A Lesson Well Learned

Yolanda Adele has been a member of the writing class for nearly two decades. Probably everyone has at least thought about skipping school at one time or another, and in this piece Yolanda evokes the feelings and reasoning of her eight-year-old self that led her to do just that - with nearly disastrous consequences. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

One enticingly warm day, after my children left for school, I was looking out of my kitchen window at the songbirds in my back yard.It brought to mind another summer day when I was about eight years old, and my innocent adventure that crossed paths with danger.

On my way to school that day I noticed little birds playing tag, others exploring toys left out on front lawns and trash cans. I envied the fun they were having. I thought of how lucky those birds were, not having any chores to do or summer school to go to. Then, the sound of a trash pick-up truck scared away all but one bird. The bird seemed to be following me, sometimes on the ground and sometimes from the air.

When I reached the corner in front of my school, children walked, ran, and skipped past me as they entered the school's gate. I stood alone, or so I thought, until I looked down at my new friend. The little bird looked up at me.

"Hey, little buddy, what do you want?" I asked it. Then it turned its head in a direction away from the school, then back at me. He repeated this motion several times. His actions reminded me of a dog-named Lassie from my favorite T.V. show. Often Lassie got people to follow her by doing that same thing.

"Huh! Is that it, Lassie Bird? Do you want me to follow you? How swell to fly free with you and your pals. O.K, let's go!"

I spread my arms out flapping the wind, running faster, and faster until I couldn't feel my feet touch the pavement. Everything was a blur as I soared by. The air felt light on my face and hair.

Then I became aware once again of the hard concrete under me. I stopped to look around, and nothing looked familiar.

Where are you Lassie Bird? I thought as I checked the sky. Wow, there are a lot of birds flying. Lassie Bird must be one of them. They are flying to a park I see across the street.

The park seemed deserted.That suited me just fine. I never had a park all to myself before. There were no bullies to push me off the jungle gym. I wouldn't have to wait my turn at the slide.

Immediately I took off my book- bag and threw it on the ground. I climbed to the top of the slide where I could see forever. "I'm queen of the birds... I'm somebody!" I shouted to my subjects. It was fun, repeatedly sliding backwards, sideways, and even on my belly. Then I ran to the monkey bars where I hung swinging like Tarzan.

Morning gave way to a hot afternoon. Big trees shredded the sun's blaze. My face was flushed and sweating. Zigzag lines of heat rose from the sidewalks. I felt the stinging tears bead down my face. I was too tired to play any longer.

I could only think of my mother's anger now, and what she might do to me for skipping school. She had already used up most of the switches on me before my Nana came to visit us from Texas. No doubt, Mom was saving what was left of the switches for when my Nana went back to Texas. It's not fair, I thought, for Mom to yell at me for not coming home. After all, she doesn't say anything to Dad when he forgets to come home. Maybe I'll be lucky like Dad.

I was not sure how to get home from the park. Where is my Lassie Bird? He might show me the way back to my house or school yard. Funny I never noticed when the birds all left the park.

I stood and picked up my book-bag, and followed the sounds of ducks quacking. It led me to a murky pond. There I splashed cool water on my face. To my surprise the ducks swam right up to me. Poor things, they must be as hungry as I was. I unzipped my book-bag and took out my peanut-butter sandwich.

This is a good time to find out if peanut butter will make the ducks beaks stick together, I thought. I held my sandwich over the water as I picked off tiny bits of it to share with the ducks. All of a sudden my sandwich fell in the yucky water. In a frenzy, ten or more ducks ate my sandwich. That's when I found out that peanut butter in water doesn't stick their beaks shut.

I watched helplessly as they ate each morsel of the only food I had with me. I grumbled and so did my tummy. Desperately looking in my book bag for a stick of gum or a piece of candy, I found a donation card for the March of Dimes with a dollar's worth of dimes in neat little rows, each tucked individually into half moon inserts.

I can borrow the money from it to buy something to eat, I told myself. I pulled out my good luck rabbit's foot and fastened it to my ponytail from its little link chain.

A gruff voice from behind jolted me, "Hey, girl, aren't you suppose to be in school?" Gulping hard I turned around to see a big man. His lip curled on a cigar, his skin looked tight over his cheekbones and jaw.

"Yes, Sir," I answered taking mincing little steps away from him. "I tried a new route to school, and got lost." He threw his head back with a thunderous laugh.

"Don't lie to me girl. You cut school!"

"I have to go. My mother and Nana will be sick with worry if I don't get home soon. I have a long walk ahead of me and I have to stop at the store to get something to eat."

"So, you got money, Kid? Maybe I can help you. See, I'm a cabby. My taxi is not parked too far from here. I can drive you home before the truant cops pick you up and throw ya in jail."

Jail! I never thought of that. Jumping Jupiter, Mom will kill me for sure! Even Nana won't be able to stop her!

"What's it going be, you pretty sweet thing? Go with me or go to the slammer?"

"Do you know where New Jersey Street is?" I asked in a cracked voice.

"Sure. Cab drivers know how to get anywhere, but it takes gas money, ya know?"

"I have some money, but I need it to buy some food. I didn't have any breakfast this morning, and I'm really hungry now."

He put his face close to mine and said, "Look, sweetheart, you can get food after I take you home, right? Just go in the car with me." He smelled like drain cleaner when he talked. I didn't want to be afraid of him if he could really drive me home. But my hero, Sheriff John says on T.V. that kids should never talk to strangers.

"C'mon, kid, I'm not going to waste anymore time with you. Now give me the money for gas and I will take you home!" I took out my March of Dimes Card, handed it to him. I stared at the brownish white of his eyes that had broken red streaks in them, making him look like the mean Boogey-man I had been warned about.

"What's this?" he asked as he looked down at the dimes card. Then I grabbed my book-bag, and kicked him as hard as I could somewhere below his belt. He shouted some names at me that I didn't understand. I ran like I was on fire and I spotted a policeman just outside the park giving out a traffic ticket. I ran toward him hollering, "Mr. Policeman, Mr. Policeman! Take me to jail. I don't care, only save me from the Boogey-man!"

When I reached him he said, "Slow down, Honey, tell me your name, what happened to you, and where you live." I tried to tell him how the bird made me go to the park where the Boogey-man robbed me of my March of Dimes Card; and I had to get home to New Jersey Street.

I didn't know if he believed me. Still, he was nice. He said, "Don't worry. I will take you home, but first you must promise that you will never ditch school again."

"Oh I promise officer! Hope to die, stick two needles in my eyes!" I liked sitting in the front seat of the police car.

When we finally reached New Jersey Street I saw my Nana walking down the street. "That's my Nana, that's my Nana," I cried out.

The officer pulled up next to her. I could see that she was crying when she turned to look at us. "Nana, I'm O.K." I bolted from the car and hugged her tightly. I felt her large, doughy body trembling.

"Mija, where the @#$%^&* have you been?" She spoke in broken English. "Did she break the law, Mr. Policeman? What did she do wrong? Did somebody hurt her, is she alright?"

"Everything is fine." He tried to calm her. "She is not any worse for wear. She is just shook up enough to learn a lesson about the dangers of ditching school."

Nana thanked the policeman for bringing me home. Then she pulled me by my earlobe all the way to the house, half a block away. '"Hurry up. What are the neighbors going to think, you coming home in a police car?"

"Nana what are the neighbors going to think when they see you pulling me by my ear?"

"First you come home in a police car, and then you talk back to your Nana! I'm going to slap you good when we get home."

I tried to explain how the Lassie Bird and Boogey-man tricked me, but she didn't want to hear any part of it. She was still yelling when we reached our house. Inside she let go of my throbbing ear.

"Nana, all you care about is what the neighbors think, you don't care about me," I shouted.

"Child, I have been looking for you ever since the school called to say you weren't there this morning. I have been sick with worry. Now, you listen to me! Unless you want your mama to know that you didn't go to school, you better be on your best behavior from now on. No ifs, ands, or buts! You will do all your chores, and help with mine. Your homework will be done before you even think of going out to play. Do you understand me?"

Before I could answer she slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly fell over. Then she covered my cheek with kisses, and hugged me tightly. Her apron smelled like vanilla extract. We both cried. Her tears mixed with mine.

"You're the best Nana in the whole world," I said. And I meant it. We shared a special kinship after that experience. Even though I didn't always finish my chores or my homework, Nana never told my mother what happened that day. A few days later the news reported a little girl my age was found at the park walking in a daze. She had been molested.

I never ditched school or stared at dumb birds again. I had learned my lesson well.

********** Published: Feb. 6, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 43