I hit sixth grade in the fall of ’86. We traded in our striped van for a silver one that year. It had back seat air conditioning and a greased side door that I could open and slide in one smooth motion. Dad pulled up to the school, made sure my hair was in place and that Jean had her homework. Then he looked at Jake, who was in second grade that year. “Stick your tongue out,” he said. Jake winced and stuck his tongue out. Dad took his thumb, wet it on Jake’s tongue, and cleaned all the dirt spots off Jake’s face. “Ok, kids,” he announced, “have a good day at school!” and I threw open the side door, waited for Jean and Jake to slide across the bench seat and out of the van, and hurried to shut the door.
Just before I got the door shut, dad said it. “Jim, make sure you let your brother play with you.” The door shut, but I heard him. And sighed.
“Jake, you have to walk four steps behind me because you’re in 2nd grade and I’m in 6th. Don’t talk to me if you see me during the day. I only have to play with you after school. That’s what dad meant.”
Being a sixth grader at Topeka Drive Elementary meant you ruled the school. No kids were older than you, you had either Mr. or Mrs. Grofsky, and knew both Willie the janitor and Sue the lunch lady on a first name basis. Sue might even know your name if you were lucky/cool enough to work the milk line at recess.
And if you were the third best kickballer, eighth best dodgeballer in your class, and almost nominated for class vice-president, well, people knew you.
I walked into the school. I saw Robbie. I turned, saw Jake walking too close, and pushed him back. Robbie laughed and I went over to talk to him.
At recess, the milk lines were long. The price of chocolate milk had just dropped to a quarter, matching the price of 2%, and business was booming.
Kid after kid came up, dropped his quarter on my counter, and said, “Chocolate, please.” I took quarter after quarter and gave carton after carton. After about five minutes, Jake walked up and said, “Chocolate, please.”
“Jake, I told you not to talk to me during school, you’ll have to get in the other line.”
“But Jimmy,” he said, “I couldn’t see which line you were working from the back of the line, if you don’t sell me a chocolate milk and I have to wait in the other line, I won’t get to play four-square before recess is over.”
“Sorry Jake, but rules are rules.” He walked away without his milk.
On the after school playground, I had to play with Jake. Some days, he didn’t come up and ask to play with me and my friends and on those days, we’d play kickball. As soon as he’d walk up to me and ask to play, we switched to dodgeball. Jake and I were always on different teams and I threw so hard that my glasses would fall off. We were technically not supposed to aim for the head, but Jake was so small and had that patented Gutzman head, it was hard to hit anything else.
On the day I refused to sell him milk, he walked right by our game to play on the jungle gym. He was dirty again and Robbie and I pointed and laughed at him.
He played with a couple of third graders and a fifth grader. I looked over every so often to see him on the monkey bars or playing hopscotch.
It was my turn to kick and I thought that I’d try to hit Jake with the ball. He was far, but I had a strong leg. I gauged the distance. Just as the pitcher was ready to pitch, I saw the fifth grader go up and knock Jake off the monkey bars and onto the hard ground.
I ran right by the kickball toward Jake. He was crying. I picked him up. His knee was scraped, but he was ok.
I threw the offender against the chainlink fence, yelling, “That’s my brother!” The fifth grader grabbed my glasses, threw them, and then punched me in the stomach. I doubled over, coughing.
The fifth grader was laughing at both of us. Until Robbie walked up. Just a glare from Robbie and the fifth grader went running.
Robbie walked over. My glasses were scratched and Jake was sort of crying. “It’s ok,” he said, “she’s the second biggest girl in 5th grade.”
We all went to the doctor on Thursday. I told Kris about my day in court. She told me about Zach’s new trick (Zach can put an entire Cheerio in his nose). Zach told us about his love of milk. And the new baby told everybody that he/she has a strong and fast heartbeat: 165.
Zach can’t wait to be a big brother.