Thing a Week 19: Merr, the Tiniest of Classmates

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“I don’t know why I’m the one getting in trouble,” I huffed, exasperated.

The principal stared sternly at me from over her messy desk, craning her head forward to gaze longingly into my eyes over wiry, grimy glasses. I eventually blinked first, and she looked back and forth between me and my uncle — sitting in the school office chair next to me — as if to say, “I can’t wait to expel this twerp.”

Instead, she turned to Uncle Rob—yet kept her eyes on a perpetual moving track between us Deans — and very tentatively spoke, as if unsure how to phrase what she was about to say: “Mr. Dean, behavioral patterns, an excellent moral compass, judgement, and tolerance — these are all things that are vitally important to teach at Lynn’s age, and we do our best in elementary to make sure we are doing everything we can to help each and every kid grow into their full potential.”

“That said,” she said, picking up a more comfortable speed in her speech, “we simply can’t do it all. These things — behavior, tolerance, sympathies, empathy — they have to be taught everywhere: at school, at home, at church, at the park, everywhere. Studies show wonderful kids like Lynn develop the fastest, physically and emotionally, at Lynn’s age, and being exposed to inconsistent or conflicting examples can significantly slow that development process down.”

The room fell silent aside from the loud ticking of a wall clock and I looked past Principal Joan to the window behind her, hoping my uncle would at least see my side and not ground me so I could still go out and play basketball as soon as I got home. Peter and Clark said their moms said they could play after dinner, so the timing with this after school special was surprisingly good. We could probably get in on the next game; the three of us make a pretty good team.

My uncle had said something in response while I was daydreaming about basketball, but I hadn’t heard what; the principal’s witch voice, however, manifesting itself as a visible sonic boom that blew through the balmy basketball court, ripped me back to boring reality and insulted me at the same time: “I just don’t think Lynn has taken the time to empathize with the Remotes, is all. They’re still new to this world and we’re still new to them; we’re learning as we go, and sometimes we have to be a little more considerate of one another, is all.”

“Is all,” I mumbled, echoing it a second time under my breath.

“Lynn’s a big girl,” Rob said, turning to me. “We can just ask her. Have you taken the time to empathize with the Remotes?”

I nodded immediately, of course, furrowing my brow with a smirk. “Of course,” I exclaimed. “I had two in my class last year, remember? ”

“Did you carry them around too?” The principal frowned.

“Well, no,” I quickly retorted, worried I’d get in trouble for the half dozen times I didn’t get caught. “This was the first time.”

Principal Joan leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, then asked, “Why’d you do it?”

Birds chirped in the trees outside, carrying in on the wind a singsong of excitement, a battlecry for basketball, and a reason to confess quickly, win my uncle over on the way home, and hurry to the courts before the winter sun finished falling.

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“I thought it would be fun,” I muttered, intentionally slurring my words so I didn’t have to actually say them. The blow to my ego was greatly minimized.

“You thought it would be fun,” the principal repeated, then added, “For who?”

“It could have been fun for both of us,” I started, but was cut off immediately by a “No, no, no” from Joan that caught me off guard, and I confessed: “Me, I guess.”

Following up quickly to continue her verbal assault, she tacked on what surely must have been a rhetorical question, unless she actually thought I was stupid: “Can you see why this upset Merr?”

“I guess.”

“Lynn,” Principal Joan responded in her best authoritative voice. “If you were Merr’s size, would you want someone your size to come pick you up and run around the room with you?”

Before I could answer an even easier question, she kept attacking me in that awful witch voice while scanning around her immediate vicinity to grab random objects, probably to satisfy some ADHD craze.

“Look,” she said, pointing with her eyes at the pile of items on her desk. “This book. Look how small it is to us; we can pick it up, wave it around, throw it across the room, whatever. But how big is it to Merr?”

She slammed the book down on the desk for emphasis. It was a fifth grade textbook, so it was pretty big: probably about a foot tall, a couple inches thick, and maybe seven or eight inches wide. It rattled the desk as it rapped against it, and Principal Joan crouched lower in her chair to stare at me around it.

“Look,” she said again, making the book dance on the desk. “The book, the book is us. The book is you, and you’re this tall, okay, Lynn? You know how small Remotes are when you’re your size, but if you were even smaller — perhaps as small as this book here — could you tell me, relatively, how tall you think Merr would be?”

She paused for a second to inspect my face, then pushed four tiny things forward, spreading them out in a line on the desk between us. There was a flat rock that would probably be pretty good for skipping, the nub of a pencil eraser that had probably been torn off by someone she was needlessly scolding, half of a circle of paper that looked like it came from a hole puncher, and a pea that probably smelled rancid from rotting away in this office for years.

“Ew,” I said, pointing. “Where’d you get that pea?” Uncle laughed.

“I had a salad for lunch,” she explained, then quickly jumped back to her question, clarifying, “Or, if you were shrunk down to this size, how tall would Merr be if she were shrunk with the same power? Would she be as tall as this rock, maybe? Or the size of a pea? Or this paper?”

This was a stupid game, but if it meant a little more basketball later I willingly complied. The four things had been spread out on the desk, and I tried to picture myself getting shrunk to the size of a book and standing in this office, looking down at a Remote that would probably still come up to my ankle. I tried to picture some shrink ray shrinking us both at the same time, and shrunk down to the size of the book.

I glanced back at the items on the desk and thought about pointing at the pencil eraser, and then looked at my normal-sized ankle under the table, immediately losing any sense of perspective I’d built up from mentally shrinking.

I went with my gut. I pointed at the pink rubber.

I stared expectantly at Principal Joan and she looked at Uncle Rob, then back at me. She frowned, then dismissively swept the items on the desk to the side.

“Bad example. Try this, stand up — look here,” she grabbed a lighter from the pile of items on her desk and moved to circle around it, eventually standing next to me with the lighter outstretched between thumb and finger. “This is about how tall Merr is, wouldn’t you say?”

I nodded.

“Okay, then this is Merr, this lighter. Take a look at the chair your uncle’s sitting in, for example.” She took a few hurried steps towards him and crouched, setting the lighter down gently on the floor next to one of the chair legs, standing up tall on the ground but barely occluding any of the leg behind it.

“This is how tall Merr is compared to this chair. She isn’t half as tall, she isn’t half of that, half of that, or probably even half of that. It’d probably take twenty or thirty Remotes standing on each other to be as tall as this chair, let alone the kids in your class — how many of her do you think it’d take to measure up to how tall you are?”

She smiled momentarily and paused, and I assumed she wanted an answer, so I threw out, “A hundred?”

Joan shook her head, stating, “No, probably not a hundred. Probably around fifty — but that’s still a lot! Imagine fifty yous standing on each others’ shoulders — how tall would you be? Would you be taller than the school? It’s two stories tall.”

I tried to picture fifty mes standing on top of myselves and chuckled under my breath. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be taller than the school.

“You would be,” Uncle Rob helped.

“You would be,” Principal Joan repeated. “You’d be much taller. You’re probably about four feet tall, maybe a couple inches more but we won’t worry about those. That means it’d take only two of you to touch the ceiling in here if your hands were up.”

I looked up. She continued.

“And that’s as tall as a story is. There’s only two stories in the building, so there’s two — well, we’ll say three — more of you, so three in here and three downstairs makes six, all on each other’s shoulders and touching each ceiling; is that as tall as the building?”

I thought about it for a second, and then said, “Well, there’s the roof, and probably space between floors.”

“Okay,” Joan remarked, crouching again to retrieve the lighter from the ground. She stood and took a couple steps back towards her seat before stopping beside the desk and holding the lighter up in the air, closing one eye and looking past it at the ceiling. The placement of the lighter happened to be directly in front of the window for me, sitting on a beautiful blue backdrop that contrasted wonderfully with the cheap neon plastic.

“Oh yes,” she admitted, “the roof and the floors. There’s probably a bit of insulation to keep us warm in these winters, so what do you say we say there’s about.. two of you? That’s almost as tall as this room, between us and the roof. Would you agree with that?”

I nodded.

“Okay, so there were six Lynns and now there’s two more, so eight. There’s actually only about a foot or two of space between the floor you’re standing on and the ceiling beneath it; you’ve heard desks moving around upstairs and the occasional loud sounds from the ceiling, right?”

Again, I nodded.

“So lets say there’s about a foot above our ceiling, a foot below our floor, and, well, lets say a foot or two between the first floor and the ground. One plus one plus one or two is three or four, so lets round up and say one more of you, so a grand total of nine of you — standing outside, each on top of the other — would be as tall as this building. Close your eyes for me, Lynn.”

I did and smiled when I was immediately surrounded by a blurry green haze that I assumed was a dream park making its way through.

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When she saw I had closed my eyes, she commanded, “Picture this:

“You’re outside in the school basketball courts — you’re playing a game at recess — and the ball bounces away towards the building. You run to go get it and catch it right as it bumps up against the brick. You throw it back to your friends and before you run back, you glance up towards the school roof, wondering just how far away it actually is — and probably whether you could throw a basketball up there.

“You reach a hand above your head and place it on the brick, feeling its rough texture in your palm as you gently let it slide back towards you. How many kids in your class would it take to stand on each other’s heads to reach the top?

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“Well, if everyone was as tall as you, it’d take about nine kids to reach the roof — that’s all. Just nine.

“But that’s just for the school, a two-story building, Lynn. Remember the lighter next to the chair? We figured out it’d take fifty lighters , right? — fifty things as tall as Merr — to be as tall as that chair. Nine of you goes into fifty, well, five and a half times, which means even if it was just five times you’d be as tall as a ten-story building from Merr’s point of view, or five of our schools on top of each other. Take a second and picture our school as it is right now — and then make it twice as tall. Okay, now make it twice as tallagain, and then put another of our original school’s on top of that.

“That’s really tall,” she continued excitedly. “Like, really tall. That’s how tall a chair looks to Merr. A chair that’s not even as tall as you are. Can you imagine how tall you look to her? Imagine if that gigantic building you’re picturing were actually a skyscraping stone giant, maybe sixty or seventy stories tall, walking around the city. Would you feel safe anywhere even remotely nearby?

“It’s huge, I know, and it’s probably hard to picture. But try to think of how tall that stone giant would be compared to the buildings it’d be walking through— the buildings we think are huge — yet being probably no higher than its ankles or shins and paid no more attention to than you would to tall grass. Do you always check for bugs underfoot before each step outside?

“And because I said stone, you’re probably picturing something colossally slow, maybe grinding against itself at the joints as it moves, but that’d be wrong: you’re the giant here, and I’ve seen you running at recess — you know just how fast, how agile, how deft you are.

“Picture yourself playing outside at recess, maybe shooting some hoops with Peter, and you see this giant — five times taller than the school — come running up full speed. You could try to run, but it’d effortlessly chase you down and pick you up, flinging you effortlessly yet indelicately through the air — how gentle are you when you pick up, say, a grasshopper? — and you have no idea whether the giant will do you any harm, whether intentional or not.

“And then, without giving you a chance to catch your breath or hold still at all, the giant starts swinging you wildly through the air. You’ve been on a roller coaster before I assume,” she paused, taking a quick breath and glancing briefly at Uncle Rob, “it’d be like that — except bigger. That feeling you get when you’re strapped into a coaster, at the top of the highest mountain of track, and your car slips over the edge and carries you plummeting to the ground below, whipping you around on corners as you try to watch the track to see where you’re going next?

“Well, it’s like that, except there’s no track; there’s nowhere to look to tell your brain where you’re going, and you’re terrified. At any second you could fall five stories to the ground below; you’d get hurt falling off a one-story building — you’d be really, really hurt if you fell down five.

“And then the giant, still whipping you through random patterns in the air, starts to run. The ground shakes beneath him and every step resonates with a small earthquake, hand constantly vibrating and shaking you violently.”

I suddenly felt extremely uneasy in my stomach, and my eyes fluttered open as it contracted so violently that I had no time to turn my head in any other direction but forward, and chunks of mashed potatoes and chicken fried steak with a gravy of creamy pink chyme propelled onto Principal Joan and her desk, which then further splattered another coat between themselves.

Uncle Rob’s chair scraped the ground loudly as he shot to his feet and stretched out both arms towards me aimlessly, not sure exactly how he intended them to help in this situation. Principal Joan stood speechless, frozen in time with her mouth slowly opening, as if her bottom jaw were melting away.

“I’m sorry,” I spit out, covering my mouth with both hands and surveying the damage. “I didn’t realize — ”

“It’s okay,” Joan spat. Her voice, previously a flowing river of excitement and emotion, was now staccato and flat. Her eyes were fixed forward on the wall behind us. She blindly reached to the phone on her desk, fumbled with the buttons, and brought the receiver close to her ear (though not touching).

“Can you send a janitor in here as soon as possible,” she said quickly into the phone when whoever-it-was answered. “Thanks.”

She hung up and I looked at my uncle, who was as unsure as I was as to what to do. We both shifted gazes between each other, the principal, her desk, and literally anything else in the room that wasn’t one of the above.

“I think I’ve made my point clear,” Joan said slowly. “Mr. Dean, thank you so much for coming in; I hope this chat was helpful to you both and I hope you got a little perspective on what it’s like to be so different, Lynn. Please be more mindful in the future; and don’t worry, you’re not in trouble for the desk. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get cleaned up.”

Both Deans nodded and quickly walked to the door; I closed it behind us. A thousand thoughts were running through my head, stirred by vertigo and adrenaline: on one hand, I just threw up on the school principal, which will make an awesome story (to Peter, Clark, and whoever reads whatever I write up about it); on the other hand, I felt absolutely awful about running around with Merr earlier — I’ll have to go out of my way and apologize to her tomorrow and see how I can make it up to her. I had no idea.

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