Our fate is written
In a book that none can see
Like every child in America, school was an important part of Elvis’s life. First- through-sixth-graders in his neighborhood attended a small Catholic school a few blocks away. The most valuable form of currency that kids could carry around in their pockets at Cristo Rey Elementary was an array of marbles. Every year with the coming of spring, the marble craze started up again, and Elvis was out on the playground with hordes of boys and a handful of girls kneeling in the dirt.
“Hey, who’s in?” shouted Miguel, as he traced a crude circle with a broken tree branch.
“Me and Elvis,” answered Rudy, as they came running up to the playground.
The goal was to knock an opponent’s marble out of the circle. If you did so, you claimed the marble. However, if your marble ended up inside of the circle, you forfeited it.
“Okay then, I’m shooting first,” Miguel declared, and he stuffed a plump, dirty hand into the front pocket of his jeans that was bulging with his stash. He carefully sorted through it until he found the lucky cat’s eye that always ensured victory.
Just then, skinny Vincent came running up and begged, “Have you guys started yet? Come on, let me in the game.” He peered pathetically at Miguel until Miguel grudgingly shrugged his shoulders indicating that Vincent was in. This is how it went day after day, recess after recess. All anyone could think about were marbles lost and won in the heat of mortal combat.
In another popular game, you could claim your opponent’s marble simply by hitting it with your own. This game could stretch all over the playground and sometimes lasted for hours. A more finessed type of competition consisted of drawing a line in the dirt with all of the players standing about 10 feet away. Rivals shot their marbles toward the line, with the goal of having their marble stop closest to the line without going past it. Whoever succeeded won all of the marbles that had been shot during the game.
Some marbles were considered more valuable than others. Cat’s eyes were common fare unless they were a unique color. A “cleary” was treasured more because of its transparent quality. “Boulders” were oversized marbles and considered quite desirable. A “steely” was made of shiny, silver metal and was identical to a ball bearing.
A common conversation that might be heard on the playground sounded something like this:
“I’ll trade you two orange cat’s eyes for a cleary.”
“No way! This cleary is rare, vato. Look at the color when you hold it up to the sun. It has blue streaks. I never saw one like it.”
“Okay, okay. Then how about two orange cat’s eyes and a boulder? Check this one out, man; it’s twice as big as the other boulders.”
“I don’t know, ese. How about you throw in a steely?”
“No way! This is my lucky steely. I wouldn’t trade this for 10 clearies.”
This type of bartering went on constantly, and surely many future stockbrokers could trace their beginnings to transactions such as these.
It seemed there was always a new fad or craze sweeping the tiny elementary school. For a while, the big thing might be yo-yos. The kids who could make their yo-yo “sleep” or “go around the world” or “walk the dog” were greatly admired. As hard as Elvis practiced, he could never enter into this exalted company. The next week, kids might all come to school with hula hoops and begin holding competitions to see who could swing their hips the fastest and make the hula hoop roll around their waists the longest.
The swing set was an intense field of competition as well. A contestant’s goal was to swing as high as possible and, at the height of the ascent, jump off and fly through the air farther than anyone else. Daredevils measured their distance to determine the day’s champion. This game led to a fair share of skinned knees and even a few broken arms and ankles. However, reckless abandon took precedence over caution in the go-for-broke world of the playground.
Elvis marveled at the girls who strapped their sweaters around the monkey bars and spun in circles at breakneck speed for amazing stretches of time without ever getting dizzy or sick. He couldn’t imagine how they did this, especially right after lunch.
Lunch hour at Cristo Rey was typical fare for the 100 or so students. The lunchroom was a large, boxy prefab metal building with large windows. About 20 gray, Formica tables filled the room, with cooks situated on the far end of the building behind shiny, steel counters with glass partitions.
Students were herded in lines according to grade, with the first-graders eating first and the sixth-graders receiving their meals last. Elvis and his classmates began lunch by picking up brightly colored plastic trays and silverware. Then, they trekked to the next section for a napkin and a carton of milk. Finally, they approached the metal counters, where lunch ladies heaped spoonfuls of steaming food onto their waiting trays that were slid along a smooth surface. At each food bin, a new lunch lady portioned out a helping from each of the USDA’s essential food groups.
There was always a main course that a particular day was named after. Wednesdays were “hamburger day” and Fridays were “fish day” because, as good Catholic children, they could not eat meat on Friday. Other days were randomly selected and given names like “pizza day” or “taco day.” The one day that Elvis did not look forward to was “chef’s surprise day.” This usually meant that there was leftover foodstuff that had to be used up before it went bad, and it was combined into unrecognizable concoctions like “sloppy joes.” Along with the main course, lunch consisted of a small, wilted salad and a dessert choice of fluorescent Jello, yellow custard pudding or hard fudge.
Overall, the effect of this dining experience led to quite a few upset stomachs and kept the school janitor quite busy during the afternoons, sprinkling his magical green flakes onto the school floors, which incomprehensibly allowed him to sweep up vomit with a push broom and never even have to get on his knees to clean up the mess.
Perhaps the main culprit responsible for student digestive problems was the merry-go-round. The inventor of this piece of recreational equipment had surely envisioned well-behaved, laughing children spinning around at a moderate speed, with cooperation being the rule when fellow riders wanted to hop off or climb aboard. However, in reality this was not exactly how things worked at the school. The “unmerry-go-round” quickly became an instrument of sadism and torture, especially for the biggest bully at Cristo Rey—a big, fat, sixth-grader named Eugene.
He delighted in tormenting kids smaller and younger than himself. Unfortunately, this included just about everybody. One of his favorite pastimes was inflicting what he called “Indian sunburn.” He would grab his prey and force him or her to hold out an arm; then, he would wring the screeching child’s wrist or sometimes the forearm if the victim were younger and smaller (he did not discriminate according to age or gender). The friction caused by this act, which resembled opening the lid of a jar that was stuck, left a red, stinging welt and delighted Eugene to no end.
He also was particularly fond of ears, especially in cold weather. A red, exposed ear was the perfect target for his vengeful forefinger, which he flicked with the power of a steel spring. This inevitably sent the unfortunate soul into painful hysterics. His ringing guffaw could be heard echoing across the playground. Whenever kids heard this sound, it was a signal that someone was suffering.
Eugene was the Marquis de Sade of the merry-go-round. Unhappy victims, who happened to be caught in the spiraling web of cold, hard steel, were twirled around faster and faster until the merry-go-round was flying at warp speed, with terrified, pleading passengers holding on for dear life, shutting their eyes and hoping against hope that they would not lose their sweaty grip and go catapulting from the wheel of tears.
“Have you had enough yet?” he loved to ask his captive riders.
They pleaded, “Yes, yes, please stop!”
He would snort and reply, “Well, let me think about it. Nah, I don’t like the way you asked me. Try it again, and call me sir.”
“Please, sir, stop! I think I’m getting sick!”
“That’s better, but I still don’t feel like you really mean it.”
This usually went on for quite some time until Eugene got arm-weary or a child actually tumbled to earth and Eugene turned away in disgust. Where the nuns were—supposedly patrolling the playground while all this was happening—was always a mystery. They always seemed to be hovering around whenever someone else was guilty of the slightest infraction but nowhere in sight when Eugene was committing mayhem.
Another cruel playground trick that was sure to illicit shrieks of laughter but, thankfully, was beneath Eugene’s dignity, was for children to jump off their end of the teeter-totter when they reached the bottom of their descent, causing victims on the other end—at the top—to plummet to the ground with a startling impact that made sitting on a hard wooden desk an ordeal beyond description for the rest of the afternoon.
Aside from juvenile inhumanity, Elvis’s little school was idyllic in many ways. This did not mean that they were immune from the inevitable twists and turns of fate. For the majority of students at Cristo Rey, the passage of time was marked by a steady progression of grade levels and other signposts such as the baseball World Series or national events like NASA space flights and presidential elections. However, not everyone was fortunate enough to have such a carefree destiny.
One of Elvis’s classmates was a vivacious, green-eyed girl with long, brown hair named Cindy Valdez. She was an extraordinary student in just about every way. The daughter of a dentist, she was perennially at the top of her class. She was sensitive and kind beyond her years. She led schoolbook drives for poor children in Latin America, started a Cristo Rey Humane Society Chapter and was consistently her homeroom teacher’s right-hand assistant.
Elvis had a secret crush on this radiant, pixie spirit, but he was too shy to ever let on. Whenever he was around her, he became flustered and ran away as quickly as possible. However, Elvis had his eye on Cindy and found himself gazing in her direction during warm spring afternoons.
Elvis was surprised and a little concerned when, during the winter of third grade, Cindy was absent from school for a couple of weeks. Every morning he would disappointedly scope out her empty desk at the front of the room. He was too self-conscious to inquire why Cindy had disappeared, but he hoped she hadn’t moved away.
One morning about a month after she had stopped coming to school, Sister Marion announced, “I want all of you to go to the art-supply box and gather some construction paper, scissors and crayons. We’re going to be making get-well cards for Cindy. She’s in the hospital, and the cards will help cheer her up until she’s ready to return.”
Elvis diligently went about the business of constructing a card. He abandoned his usual reserve and added a few hearts at the bottom. However, Cindy never came back to school that year. Life went on, but every now and then he thought about her and wondered about how she was doing.
After summer vacation, Elvis and his classmates returned to school as fourth-graders, filled with energy and anticipation. Brother Marvin was their new teacher, and he was considered by everyone to be the best teacher in the whole school. He stood in stark contrast to the strict, doleful nuns. Classes came alive with his cheerful, vibrant personality. He realized that children needed to move and be engaged in learning. His teaching method included lots of games, field trips and classroom participation.
On the first day back, Brother Marvin appeared somewhat somber as students walked into the classroom and sat at their assigned homeroom desks. After they had settled down, he asked them to bow their heads for a moment of silence. He spoke in a deep and resonant voice: “Dear Father, please bless us as we begin a new school year. Look over and protect us, and always remind us of the perfection of your will. Let us never forget that our purpose is to worship and obey you and accept our destiny as part of your great plan. Lord, bestow a special blessing on one of our own, who passed away this summer after a courageous battle with cancer. Cindy Valdez has joined you to become one of your angels. Have mercy on her eternal soul. In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”
The class answered with a hushed “Amen.” They sat in silence in stark contrast to the cocky exuberance they’d displayed a few moments earlier.
Elvis felt a hard lump in his throat as he sat trying to gather his bewildered thoughts and emotions. He couldn’t understand. How could Cindy be gone? She was too full of life, too real, too much a part of his reality. He could see this happening somewhere else or even to someone else—but Cindy? It wasn’t possible. She did everything right. She was better at everything than any of them. People like Cindy didn’t die!
The day proceeded, and Elvis gradually shook off his grief and shock and engaged himself in the excitement of being a fourth-grader. However, the feeling was bittersweet. For a long time, he thought about Cindy. Every day, he half-expected her to walk into the classroom and laugh the way she used to, with her sparkling green eyes, and tell them it was all a big joke.
[Part 3 of an intermittent series]
Through his writings, native Santa Fean Andrew Lovato, Ph.D., walks readers through an exploration of Hispanic and New Mexico cultures of yesterday and today. An associate professor at Santa Fe Community College, Lovato is the author of Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town; The Year Zozobra Escaped: Featuring Zozobra’s Great Escape; and a contributing author of four other books. Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org