I lived in relative poverty as a child. We had more than some, less than others. Wherever my family stood on the economic ladder of the late 1970’s, I was constantly reminded by my peers that my second hand clothes (I was the eldest so it was glaringly obvious on me as on my brother who was the eldest boy) were not acceptable. I wanted so desperately to fit in, to be accepted, to feel worthy. An opportunity did arise during a Kool-Aid fad during my 5th grade year.
I had Mr. Pakulnis. It was early in the school year because he hadn’t yet discovered my wanderlust eye watching the birds or day-dreaming. That’s a habit, by the way, I still do when I write. I stare out the window and get lost.
The Kool-Aid fad was that many of the girls brought in Ziplock (not the sandwich fold over) bags with any flavor Kool-Aid mixed with the sugar as if ready to add water. Then, the girls would take their rainbow stained fingers and dip them into the cesspools of sugary goodness, licking their fingers clean then hiding the evidence quickly when teachers approached. Chenique Quarterman shared hers with me and I felt like she was my best friend in the world because I was doing something that the “Kool Kids” did. It felt gloriously naughty. And although Kim Tarpley was my best friend, but she didn’t have Kool-Aid so she’d been temporarily demoted.
I decided I was going to make my own. I thieved away a baggie from my friend’s house because we only had the fold overs at mine. I stole a single package of the only flavor of Kool-Aid I was allowed which was lemonade (due to red food dye allergies). I’d pilfered enough sugar to make up my very own baggie to share.
I felt excitement at my accomplishment and perhaps a bit of remorse but not enough to feel shame. I was ready to become popular. I was ready to fit in. I carefully read and measured my stolen goods into the filched treasure bag as quietly as possible. I hid the baggie in my coat pocket so it would remain undetected by my mother who I’d hoped wouldn’t yet be awake, she was, but thankfully was busy drinking her coffee in the living room. I made it out the back door successfully.
I patted my pocket reassuringly, my anticipation growing as I waited at the street corner with Mona Lee, the Farr boys who liked to beat me and my brothers up, and Lisa Cloud. It was early when the long bus pulled up to the curb. Mrs. Humphries in all her gold toothed rotund-ness sat in the first seat and greeted each of us by name. I sat closer to the front because I didn’t feel safe in the back. My brothers usually sat nearby as well. Plus, with the contraband in my pocket, I didn’t want it taken before I could conquer my classroom with generosity.
I remember snaking my hand into my pocket feeling the grains through the bag, terrified that I’d tear it open before I could share it with my friend Kim Tarpley. I’d hoped that each grain would bring me another friend. The way I felt had reached magical proportions since I’d successfully smuggled it thus far and therefore I was allowed to project my wishes into the sugary lemon concoction in my pocket.
The bus picked up other kids but I was lost in the imaginary conversations I’d have once I arrived under the canopy of my elementary school. Patience was not ever a virtue of mine but I knew that if I pulled it out before first recess, I’d most surely lose the entire bag. I, like an evil mastermind of the Master thief I’d become on this mission, must carefully bide my time.
My chest, which had yet to bloom into young adulthood, puffed against my teal blue coat’s zipper as I stepped off the bus and onto the concrete. I felt as if I were about to wage a war I knew I would win. With rare confidence, my hands swinging freely at my sides, I strode into the school knowing that at first recess, my entire life would change because of the magic package I carefully hoarded in my protective pocket. I was about to become popular; guaranteed.
As I hung up my coat on my designated hook I felt a sense of panic. What if, while I was sitting in class listening to Mr. Pakulnis drone, someone got a bathroom pass and went through my pocket and found what I’d been protecting. I became increasingly distraught at the idea. I looked at my peers and questioned each of them in my mind with clever scrutiny.
Jeff Plume was the most likely of suspects. He was in sixth grade. I’d watched him accidentally inhale a feather he’d been balancing on his breath for an insanely long amount time while we were supposed to be watching a filmstrip about animals. Most likely suspect identified, I imagined what my interrogation of him would be like:
“Why did you take five minutes to go to the bathroom?” I’d ask him.
“Because I had to go pee.” He’d retort.
“I think you were doing something besides just using the bathroom.” I’d push (wasn’t I clever?)
“I washed my hands.”
“You’d never do that because you’re a boy. You really washed your hands so you could eat my Kool-Aid!” I’d reveal my purpose for the inquiry with a flourish like I saw on Dallas.
“You caught me!” He’d cry and Mr. Pakulnis would take him down to the principal’s office for Jeff’s execution. At the last minute, I’d forgive him and then we’d share the lemonade anyway.
But my panic and subsequent interrogation of my classmate led me to err. I took the baggie out of my jacket and put it into my pants pocket which bulged in protest. I knew it would be safe now. Nobody would have to go to their deaths because of my soon to be new-found popularity.
Mr. Pakulnis greeted us by name as we scrambled to get to our seats before the bell rang. We still had our desks in rows before he grouped us into fours for the math test. I saw him glance down but figured if I kept my back to him, I’d be able to sneak it into my desk before he became wise to my ruse. I scurried past him sure that he would grab my shoulder with my former confidence wavering under his watchful eye.
Safely at the edge of my desk, I opened the top while digging into my pants pocket that held the Holy Grail of friendship. I pulled the yellow mix from my pocket, nearly making it into my desk when I saw the teacher’s hand descend onto my wrist in slow motion. I, in identical slow motion, looked up, way, way up, (Mr. Pakulnis was tall) at the frowning face staring back at me. A slight shake of his head, an open palm, and my valiant effort to become popular was removed straight away. A few of the girls who witnessed this snickered at my plight.
I spent the rest of the day with a tragic heart. My dreams in magic and sugary goodness were absent. I’d failed the mission. I’d failed socially. I’d been humiliated.
Later that afternoon, I overheard Mr. Pakulnis talking to my future sixth grade teacher, Mr. Martinez. He realized after several days of over-active girls and stained fingers what was happening. I got caught because of the popularity of the fad?! It wasn’t technically my doing, but that of my peers that got me caught?!
I, truthfully, can’t remember if I deduced that then or if this is years of cobwebs cleared away that showed me the story in different light. Either way, I began to learn at that age that fads could get you in trouble, teachers see more than they let on, and Kool-Aid stains on fingers last longer than the fads. If I had to do it all again, I believe, with truest of intentions, I would have left it in my coat as I’d originally planned and not second guessed myself which, over the years, has cost me far more than a bag of “illegal” Kool-Aid.