Fourth grade was everything at Sherman School in Middletown, Ohio. My friend Carla and I were equal parts excited and scared.
Fourth grade heralded The Introduction to the Fountain Pen, a momentous step into adulthood in a 1950s curriculum.
Fourth grade also meant moving to the new building that housed the big kids and a recess shift. Hopscotch and musical circle games were out. We’d be expected to lurch around playing crack the whip or dodge ball. Power games.
Sixth graders claimed the metal railing along the playground. Perched like proud birds, they jeered at those who challenged their dominance. They laughed at any gladiator who fell on the blacktop.
Every morning Carla and I walked to school up Logan Avenue and down Sutphin Street to a busy intersection where a Crossing Guard was stationed. A market, remarkably unchanged, stands there to this day.
Greg, a sixth grader, was our arrogant Crossing Guard who delighted in barking orders. His rules required us to stop on the last square of sidewalk cement. We could not approach the curb until he signaled with his flag and whistle. He yapped about our crossing speed.
Occasionally an older boy talked back, but good girls that Carla and I were, we kept our opinions to ourselves and obeyed all commands.
I suppose plenty of important things happened that year, but all I remember is the day I faced him down.
Carla and I reached the corner. No Greg. No other children. We waited. Cars whizzed by. The last bell clanged in the distance, meaning we’d have to run to avoid a tardy mark.
Holding hands, we stepped from the sacred cement square, looked both ways, and ran into the crosswalk.
His whistle shrilled behind us. We froze and turned to see him emerge from behind the ice machine, waving his yellow flag like a battle banner.
“Halt!” he shouted. “You broke the law!”
“No fair!” Carla screamed.
“You’re not supposed to hide from us,” I insisted.
Red-faced, he announced he was the boss of us and that we had to be reported.
We raced to class. Carla cried the whole way because she knew we’d be in trouble. I was just plain mad.
Sure enough, our names were called over the loud speaker and told to report to the principal. We’d never been in his huge, dark office. Greg stood beside the desk, smirking, his arms crossed over his white chest band with silver badge. The principal spoke about our alleged disregard for protocol and asked if we had anything to say.
Carla cried again.
My cheeks flushed.
Crossing Guards were royalty. Who was I to contradict him? I’d be ridiculed by the sixth graders for attacking one of their own. But he’d deliberately set us up. And he’d made Carla cry twice because of his meanness.
So I told the truth about the incident.
The principal asked Carla if she agreed. Her sobs grew louder as she nodded her head. He released us back to class. As I turned, I glared at Greg, who no longer looked like King of the Hill.
He was stripped of his badge, whistle, and flag.
Sixth graders didn’t taunt me.
The principal stopped us at lunchtime and apologized for our being put at risk.
On our walk home from school, Carla told me I was the bravest person she knew. She bought a Mars bar, my favorite, at the market and shared it with me.
When I told my mother what had happened, she congratulated me but said, “It won’t always be that easy to defend yourself. Some people won’t want to hear the truth. You need to know that.”
I had no idea what she meant, but I believed my mother knew hard issues about truth were ahead.
My fourth-grader brain only understood that candy, at least, was easy.