Everyone wants to fit in. But sometimes you have to break free from the crowd. It’s liberating, but it’s also lonely. I was ten when I realized I’d have to go my own way. And my independence involved a black Cabbage Patch Kid, a quirky bladder, and a handful of worms.
Wriggling Free: Discovering Liberation in a Handful of Worms
Some mornings, after a long night of rain, you’ll see earthworms sprawled across the soaked ground. They come up to the surface for air. Who knows when they last surfaced, nibbling through that subterranean world one black grain at a time, or what labyrinths they leave in their infinitesimal wake?
A memory can be like that, too. A little squiggle of a thing, really. But sometimes it bores its way to the surface, as if for air. I guess it was the recent rain, the blustering wind, that summoned this memory from the compost heap of my childhood.
First, a little background. I wasn’t the most “socially-empowered” fifth grader in school. I tried. But my attempts at being part of the group were doomed. It seems the beat of some distant drummer was throwing me off step. There are a thousand unspoken rules of belonging. Without knowing it, I was breaking them all.
Take the first day after Christmas break. I brought Emmanuel with me to school. You could refer to him as a “doll” I suppose, but he was my best friend. He also happened to be the first African-American ever to grace the halls of Hiawatha Elementary. What fifth grade boy brings a doll to school in the fifth grade, right? But this was back when Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage, and I’d figured coming to school with one of these rarer-than-Elmo dolls just might catapult me into the stratosphere of popularity.
Parenthetically…If my mom sensed this wasn’t a bright idea, she didn’t let on. Of course, anyone who would indulge their ten year old boy’s desire to get a doll probably wasn’t the foremost expert on social norms. Instead, I should have taken my cue from the woman in our WonderBread town who was making knock-offs for half the price: when we placed our order—“bald and black” were the salient features I’d specified—her face started twitching and never quite stopped. Okay, back to story…
Emmanuel and I created quite a stir, though I soon learned that not everyone fully appreciated how snugly I could wrap him in his blanket, nor how dutifully I checked his diaper—on the hour, every hour. That day was a song loop of humiliation: the tongue clicks of my teacher provided the percussion track to a refrain of ridicule that wouldn’t stop until Emmanuel and I had both stepped off the bus and made that long walk home down a gravel road. That night we both agreed it would be best if he stayed home the next day.
Or take another time, in the talent show, when I’d piped out the lines to “King of the Road” in a voice not yet pickled in the brine of testosterone. I ain’t got no cigarettes, ah, but old stogies I have found . . . (strum-strum) King of the Roooooad! After the last note, I bent over my guitar to acknowledge the thundering … silence… of my peers. Even the teachers were shifting awkwardly in their chairs. It was a silence I would have savored a week later when John Meadow pointed out to the entire class a dark spot of pee blossoming from the crotch of my sweatpants.
So, yeah, this is how fifth grade was turning out.
But one morning that Spring something changed. I stepped off the bus and into the schoolyard and I was a different boy. It must have been late April or early May; the snow had melted, but the ground was wet from a long night of rain. It was cold, and the blustering wind put tremors in every puddle. Near the basketball hoops, some sixth graders were skimming up worms from the asphalt. I knew why.
A worm, well thrown, would stick. If it had rained the night before, boys would spend their recess plucking up worms from the playground and flinging them against the brick wall of Hiawatha Elementary. The trick wasn’t in the throw so much as in selecting worms that were good and tacky. A worm fished from a puddle was lousy for this sort of thing. It needed a little snot to stick. And a sticky worm that stayed stuck after four Mississippi’s earned you a point.
Typically I would have joined the fun; more than a few of the withered nubs plastered into the bricks of the school were mine. But stepping onto the schoolyard that morning things looked different to me, somehow. My buddies were more like a gang of chimps, dragging their knuckles across the asphalt as they gathered worms. And those worms: I’d never really seen them before—not like this. I turned slowly around. A panorama of worms, fleshy pink laces. I squatted beside one worm and poked it. The worm fattened, drawing itself together in graceful waves. I picked it up between my thumb and forefinger. A spasm of awe passed through me. I let it drop into the palm of my other hand.
I stopped to pick up a second worm, and then a third. Over by the basketball court my buddies were snatching worms up as fast as they could and flinging them against the school. They’d cheer if one stuck. Then they’d race out to the field to gather more. I dashed towards them, plucking up worms they were about to add to their arsenal. They growled.
I’d collected a full handful of worms, now. My hands were numb, but I could still feel them wriggling.
The school bell chimed—five more minutes until we’d be inside, lined up in neat rows pledging our allegiance. The other guys ran back to the school with their fists of worms for a speed round. The wind carried their whoops across the playground. A shout now and then when a worm stuck, then a groan when one peeled away and fell.
Then I heard them call me. “Hurry up. Bring your worms. We’re all out.”
I froze. What should I say? “Just hang on,” I called back.
I picked up a few more worms and began to trot back to my friends. But then I stopped and turned. Then, with that wriggling mass of worms in my hand, I started running in the opposite direction, past the monkey bars, past the merry-go-round, to the far edge of the playground. When I was out of breath, I stopped running and dropped to my knees. The yelps of the chimps ricocheted off the school wall and drifted out towards me. I turned towards my classmates. They seemed so small to me, as if I were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope.
“Hey, what are you doing? Bring ’em over here, Stupid!” I heard a far off voice shout. Well, there could be no turning back. I opened up my hand and let the ball of worms tumble into the greening grass.
How do you say, “I’m offering salvation to a clump of non-sentient invertebrates” to your peers? It wouldn’t matter if I did. Even I knew that.
The starting bell would be ringing any minute. I shouted back, “I’m stashing them in a safe place for recess.” I doubt they heard me; my voice wouldn’t carry into the wind. But those worms would be safe come recess. I looked down at the knot of worms in the grass; a single worm had worked itself loose from the mass, had unraveled from the knot.
That made two of us.