In Brooklyn, in the late sixties and early seventies, we gathered in the schoolyard every morning, awaiting the signal to line up by class. Until that time, the boys flipped baseball cards, hoping to score a Willie Mays, while the girls flipped Partridge Family cards, praying to win a coveted David Cassidy.
Sometimes one of us initiated a raucous game of TV tag. Other days, we played Chinese jump rope, hopscotch or taught each other how to do “walk the dog” with our Duncan Imperial yoyos.
This was the dreaded window in my morning when the class bullies liked to sneak up on a fat kid, steal a personal item like your Judy Blume book or stocking hat, then toss it from person to person around the schoolyard in a maddening game of “saloogi” – Brooklyn slang for monkey in the middle for a crowd.
At some point in the chaos, Mr. Wilpan, our vice principal with an Einstein hairdo and a scary glass eye, shouted into his megaphone that it was time to line up and get ready to march into the stairwell and up to our classrooms. Each class lined up, side-by-side, in double lines – boys on one side, girls on the other, in size order. As one of the shrimpiest kids in the class, that put me right in front, where hiding was impossible.
Mr. Wilpan held up his fingers in peace signs, a la Nixon, signaling mandatory silence – no movement or talking allowed. To break the rules was to be pulled from your class and sent to a zone known as the “step off” ― an area against the brick building, where the concrete was painted red. Protocol for being pulled from your class was to stand with your back against the brick, like you were facing a firing squad, as the entire school stared you down. It was a place no one wanted to be. All that was missing were the stockades.
I was a good kid … a rule follower … a people pleasing third grader. But I admit, I was also a talker, and not a very discreet one at that. My best friend, Ronna, a pint-sized yapper who never got caught, routinely tried continuing our conversations at the bell. I’d whisper very loudly, “Stop talking; we’re gonna get in trouble.” And at that very moment my mouth inevitably would be seen moving and one of the guards would shout:
“You! Out of the line!”
These were big guards … scary guards … power-hungry sixth-grade Nazis in training with intimidating sashes, authentic looking police badges, and the authority to pluck anyone they wanted from the crowd. One of my siblings was one of these guards and often summoned colleagues to watch me and wait for me to make one wrong move, then nab me and order my back against the wall.
The frightening guard brigade had the power to write you “a charge,” like a ticket of sorts that you had to take home and have signed by your parents – so they could know what type of juvenile delinquent they were raising. Guards wielded pads of these charge forms and derived sadistic pleasure from writing up their fellow jacks players. It was a crowd mentality. There was a camaraderie among them – a sense of good versus evil. They believed they were using “might for right” … that an 8-year-old talking in line was surely bound for Attica.
Sometimes, a school official would come over, if you resisted arrest. It was kosher in those days to grab a kid by the collar – or even the ear – and drag him or her to the red zone. It was for the protection of our fellow man. We were hardened criminals … future killers … accused of heinous crimes like gum chewing, not facing forward, and cracking knock-knock jokes after the bell.
Sam and Janet
Sam and Janet who?
Sam and Janet evening. You will meet a stranger …
“You! OUT OF THE LINE!”
As you stood there with your back against the cold brick, disgraced, degraded and dishonored, the “good kids” pointed and whispered. Even the bullying thieves who tormented me daily by stealing my stuff stood in judgment.
To this day, if I pass by a group that’s laughing, I’m convinced they’re laughing at me. Am I dragging toilet paper from my shoe? Is my skirt tucked into my pantyhose? Do they somehow know I busted a hole in my Spanx? At P.S. 193, I learned the fine art of paranoia.
But the worst part for those of us who spent half our lives on the step off was the damage it caused to our futures. While the power-happy guards no doubt went on to have illustrious careers in corrections, some even becoming card-carrying, scooter-riding meter maids, for those of us with our backs against the wall, life didn’t turn out as pretty. We were repeatedly told that our indiscretions were indelibly recorded on our “permanent records.” I spent the next 12 years watching my back, living with the dirty secret that I was marked for life. Every morning I woke up and donned my invisible scarlet letter – a big cursive “T” for Talker.
I know for a fact this is why I didn’t get into Yale.
It’s why I haven’t yet gotten a publishing deal.
It’s why I’m not yet a Director of Corporate Communications.
It’s what, to this day, stands between me and Broadway.
Professional people are hesitant to take a risk on a convicted step off felon. It’s a known fact that if you’re caught red-handed having a whisper debate in line over who’s cuter, Bobby Sherman or Jack Wild from H.R. Pufnstuf, you are destined for a life of crime. There are websites dedicated to showing you whether offenders like this live in your neighborhood.
Once a talker, always a talker. There’s a very high rate of recidivism.