I like to tell people that I went to Kindergarten at a Chinese restaurant, but that’s not entirely true. It was a kindergarten when I went there as a child. It was years later when they added two bright-red columns, two dragon-wrapped columns, a pagoda-style roof and paved over every inch of the front yard. It has only been recently that I’ve been able to deal with the fact that General T’so and his chicken took over my kindergarten like Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek seizing the Nationalist government at Nanjing in 1928.
Back before the hostilities, when I was just a little boy of five years old, it was simply called the “Country Lane Kindergarten”. By the time I got there the country lane had been paved over and was going by the name of State Highway 85, but the small-town atmosphere still hung heavy in the air. Maybe it was the herd of cows one field over from our playground that I smelled… between the cows and the kids learning they weren’t in diapers anymore it was hard to tell.
Our days at the Country Lane were simple, serene and secure. Buttery sunlight, happy songbirds and laughing children is how it’s painted in my mind. It was a perfect foundation for a very happy childhood and I think that I still carry that happiness in my heart most of the time; but beyond the moo cows and the nursery rhymes lurked monsters; enormous flying monsters.
Like a lot of you, I’ve had the occasional feeling of being an outsider… out of place, out of time. Unlike a lot of you, I figured out exactly where I first had that sensation; it was back at the Country Lane Kindergarten. Occasionally my parents would have to work late they would call the kindergarten administrators to ask that I be kept with the regular day-care kids until I could be picked up. This happened so infrequently that it was always a strange and terrifying experience when it happened.
Somehow, through my five year-old eyes, I believed that the kids who stayed there after the kindergarten classes were over were a special bunch of kids who LIVED at the kindergarten ALL THE TIME. In my fresh young mind I imagined these children to be at some kind of strange school, not unlike the Hogwart’s Academy from the Harry Potter books.
I noted that these “full-time” kindergarteners did all sorts of strange things that we never did in our classes; things like the terrifyingly named “Nap Time”. You know that scene from the movie “Coma” with all the lifeless bodies suspended from the ceiling in a huge white room? Well shrink the room and lower the bodies onto soft blue exercise mats and you’ll get an idea of the scene that I witnessed on one of those days I had to stay late. Child after child stretched away into the distance, each lying still on a little blue mat. The teacher ushered me into the room, pointed me toward an empty mat and ordered me to:
“Go lay down and take a nap.”
Those words thundered in my ears as I walked slowly to my assigned mat. I kneeled on its soft surface and stole a quick look around me at the other children, softly breathing in the darkened room. All of them dozed quietly, oblivious to how wrong this mass sleep-in had to be. Late afternoon light stole through the curtains and a breeze made them billow open revealing that the playground was completely empty, sitting there going to waste. The adults KNEW that the playground was empty and yet they were forcing the kids to sleep in the middle of the day! This was a prison camp plain and simple. I was always a shy little boy so I lay down on the mat as I’d been told, wondering exactly what kind of punishment this was and exactly how I had earned it.
It shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise to me the next time I stayed late that our keepers would do something strange and unusual to us again. This time they herded us into a big room in the middle of the building. They made us sit on the floor and then they switched on the television. The teacher operating the television tuner turned the big clunky top dial to the UHF channel and then dialed the wobbly bottom dial over to WTBS. When the fuzzy screen eventually resolved into an image my jaw dropped wide open; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
There was a ENORMOUS turtle flying through SPACE!
Jets of flame blasted out of the holes in its enormous shell. I was dumbfounded. We had a turtle in our backyard and I knew that Myrtle had never achieved jet-powered flight; at least not in my presence. The giant turtle on the television hurtled through the sky and crashed into a building. Within seconds it had emerged and started fighting with a giant lizard-bird-thing, both of them knocking down skyscrapers and stepping on passenger trains in the struggle. Fires ravaged the countryside. By golly, this was NEWS! I kept looking back and forth between the TV and the window and our teachers. This HAD to be the reason why my parents couldn’t pick me up! Holy cow, they were probably stuck in a traffic jam caused by this giant flying turtle! The adults seemed calm. Doubts and questions filled my mind, for instance, why weren’t we being herded into a bomb shelter instead of the TV room? This seemed like an especially good time to head underground.
Instead, they gave us some cookies and then we sang some songs. Madness! These people DESERVED to be crushed by a giant flying turtle for all the precautions they were taking.
You can imagine my tremendous relief when my Mom arrived to pick me up from that place. Her arrival had circumvented an insane plan that the kindergarten’s owner/bus-driver (named “Paw-Paw”) had been hatching. He had actually proposed driving me home during this flying-turtle-induced national emergency. Nonsense! I was only five years old and I already had issues with a man with such a silly name as “Paw-Paw” driving me anywhere at all…ever. How, I reasoned, how could this man with a goofy name take me home if I didn’t even know the way there MYSELF? The very idea was preposterous, and besides, he looked like the sort of person who might be prone to crashing the kindergarten bus into giant flying turtles and I just couldn’t afford to take that kind of chance.
I’ve always been pragmatic.
So. From my two experiences staying late at Country Lane I learned of the Terrible Room of Forced Sleep and of the Giant Flying Rocket Turtle. I have dim recollections of a third time where we just sat in a room waiting for parents to pick us up. That time I sat there and watched a girl eat boogers. Thankfully, that memory has all but faded. Until now. Great.
With my growing distrust of the people who ran the Country Lane Kindergarten it became apparent to me that some form of organized resistance would be necessary, for my own protection if nothing else. I needed an identity which conveyed my resolve to resist their strange after-kindergarten customs. Our playground had an unusual set of cone-shaped monkey bars which were shaped like a Christmas tree. If you climbed to the tippy top you could slide down a pole that ran down through the middle of the structure like a fireman’s pole, or, as I realized, like Batman’s Batpole.
During finger-painting class I would be mild-mannered Andrew but during recess I would be Batman. (As a side note, if you ever want to try this next part for yourselves, just take your jacket off, drape it over your shoulders and button the top button. Presto, instant cape.)
Me and my best friend in kindergarten named… um, well I don’t remember his name…let’s call him Robin. Robin and I ran around the playground looking for bad guys to fight. Boy did we look sharp with our jackets flapping around our necks. I began to notice that ALL the boys in the playground were wearing jacket capes. My puzzlement turned to frustration when my trusty sidekick and I ran up to a pair of similarly jacket-caped boys. I asked them who they were supposed to be. They told us that they were Batman and Robin. Further questioning of the other boys at the Batpole revealed that they were ALL Batman and Robin. All except for the boy who claimed he was Shazam…but we all knew he was a little strange anyway.
As we ran around the playground being Batmen and Robinses, the girls sat under a big tree picking out their boyfriends and making mud pies for Shazam. I’m sure the teachers would have made the newspapers if a parent had arrived to see thirty screaming boys running around the yard with their jackets flopping behind them, while the one weird kid sat under the tree letting the girls feed him dirt.
Yes, life was simple at Country Lane.
Nobody on the playground wanted to be a bad guy but that was okay. They were either superheroes, cooks or dirt-eaters. But I do recall that there was one bad guy. I don’t remember his name, but for the sake of the story I will call him PHIL. Because that was his name.
PHIL always wore cowboy boots and he liked to KICK people with them. You’d be talking to this villain (PHIL) about anything under the sun, perhaps an especially riveting episode of “The New Zoo Review” or maybe “The Bannana Splits” and he’d scowl at you (as bad guys like PHIL are inclined to do) then he’d kick you right in the ever-lovin’ shin with the pointy toe of his cowboy boots. You’d be talking to a girl about her favorite mix of dirts from which to make a dirt pie and this joker would storm across the room and SHAZAM! he’d kick you RIGHT in the SHIN. It just didn’t matter with PHIL, he was going to kick you at some point. I have no idea of how we dealt with him. I just hope it involved the girl who ate boogers.
So there you go, things change through the years. Buildings go up, buildings come down, some get turned into Chinese restaurants. But there’s one thing that you can always rely on: if you’re ever in trouble, if you ever need help, you can always call on me.
Especially if it involves giant flying turtles.
Hope you don’t mind the way I wear my jacket when I show up.
[epilogue: the house that was once the Country Lane Kindergarten, and later a Chinese restaurant, was demolished several years after this article was originally posted. – Drew January 18, 2009)