was an essential part of our mechanism. She was the axle around which we spun.

I'm not sure which part I played in this dynamic, but I knew then -- and know now -- that it was an essential role. Every day the five of us, together, would sit at our table, our wheel turning at a fast pace, revolution after revolution. Colin Creighton was the engineer, always the first and last to speak. Whenever he was silent, I was scared that he was choking, because that voice needed to be heard like plants need water. Stephen Forget was second-in-command. He'd get mad when we teased him about his surname, calling him "Stevie Forget" without the French pronunciation. We always made up afterwards, though, and the biggest laugh I've ever heard came from him when Stephen left a science binder behind in class at the end of the day. He ran back to retrieve it, and Colin shouted "Stevie remembers!" Stephen was at least fifty yards away, but his laughter flew back on the wind and caught in our ribs like a colorful kite stuck in a tree.

The other boy at our table was George Cross, a taciturn boy with cheeks like red plums. He was always making plans, always thinking about the future. At 10, he was going to open a comic book store. At 20, he was going to open an art exhibition showroom. George was a true genius. He showed me his sketches one day at lunch, and looked frightened when I said they were remarkable. "George, these are incredible!" I exclaimed, and I meant it. But George looked disappointed, embarrassed by my enthusiasm of his art. This is only my conjecture, but I think there was something inside of him that rejected praise, like a rose of Sharon trying to hold a baseball in its petals. He couldn't bear the weight. He committed suicide two years ago. I didn't attend the funeral. I hope he knew, before dying, how special he was.

Why am I thinking about this now, so long after our young lives took such different turns and paths?

Yesterday, I read in the English version of Der Spiegel that a 36-year-old Canadian woman named Penelope was found by a fly fisherman in Bavaria, in the Igelsbach. She was floating down the river, and she was dead.

I hope that isn't our Penelope. There could be a thousand or more Canadian women born in 1978 named Penelope, right? No need to overreact.

But I can't help it. We didn't tell Penelope how important she was when we were kids, and if she's gone, we won't ever be able to.

We used to call her LMNO-Penelope. And her smile was like a lunar eclipse: rarely seen, but always cherished.

* The next year we would have a separate building for French that was called a "portable" and looked like a cream-colored shipping container. I still find it strange that an ostensibly unmovable classroom was called a "portable," but maybe it really was a shipping container, and a truck could stop by anytime to haul it to another location if so required. For all I knew, it could have been a robot that awoke at night to battle interplanetary threats. There were a lot of things I was ignorant and unaware of at that age.

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