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We called it the barrel; it was basically a hamster wheel for human children. Five feet in diameter and constructed of wood, it was already gray and weathered by the time we got it. During recess, most of us would ignore the swings and monkey bars and head right to the barrel. About five of us could fit inside at once. The rest of us would stand on the outside and use our hands to speed the barrel up. Those of us inside had to be fast runners. If we weren’t, the price we paid was bruised knees and splinters in the fleshy parts of our palms. If one of us fell, the rest would soon go tumbling, too, those of us inside yelling for the others to stop pushing.

We were the children of New Galilee Elementary School. When we were in kindergarten, the school ran from K through eight. At the end of the year, as the youngest, we sat in the cafeteria/gym Indian-style, as we said then, and watched the older children graduate to high school. These thirteen and fourteen-year-olds seemed to be adults to us. Some of the boys had facial hair. Some of girls had breasts bigger than our mothers’. By the time we were in first grade, the school was just K through 4.

We loved recess, but we loved school, too. We started in kindergarten on the lower level of the brick building. There we made homemade applesauce, some of us pocketing the red hots meant to be stirred into the hot mash. Later, as we moved upstairs and through the building, we got to know the other teachers. At the end of the year, Miss E. invited the second-graders to the farm where she lived with her parents. In third grade, we spent time after recess listening to Mrs. L. read children’s classics to us, The Boxcar Children and the like. She played “The Nutcracker Suite” in the warmth of her classroom while the snow melted from our boots onto the linoleum floor; it was the first time most of us had heard classical music.

There was an art teacher whose cologne made some of us queasy. (Later, we would come to understand it was not cologne but body odor.) It was the late seventies, a time when being Italian-American—possibly due to the Travolta Effect—was a big deal. The gym teacher said Sweat-Hoggian things like, “Have a seat—rest your feet” and “Close your jaw—that’s the law.” Even the non-Italian-Americans among us knew what he meant by capisce.

Five hundred people populated the town of New Galilee, including about half of us children at the school. (The rest of us lived either in the trailer park or in rural houses some ways out of town.) During the summer, those of us in town roamed the streets on our bikes. We filched our fathers’ pocket change left on the dresser to buy penny candy at the small grocery store. We swam in our and our friends’ above-ground pools, filled in a great whoosh by the fire department so as not to deplete our well water. We rolled down the grassy hills, making ourselves dizzy. We explored the field behind the fire hall when the carnival wasn’t there. When the carnival was there, we’d fall asleep in our twin beds, listening to the whoops of people on the rickety roller coaster and the magnified voice of the carnival barker drifting in through our open windows: “Come see her! Half lady, half baby!”

 

•••

 Money was tight everywhere. The district closed New Galilee Elementary School after we finished third grade. The younger children would go to Big Beaver Elementary, and the rising fourth graders would be bussed to Koppel Elementary.

That summer, during Vacation Bible School, some of us would sneak around the chain link fence that divided New Galilee Elementary from the Presbyterian Church parking lot. Weeds had already started taking over the playground. For old times’ sake, we’d spin around in the barrel or sit inside its shade, eating the lunches our mothers had packed for us, PB&Js, chipped ham sandwiches.

We rode the bus to Koppel, a long circuitous route that took us through town, the trailer park, the steep woods that led to Koppel proper. Whenever we got rowdy, the bus driver would holler, “Yens better start being have!” The bus always smelled of exhaust.

Koppel was intimidating. It had a supermarket. It had bars, real ones, not just the Italian Club tucked away near the Nazarene Church. There were stoplights in town. While we would pick up our mail at the post office, people there had mail delivered to their houses, which seemed extravagant to us. Some of our classmates lived in apartments, just like people on TV.

We were divided into two fourth-grade classrooms, peppered among the Koppel kids. The girls there had perms already. They wore designer jeans. We returned home and begged our mothers for Jordache and in return were given sensible explanations. They’re too expensive. The material is thin. They won’t last long enough to be decent hand-me-downs. The next trip to Hill’s, sure enough, we’d return with Lee jeans or Garanimals.

To us, Koppel felt antiseptic. No more applesauce making, no more sugar plum fairies as we lay our heads on our desks. Instead, some of us had Mr. M., a silver-haired man with a constant air of exasperation. At our old school, spankings were done by the principal, for those of us unfortunate enough to have parents who didn’t send in an opt-out-of-corporal-punishment letter. Here, spankings were carried out in the hall.

One day after lunch, one of us was teasing another. (We interacted with the Koppel kids in a friendly if not friendship-expecting manner.) “You’re a fart,” one of us said to another.

The lights in the classroom went out and flickered back on. At the front of the room, Mr. M. stood with his legs shoulder-width apart. He smacked his own hand with the wooden paddle. His face was red.

We all turned to look at the girl who’d uttered “fart.” She looked terrified. For a moment she said nothing. Then she stammered, “You can’t do that. My mom wrote a note.”

We were learning to not be intimidated.

•••

The next year we were bussed to Beaver Falls Middle School, grades five through eight. Formerly the high school, the building was a huge brick affair, situated right in Beaver Falls, an even larger city than Koppel.

By now—ten years old—we’d known for some time that black people existed. We watched, after all, “Fat Albert” and “The Jeffersons” and occasionally “Good Times.” We’d been to Pittsburgh. But just as we knew the ocean existed although few of us had ever felt the beach on our bare feet or looked out at a horizon of water, we’d been aware of black people but had never had any black peers.

At first, our black fellow students fascinated us in ways that now make us cringe. Their hair didn’t move when they walked! Their nail beds and the insides of their hands were white! Good God, we were so seventeenth-century.

Soon enough, though, we realized that the black students weren’t the ones who were really unlike us. It was the city kids, who came in all colors. There were sixth-graders who smoked. There was a boy who simply did not show up for school; we saw him maybe six times the entire year. The eighth-grade superlatives included the category of “Most Likely to Be in Detention.” A wrong look could get you shoved hard into a locker, or worse.

Out of necessity, we assimilated. We made friends with people who’d gone to elementary schools we’d never heard of. We brought our lunches in paper bags, not lunch boxes. We bought Jolly Ranchers from a kid who had a candy racket going on. We learned what “ashy” meant and some of us became skilled at Yo Mama jokes. In music, we all sang songs from “The Muppet Movie” and “M*A*S*H.” In math, we shouted the times tables in unison as the crazy woman who taught the class walked the aisles, chewing paper that she’d spit at us when she got angry.

•••

A competition was held to be on the Pittsburgh local television game show “Kids’ Quiz.” The fifth-graders of Beaver Falls Middle School would be represented by the three of us who had proved ourselves equipped with two essential skills: a smart brain and a fast hand.

We took turns competing against each other, four at a time, on a contraption that slapped a plastic hand down for every lever pressed. If your plastic hand was on the bottom, you got first dibs at answering the question. Over the course of a week, three winners—Beaver Falls Middle School’s representatives—emerged. A girl and two boys, all alumni of New Galilee Elementary.

We stayed after school, missing the exhaust-fume bus to practice; our parents would pick us up later. Each episode of “Kids’ Quiz” had a theme, and we learned that the theme for our episode would be the U.S.S.R. We studied Soviet history and were quizzed by our teacher. It was hard work. These facts seemed, to us, to exist in a vacuum. We were just starting to be affected by the outside adult world, but communism wasn’t our concern. If anything, it was capitalism. The steel mills and supporting industries were shutting down, leaving many of our fathers out of work and entire communities suspicious of anyone who’d drive a foreign-made car. Some of our parents started buying generic-brand food. (As a result, “generic” was a real put-down in our lexicon.) Some of our bagged lunches contained government cheese.

We persevered. We would be up against two other schools from the greater Pittsburgh viewing area, and we had pride—if not in our school, then our own game-show–winning capabilities. There was a “Wheel of Fortune”-like portion of the show, so we learned the most commonly used letters in American English: E T A O N R I S H. (We suspected there should have been an L somewhere in there.) We slapped the plastic hands down as if our lives depended on it.

Our parents bought us new clothes for the taping in Pittsburgh and drove our families into the city. We were all nerves. We were going to be on TV!

Our mothers, our fathers, and our sisters were escorted off to the bleachers where they would be part of the Live Studio Audience that we’d heard about for so many years. The set was smaller than it looked on TV. We were put at the podium labeled with our names and the name of our school. We were shown how to speak into a microphone. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the show was hosted by Nanette Chapman, who was “probably best known to WTAE-TV viewers as the attractive women who delivers meteorologist Joe DeNardo’s forecast when he’s not available in person.” According to the 1980 article, she had “an easy rapport with the youngsters,” although we mainly just remember the startling amount of cosmetics TV personalities wore.

It was moving fast and before we knew it, the program had started. The show sped by, so much so that we can’t remember the specifics of it, just that our buzzers never seemed to light up no matter how soon we pushed the buttons. Stalin-ETAONRISH-Lenin-boom-boom-boom. Why won’t our buzzers go off?

None of our families had recording devices, but still photos of us on the television set that our parents would take later reveals us—all of us—to be literally slack-jawed. The studio lights glinted off our glasses. We look dazed. We look confused.

We came in third out of three. We returned home, each with a Frisbee bearing the “Kids’ Quiz” logo.

As adults, most of the details of that evening are lost to us. We can only remember the feeling of it. It was like stepping into the barrel, keeping up at first, then struggling more and more, as the barrel spun faster and faster and faster until we stumbled and fell, bruising ourselves, a temporary sting.

Then, the exquisite relief that came from crawling outside and the hopefulness once again that someday soon we would become the sort of people who weren’t frightened of it, not even a little.

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Jennifer Niesslein JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is a writer and editor who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She's the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way, and co-founded Brain, Child magazine, where she worked for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and online at VQR, among other places. Her website is jenniferniesslein.com.

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