An installment of Harrison Scott Key's humor column, Big Chief Tablet.
People get weird about school. When you’re a kid, you go where you’re told. But when you’re a parent, you care, because your choice will say a lot about you, and what god you love, and how comfortable you are with your children having friends who have witnessed a murder or know what a bail bondsman is.
Four or five years ago, my wife and I were discussing where we should send our children to school. She explained that there were “lotteries” that must be entered, or something terrible could happen. “Lotteries?” I said. It sounded ominous, chancy.
Basically, she explained, if you want your child to attend a school outside your zone—say, a better one, where maybe students don’t throw acid on their teachers and the janitors don’t chain children to basement radiators—then you have to do the lottery.
I asked about our school, in our zone.
“It’s back there,” she said, pointing to a part of our neighborhood where I’d often seen turkey buzzards circling and plumes of pitchy smoke from what I assumed were columns of burning tires.
“The place with barbed wire?” I said.
I’d always thought it was a prison, or some kind of inner-city llama farm.
The more I thought about it, the more private school sounded great.
The uniforms. The Latin. The lack of barbed wire.
We priced a few, got out a calculator.
“Seems high,” she said.
“We could always homeschool,” I said.
My wife, herself a product of home education, knew of its benefits and its detriments. There could be Cicero, and Shakespeare, and midday science excursions to the marsh, but also, and more troublingly, my wife would have to teach our children, and despite her many gifts, such as the ability to play games of speed and memory with disturbing Rain Man-ish alacrity and her indefatigable heart for children, she has certain beliefs that would make teaching difficult, such as her belief that Paraguay is in Africa.
She is not dumb. It’s just, she doesn’t care about knowledge.
But also, she doesn’t want our children to catch chlamydia from a toilet seat.
“Let’s homeschool,” she said.
“Maybe let’s not give up on the public schools,” I said.
Why not, she wanted to know.
I explained: because I believe, tentatively, in the democratic promises of universal education, and I believe that most real learning happens at home, anyway. And mostly I believe that public schools are about the last places in our country, aside from the Doritos aisle at Walmart, where a perfectly reasonable and healthy human being can come into close contact with people who are actually insane.
Interacting with crazy people is good for you. It can help gird one’s soul for all sorts of future traumas, such as going to the post office. That’s the true value of public education, I think. It makes a person more attuned to the tragicomedy of human frailty, more merciful, more longsuffering, perhaps also more likely to be attacked without provocation by people who hear voices.
I attended nothing but public schools from the day I learned to tie my shoelaces to the day of my commencement, when I delivered what is still largely regarded as the worst speech ever made in the state of Mississippi by someone who was not visibly drunk. I was salutatorian. This, in a state that consistently ranks lowest in test scores, where children have frequently mastered childbirth before long division, and where the ability to read often gets one labeled as “uppity” or “probably an exchange student,” was no real feat.
I’d always wanted to go to a private school, or better, a boarding school, believing true happiness could only be found while being whipped with lacrosse sticks by goons in crested blazers. I’d read about such dreamy places in books. But when we moved to Mississippi in my ninth year, I am not sure my father gave much thought to the school system where he’d bought a new house. To him, school was school. You went to the one closest to your mailbox, whichever one that was. There was no talk of private school. His thinking was, Why in the hell would you pay to go to a school where everyone was probably a pussy?
My thinking was: because I am pretty sure I am a pussy.
“You boys going to Puckett,” Pop said, a few days after we settled in.
Puckett. Strange name, I thought.
The long trip there was filled with hope, through miles of verdant glens smelling of chlorophyll and Christian charity. I ignored the occasional sign of economic hardship, the homes and trailers where there appeared to be an excess of chickens roosting in derelict sedans. Ten miles later, we saw it: low and flat like a military barracks, its bleached brick the color of creamed corn. It looked like a dystopian outpost, the sort of place where one might see a wild dog in the road, eating a small child.
In the office, we waited while a pleasant woman wearing a golden bouffant having the shape and luminescence of a Fabergé egg worked a Smith-Corona at her desk. It was old hair, harkening back to a more innocent time, before Nixon and low ceilings, when women had been forced to use their hairdos for the ensnaring of moths and small birds.
The door opened and in walked a tall boy, tall as a man, sinewy and lean with scabs across his dirty, streaked arms, followed by a teacher.
“Sit!” the teacher said, and walked out.
“Sit down, Willie,” the hair lady said.
A sour stink suffused the room. Sort of like garbage, if it was wrapped in a decorative sack constructed entirely of the soiled underwear of lumberjacks. My nose shuddered. I would come to know it as the odor of poverty, a new sensation to my delicate suburban nostrils, a tangy olfactory assault wrought by those whose homes did not have running water. I tried, briefly, to pity this large student, but found that his odor had incapacitated the parts of my brain that controlled both language and compassion.
Another woman entered, smiling, a mannish lady with thick forearms and short gray hair, half-grandmother, half-linebacker. This was the principal. She looked at Willie.
“I hope you’re not still stabbing people with your pencil, son. I thought we talked about that. What are pencils for?”
“Eating,” he said.
She turned to us, introduced herself.
I could not take my eyes off of Willie, who could not take his eyes off my pants. I wore parachute pants, snug nylon trousers appropriated from distant breakdancing cultures, with many zippers, designed to make one look as much as possible like a duffle bag. They had been the rage at my old school, in Memphis, and I now worried that they might engender a new kind of rage here in Puckett.
I shouldn’t have worn those pants.
“Let’s find you a class,” the principal said, leading me to the door. I clutched Mom’s hand and performed a quick mental calculation concerning the difficulty of reattaching myself to the wall of her uterus.
“Remember,” Mom said. “You’re very special. You have talent.”
The only talent I needed, apparently, in a school full of Willies, was the ability to digest my school supplies.
I met my teacher and my class, and noted with concern that many students were dressed like Native Americans. I was instructed to sit behind a child in the back wearing an actual headdress. I searched for clues that I had accidentally been enrolled in the Mississippi Sanatorium for Children Who Must Wear Costumes to Feel Not Crazy or perhaps that I had died and was now in hell.
Recess came quickly.
In Memphis, recess took place in a canopied glen, the centerpiece a playground constructed of artisanal hardware and swarthy timbers salvaged from a sunken Colonial schooner. This new playground was rather Dalíesque, though, a grassless pasture of hard dirt, its sparse equipment of weathered iron apparently welded onsite from the remains of expired locomotives.
Many of the students were enormous, tall, thick, with long orangutan arms and sideburns, and this included many of the girls, who, in a far corner of the playground, appeared to be stoning a boy roughly my size.
“I got a gun,” said a voice behind me.
I turned around and there stood before me a young man wearing no costume at all, save the badge on his flannel shirt.
“Today’s Western Day,” he said. “Then it’s Nerd Day.” A Surrealist nightmare unspooled in my imagination: Cat Day, Vegetable Day, Infectious Disease Day.
It was homecoming week, he explained.
“You and me should be friends,” he said. “You could come over to my house and watch my brother soup up his car. He can soup up all kinds a shit.”
“Soup?” I said.
“Ain’t you ever souped up nothing?”
This was Tom, my first friend. He was short and stumpy, like me.
“Where you from?” he said.
“Never heard of it,” he said.
“Everybody here is really big,” I said.
“See that dude?” he said, nodding toward Willie, who was now lurching around with his apelike arms and menacing classmates. “He’s seventeen. He’s been in sixth grade for like a million years. He’s poor as shit and has a huge tallywhacker.”
I wondered if I should say anything about Willie’s odor. I had never been to a school where people smelled like feces. Was it normal? Would I, too, come to smell like feces? Did this mannish classmate really have no running water? I zipped and unzipped one of the many pockets on my trousers. They were expensive pants. I’d cried many tears to convince my mother to buy them. Her reluctance had troubled me, made me think we might be poor.
But we had water, and a phone, and regular penises, like normal people.
“He sort of smells funny,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. He had sex with a horse.”
This took a moment to sink in.
I knew it was wrong to be cruel to the poor. I’d gathered as much from Vacation Bible School. I wanted to pity Willie and the others who had no phones and lived in barns and might actually have no parents, but I found it hard to have compassion on someone who dishonored farm animals.
“Hey, you got a gun?”
“Oh, sure, lots,” I said, glad for the change of subject. Technically, it was true. My father had guns. It was understood that one day, he would put them in my hands.
That fall, others wanted to know, too. Did I have a gun? What kind? Was mine as big as theirs? What had I killed with it? Did I want to see their bruises, caused by their guns, because they were so big?
“Ain’t you ever hunt doves?” they said.
They explained that basically, a dove was a grayish bird that flew real fast and tasted like chicken but was smaller, and more delicious, because you had killed it with your own hands.
“With your hands?” I said.
“With a gun,” they said.
I missed my old school, where all we did was watch television and then talk about it.
“the good friendly giants of Puckett”
9” x 7.5”, mixed media on index, 2013, Katherine Sandoz
If things were strange at school, they were stranger at home.
In those first few months that we lived in the country, my toys began to vanish. The stuffed animals, the Hot Wheels, the Darth Vader Carry Case with its army of figurines. I searched the house for these items, but casually, as though I were dusting. For every toy that disappeared, Pop was close behind with something that had recently been bleeding. A duck here, a fish there, the head of a noble whitetail extending from the wall as though stuck between this and some happier dimension. Soon, there was a new animal in my room: a mallard that Pop had plucked from the sky.
“Why is there a duck in my room?” I asked Mom.
“Your father thought you would want it,” she said.
My parachute pants were getting tighter, and beside them in the closet appeared a number of strange new garments that can best be described as “Army issue.” For Christmas that year, I received gloves, boots, overalls, a floppy green hat, a bandolier.
“What’s this for?” I asked my older brother, Bird.
“Shotgun shells,” he said.
“For killing shit, man.”
Bird seemed pretty excited about killing shit. He had never had the chance to kill much shit in the city. And out here, there was all sorts of shit to kill.
For my part, I missed sidewalks, riding bikes, malls, Music Television, and places where all you groomed was yourself, and not livestock. For the first time in my life, I felt profound sadness. And so on a Sunday night, on the way home from a new church in town, as we careered down a lightless highway through black woods, I surprised myself and cried so very hard, a porridge of mucus gathered on my face while Mom reassured me that I would make new friends.
“Just be yourself,” she said.
What did that even mean?
In the city, I had been my best self. I had done many things well. I sent and received many love notes, for example, asking girls to “go with me,” and they agreed, and we went: Where? Technically, nowhere. What was important was that we had agreed to go nowhere together, which was a testament to the strength of our love. But in Puckett, it was not so easy. Many of the girls in my new school were very pretty. After a few months, I got up enough courage to hand one a note.
“What’s this?” she said. She was blonde, small.
“It’s a note,” I said, and hustled off. The next day, at recess, I found her waiting for me.
“Hi,” I said.
She grabbed my nipple and twisted with great power. Immediately, my nipple sent a distress signal to the prefrontal cortex along the lines of, “Go on without me” and “Tell my family I love them.”
She let go.
“We don’t go with boys like you,” she said, and ran off, disappeared behind a tree, presumably to feed on small woodland creatures.
Boys like me? What did she mean?
In Memphis, I had been generally praised for my intelligence, my mastery of facts and spelling, but in Puckett, new kinds of intelligence were desired, involving gunpowder and animal husbandry and a mastery of the sequence of books in the Old and New Testaments. Everything I’d done well before didn’t matter here.
There, I had renown for my speed, but not here. Here, everybody was coyote fast.
There, I was a rider of BMX, a winner of trophies, unafraid to wreck and bleed. Here, everybody had scabs and scars and wounds far greater than mine. There were boys with leg braces, missing teeth, rickets, broken hands from animal attacks. There was a boy with a dent in his head deep enough to catch rainwater.
“What happened to him?” I asked Tom.
“Oh, him?” he said. “Got in a hatchet fight.”
A year after starting at the new school, I had my first real chance to show these classmates that I was as tough as them, or could at least fake it. It was Labor Day weekend, the opening day of dove season.
I had never really given much thought to what it might be like to kill a thing. Unlike most men in my family, I found it quite easy to romanticize animals, attributing to them deep human feeling. At the grocery store, I felt sorry for the lobster in the tank. I worried about him. At the very least, I felt he must be extremely bored.
The day before the hunt, Pop came home from work bearing gifts, handing Bird and me each a camouflage vest with a tag that read, “Now with deeper, spill-proof game pouch to prevent seepage.”
I had no desire to be around the seeping of things and could not imagine wearing clothing that promoted it. Dead things were one thing. But wearing dead things that had the potential to seep their deadness onto you was something new.
Pop took us into the pasture to practice shooting. To me, he gave a 12-gauge, a large gun for a boy my size. He hurled clay doves in low arcs, instructed us to shoot at them.
I aimed, pulled the trigger. The kick was unexpected. I fell down, and my eye started bleeding, as did my nose.
Bird was better. His gift for weaponry neared the level of art and would have won him respect from any number of warring Native American peoples, whereas I tended to shoot more creatively, like an enraged Hell’s Angel at an Oakland riot.
“Good,” Pop said.
When we woke up the next morning, it was still dark. At least, I think it was dark. It was hard to see, my right eye being blackened, my nose scarred. I dressed in clothes Pop laid out for me, camouflage everything: pants and a T-shirt and cowboy boots and the anti-seepage vest. I looked like a shrub with a head.
So much had changed. I had come to Mississippi in clothing designed primarily for dancing, and now was wearing clothing designed explicitly for the transport of dead birds.
We loaded up.
Many miles later we came to rest at the tail of a queue of trucks that wormed off the blacktop and into a wide, flat glen where two men stood with a bucket apiece, doing headcounts and taking money.
“Watch out for the crazies,” Pop said.
“Who are the crazies?” I asked.
“Anybody I shoot with this here,” he said, and fingered the small pistol on his hip. It was, as I recall, exactly the kind of thing a crazy would do.
I noticed in the glare of headlights a handful of grown men drinking what appeared to be toxic levels of beer.
Pop rolled down his window, stuck a few bills out.
“We don’t want to hunt around no drunks,” Pop said to the man, who cracked open a container of beer so tall that I briefly mistook it for a can of Rustoleum.
“Only rules is,” he said, “don’t be shooting nobody in the face.”
“This doesn’t seem very safe,” I whispered to Bird, who was now applying black greasepaint to his face.
“You think Nam was safe?” Bird said.
On some level, we were all playing supporting roles in my brother’s larger Vietnam fantasy.
Have you ever seen a wedding in an exotic place, like Palestine or Juarez, where there’s a lot of drinking and the shooting of guns wildly into the air in joyous celebration? That’s what dove hunting is like.
It’s fun for most people.
For me, it was more like the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan, the part when Tom Hanks is trying not to die.
Detonations of smoke and light rippled down whole ranks of shooters, thundering across the pasture and down into your groin like a herd of angry horses intent on flushing the kidneys. When for a brief instant the din halted, I heard a dry rain in the branches overhead and found myself pelted in the face by what felt like handfuls of dry rice hurled through a particle accelerator.
I was going to die.
But I did not die. Instead, I missed. Many birds. Thousands, it seemed like, while my father and brother slayed them with upsetting speed. It was embarrassing. Eventually, it got quiet. The birds were all dead or gone, the hunters blacked out from medical emergencies involving acute alcohol poisoning. All that was left was us and the heat. The late summer sun was too much. Body fluids pooled in my boots. My pants, once so large, now seemed too tight, enfeebling my capacity to breathe correctly. I was sweating in places where I didn’t even know I had skin.
Tight pants always made me angry.
I was angry at Bird, for believing he was Chuck Norris.
I was angry at Pop, who insisted that we spend holidays shooting things.
I was angry at many of my classmates, who seemed to know more about the diameter of pellet spread at 30 yards while using a modified choke for upland bird hunting than, perhaps, how to spell the word diameter.
Mostly I was angry at me, for not having found a way to make a place for myself in this place. I really did like these people, and I wanted to belong—I just didn’t know how.
And then, something happened.
A cote of doves was crossing the pasture, flying fast and low through heat vapors right at me. Bird aimed, but waited. Pop held his hand up: Wait. Let your brother.
They were mine.
I aimed, and pulled the trigger, and one bird hit the dirt.
“You got him!” Pop said.
I got him.
I walked out into the sea of clods and looked down at my tiny dead chicken. Shit, I thought. I had never thought “shit” before that moment. But shit was easy to think now.
What was I supposed to do with it?
“Put it in your sack,” Bird yelled across the vapors of noon.
As I knelt, I saw: the bird was not dead.
This is the story of my hunting life, one that would unfurl over the next decade: the thing killed from afar is not killed and must be killed again, at close range, where you can see the opal wetness of its eyes seeing you back, close enough to feel you could learn something of the animal’s personality, take it home, give it a name, feed it, love it.
“Just whop its head real hard,” Pop said.
I picked up the bird as instructed, the small gray package of feathers and meat. Yet the dove was not gray, not at all, but many colors: clusters of white, pale yellow, black feathers, its head nearly pink under the sun, its chest almost mother-of-pearl, glinting dark purple if you looked at it right. The dying animal looked at me. What would my classmates do in such a situation? Likely throw it up into the air and shoot it again, sportively. What would my brother do? Probably try to bite its head off.
It quivered in my hand, shuddered, its head darting. Pop suggested I knock it against the tree, but how? Just throw it, like a ball? That’s the thing they never tell you about killing: It’s not easy. You have to commit.
So I threw it at the tree, and the bird landed, flapped its wings as if to say, Try again, please. I hit it against the stock of my gun, and it flapped some more. Finally, I laid the dove across a root, pushed aside any lingering shame, said a prayer, and stepped on its tender neck. That did it.
It was my first time to kill a thing.
Lord, it was awful.
“Good,” Pop said.
We gathered on the sidewalk in front of our classrooms, and there was much talk of the weekend’s hunting. The boys pulled their shirtsleeves up, revealing their bruises, purple and pink and yellow, a visible record of conquest. The bigger the gun, the better the hunting, the wider the bruise.
“Mine’s bigger,” one said.
“That’s a girl one.”
“Mine’s as big as a hamburger.”
“A hamburger for babies.”
Tom and all the other boys, the boys I would come to know and be deeply fond of in those distant years, they were all showing their proud new tattooed contusions, and they turned to me.
Had I hunted, they wanted to know.
I had, sure.
Had I killed anything?
I stood on the sidewalk waiting for our teacher to let us in the classroom and every eye in the fourth and fifth and sixth grades, it seemed, was on me. My black eye intrigued them, the scar on my nose.
“You been in a fight,” they said.
I said nothing. I let them think it.
“Let’s see your bruise,” they said.
There had been a small one yesterday. Surely it was gone now. I looked down, lifted the sleeve on my little polo. Nothing. Tender flesh.
So I lifted higher, and there it was, yellow and red and purple and six inches across and spreading to my chest, mostly as a result of my wild and reckless shooting. A bruise the colors of the bird itself, and just as big.
“Dang,” they said. “What kind of gun you got, again?”
“Must be like a bazooka,” said another.
“That’s some Rambo shit right there.”
“Hell yeah,” I said, like it was something I said all the time.
I stayed at Puckett for several more years, made friends, found a place.
The boys, they invited me to their farms to kill shit with them.
The girls, they agreed to go with me, and we went nowhere together, in love.
The teachers were kind, even though they occasionally hit us with what I assumed were canoe oars.
They taught me new things, things I hadn’t known before.
In time, they even gave me a nickname. Hillbilly, they called me. I guess it was a joke.
Sometimes, when my wife asks me if I think it might be okay for our children to go to public school, I want to tell her this story, about the stink of poverty and the boys who wanted to know what kind of gun you had and the pretty Baptist girls who attacked their young suitors. But I don’t, because it would frighten my wife.
Eventually, we found a school for our children, a private one, affordable, rigorous, with Latin and logic and no hatchet fights to speak of, but I am sure our daughters will be traumatized anyway, because it’s school, and that’s what happens. Somebody will always be there, trying to remove your nipples without your permission.
At the parent interview, a few months ago, when the administrators were trying to determine if we and our children were a good fit for the school, they asked if I had any questions.
What I wanted to ask was, “Has anyone at this school ever made love to a horse?”
But I didn’t, because I knew they’d probably say no, to the best of their knowledge, nobody had done that.
And it made me a little sad.