Math Mistake

When old Mrs. Thompson, my grade five teacher got angry, she blew a gasket. Her face turned reddish-purple, her eyes bulged behind thick glasses, her lower lip quivered. Usually her rage targeted someone else, but one unhappy day, I was the victim.

In the silence of her classroom, the other students and I were completing some exercises on long division. It was a concept I had struggled with from the outset, so I worked slowly. Being shy, I didn’t like to draw attention to myself or to my shortcomings in any aspect of my studies. My brother Brian had tried to help me at home, but long division was still one of the great mysteries of the universe.

On this particular occasion, Mrs. Thompson said, “Put your pencil down, and pass your scribbler to the person seated behind you. Today, the exercise will be marked.” Cheryl, the cute brunette right in front of me, dutifully placed her workbook on my desk, as soon as the instruction was given. Meanwhile, I struggled to complete one last question, somehow feeling that it would make all the difference in the world.

“Keith!” My name exploded inside our classroom, and flew out into the atmosphere. It was so loud and jarring, I couldn’t lift my head up to respond. Suddenly, my brain was on fire, and the muscles in my neck seized up.

My classmates, no doubt, had turned their attention toward me. You poor sucker, they must have been thinking; you’re really going to get it.

I still couldn’t respond. I stared at Cheryl’s rigid back. Where was Mrs. Thompson? Beside me? Hovering over me like a demented witch on a broomstick?

She spoke again, her voice loud and menacing. “Bring your workbook to the front immediately.”

Somehow, I raised my head. She was standing behind her big teacher’s desk, reaching for her red marking pen. Everyone remained silent. I slowly stood up, picked up my work and began the journey along rows of classmates. My eyes were riveted on my book. I passed by blurry grade fivers on either side— unidentifiable strangers, witnesses at my execution.

When I was within striking distance, Mrs. Thompson grabbed the exercise book from my hands. Slowly, deliberately making a great show of it, she slashed a huge red “X” through my entire double page of work. She thrust the scribbler at me and I returned to my desk, the other kids seeming to bob up and down on my salty sea of guilt. The trip to the front, the silent red “X”, the lonely walk back— they all added up to “cheater”. And no one likes a cheater.

Many years later, standing in front of my own students, I thought of old Mrs. Thompson whenever I gave the direction, “Pass your work to the person behind you, please.” Some of my kids did so promptly; others were slow and sloppy about it, some even finishing up an answer or two. Lucky for them—Mrs. Thompson wasn’t watching.


Let It Roll

Let it roll across the floor
Through the hall and out the door
To the fountain of perpetual mirth
Let it roll for all it’s worth
George Harrison
From “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp”
1970 Harrisongs Limited

Like a brown scar, our walking trail to Georges P. Vanier Junior High School cut across a steep hillside. Located at the back of half-acre residential lots, it saved my friends and me a few minutes on our short trips to and from school. For three years, sauntering along this trail was part of our daily routine: three or four young teenagers in no hurry to get where we were going. We complained about adults and school, swapped stories, pushed and grappled with each other—tested our growing physical strength. It was all very forgettable, except once.
Brian, Harry, and Clive were several meters ahead of me one early spring afternoon of our grade nine year. They had begun the walk home a minute or two sooner than me, but I could see them across a shallow valley between two hills. They had found something in the prairie grass not far off our trail. They huddled around it, like archaeologists who had just made an important discovery. I soon caught up to them. Their find was an automobile tire, probably discarded by one of the homeowners whose backyards sloped toward our trail.
Below where we were standing, the hill continued for fifty meters or so, and then was interrupted by an alleyway. Further on, the slope ran into a road, (Sixth Street N.E.), and on the other side of the road lay the second fairway of the Elks Golf Course.
“Let’s wait for a car,” Harry suggested, and then laughed in a mean way. He enjoyed activities that had the potential to scare someone.
Brian laughed good-naturedly. “No way,” he said. “Let’s just let it go.”
Clive and I didn’t say anything. The hill was very steep; more backyards were visible below us, and I was thinking that someone could be walking along the alley.
But wouldn’t it be cool to see it rumble out of control?
Without further discussion, we launched the tire on its way. It quickly accelerated, bounding over grassy mounds and scrubby bushes, while uncannily maintaining its balance. It took a gigantic leap at the alleyway and kept on going. It zoomed across Sixth Street (no cars in sight), and headed straight toward a broken-down, barbed wire fence that separated the road allowance from the golf course. The tire missed a post, leapt across the sagging wire and steamrolled down the middle of the fairway.
At some point during all of this, a motorcycle cop cruised over the top of the hill on Sixth Street. He witnessed the last several seconds of Mr. Goodyear’s amazing run. Two golfers were strolling along, their backs to us and to the black sphere that was about to interrupt their thoughts. The tire hurtled between them like an intruder playing through without permission. Both golfers whipped their heads around at the same time and looked up the hill as if to say, “Where the hell did that come from?”
The four of us laughed out loud. They could hear us and see us, but couldn’t do anything about it.
Meanwhile, the cop stopped his motorcycle and turned off the motor. He pointed, and waved us toward him like he was directing traffic.
We had a decision to make, and no time to discuss it. Harry was laughing that deep, ugly laugh, almost as if he were going to enjoy this next part as much as the tire rolling. To this day, I don’t know why we didn’t scatter in different directions and leave that cop standing by his shiny machine. Imagine four kids high-tailing it through bushes, over fences, and between houses. What could he have done?
Instead, we slouched toward him. He was big. With his black leather jacket and gloves, his sinister sunglasses, and his tall shiny boots, he looked like a prototype for Darth Vader.
Over the next few minutes, we received an unforgiving lecture regarding the basic stupidity of our actions. “What if a car had been coming? What if the tire had struck one of the golfers?” Blah, blah, blah.
None of us said anything. Harry shifted restlessly from foot to foot, while he peeled the plastic edge off his school binder. Brian and I exchanged glances, his beady eyes wide open; he was on the edge of laughing out loud. Clive stood motionless, staring at the ground, but he wore his typical goofy look—lower lip stretched to the side, teeth pressing up and down against it. Usually this expression prefaced a smart aleck remark, but not that day.
I was scared. My house was close by. What if the cop decided to escort us home? Or worse yet, what if he decided to herd us back to school and have a chat with our principal, the meanest tyrant in the school system?
When he was finally finished talking, he took our names, addresses, and phone numbers, and carefully printed them in a tiny notebook he had removed from the breast pocket of his leather jacket. Now, I was sure I was a criminal, my name added to some file of delinquent teenagers. He glared at us, his face full of contempt. “This is a fine way to start off in juvenile court,” he said. “Get home.”
And then he kicked his motorcycle into a noisy, violent start. My heart leapt in my chest, and only began to calm down when he smoothly turned his bike and accelerated away.
“What a jerk,” Harry muttered.
Brian belched an uproarious laugh that filled the street. I smiled and shook my head.
All that evening I worried that any ring of the telephone might signal a call from the Police Department, informing my parents of my impending court date. Or maybe it would be our principal, if the cop had taken that side trip to the school. But there was no such phone call that evening. In fact, no phone call—ever. Nothing happened.
Rolling the tire was pretty dangerous; I get that. But what a glorious sight it was: bounding down our homely hill—mindless and unrestrained in the afternoon sunshine.

-Keith Worthington

The Stooges Meet Chubby Chicken

Saturday night shinny was winding down. All of us were tired after spending a couple of hours chasing each other like demons on the outdoor rink. One team would make a mad, offensive dash and moments later, the play would travel the other way along the snowy, rutted surface. It was great—about the best activity going on in our teenage world.

Shinny hockey offers a kind of freedom that regular games don’t: you can roam all over the ice, test your skills one on one against your friends, and hog the puck once in awhile without a coach yelling at you. You can even forget about back checking, if your legs have morphed into wet sandbags.

These games were a Saturday night ritual in junior high school and beyond: catch a bit of Hockey Night in Canada, but then, if the weather and ice were right, head over to the rink and join in a game, or get one started. We could always count on enough players—maybe the same mooks who had been skating earlier in the day before supper.

By 9:30pm or so, we’d had enough. We were worn out, sweaty, and hungry.

“Hey, do you guys wanna go to the A&W?” Bobby Taylor asked. He was two or three years older, and drove a fine-looking ’56 Chevy sedan. Owning a car gave him status; it was something that the rest of us could only dream about. Driving around with Bobby provided us with a taste of the freedom we would eventually enjoy when we had our own wheels.

As five of us started piling into the car, snow arrived all of a sudden. It wasn’t a blizzard; just a beautiful heavy downfall with flakes as big as dimes. Soon, the Chevy’s wipers created little snowbanks in the corners of the windshield. The car dug in its heels and headed toward Centre Street. Bobby flicked on the radio—Chad Allen and the Expressions were “Shakin’ All Over”.

“Hey Moe,” I said in my best Curly Howard voice, “move over will ya? You’re crampin’ my style.”

My buddy Red replied, “Shut up, Knucklehead, or I’ll murder ya.” Then, he elbowed me in the ribs and pushed me into Rollie, the guy on the other side of me in the back seat.

Rollie shoved me back toward Red, and I crashed into him on purpose. “I’m sorry Moe;” I said to him insincerely, “it was a coincidence. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.”

Red faked a two finger eye jab, and I pretended to block it by placing my hand length-wise between my eyes. This was a well-practiced Stoogercize routine that added some entertainment to the usual rasslin’ we did with each other. The Three Stooges had bonked, bashed, and body checked their way onto our TV screens, and we thought they were hilarious. We raced home at noon hour from Vanier Junior High so we could watch the old black and white episodes. Afterwards, on our way back to school, we’d talk and laugh about what we’d seen. Sometimes, we’d re-enact the slapstick on which Moe, Larry, and Curly had built their reputations. In Bobby Taylor’s car, our hockey mates seemed to be enjoying our performance.

Once we arrived at the A&W, we ordered some burgers, a brand new product called Chubby Chicken, and some cold mugs of root beer. Life was good.

While we settled down in the humid car interior to enjoy our feast, we sensed the outside temperature was dropping. Warm burgers and fried chicken hit the spot.

We were sharing and passing food back and forth in a relatively civilized manner. At one point, Dave, riding shotgun in the front, placed a huge chicken breast on the top of the bench seat.

Red was munching away as I pointed at the chunk in front of us and said to him in a high-pitched Curly voice, “Look Moe; it moved.”

This broke him up. It must have reminded him of a Stooges’ episode wherein a roasted chicken waddled across a dinner table as though it were alive. (Weird stuff like that was always happening.)

Anyway, Red began laughing so hard he couldn’t control himself. He roared out loud, his mouth wide open, exposing half-chewed morsels of chicken soaked in root beer. He tried to catch his breath, but couldn’t. He pitched forward in the seat—laughing, gagging, and coughing.

“Jesus, you guys,” Bobby Taylor muttered. He was probably having second thoughts about inviting us along.

Suddenly, I abandoned my Curly impression. “Get away from me, Red,” I yelled, fearful that he might spew his mouthful of A&W’s finest products all over me. I tried to push the big lug away. He began to make gurgling noises and grab at his throat. I thought I saw something liquidy coming out of his left nostril.

“Quick, open the door,” I screamed.

Dave jumped out of the front seat and flung open our door. Red was still in peril, acting as though he couldn’t get his breath.

During our teenage years, sympathy for our peers is not often on the radar. I managed to get my right foot up on the seat. I twisted my body, leaned against a chortling Rollie, and tried to generate enough pushing power to shove our victim into the night. He didn’t want to go. I pushed harder, now with both legs. Out he fell, into the swirling snow of the whitening parking lot. He managed to crawl to his hands and knees as he coughed out a couple of rubbery-looking fragments. Apparently, he would survive after all.

The rest of us continued to laugh like lunatics. Red would never live this down—the evening he nearly perished at the A&W. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.