We Were Eight

This is a short story I wrote for the Bookshop Santa Cruz 20th Annual short story contest. First time I’ve ever entered a competition like that. I entered it on the deadline date, Feb. 15, 2023. The judging was on March 30, 2023. My youngest child, ten years old for another few weeks urged me to write an entry. How could I let her down? So I did it. The two of us were having such a hard time being patient and waiting. On the thirtieth and every day after that I would check my emails and the bookshop website to see if they had announced the winners. Well yesterday they made their announcement… the first three place winners. We were disappointed. I read them online. The first was a retelling of a story that has been written and published many times. We had read a children’s book with woodblock prints that told the same story in a different voice. So I was confused. The entries were supposed to be original works of fiction. I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but I am struggling to understand how “Wind Phone” is an original work. It read like something someone would have written in the comments section in response to one of the other previously published pieces on the same subject… the telephone booth that a grieving Japanese man made as a tribute and a way to deal with the grief of losing so many in the Tsunami in Otsuchi Japan in 2011. I should leave it to the readers to decide that for themselves.

Anyway, here is the story I entered. I hope you enjoy it.

We Were Eight

My words stayed on the playground after recess. I could still hear them playing exuberant and free, uninhibited, almost laughing. Meanwhile the springy restless bodies of my friends and I couldn’t quite settle into our hard desk seats, fidgeting. We were eight years old and already knew better than the grownups that it was folly to expect us to settle neatly into rows and a quiet receptive state so quickly after the chaotic liberty they had just interrupted.

I had watched my mom folding sheets a hundred times, pull the hot jumbled tangle out of the dryer and silently, serenely transform that mayhem into a tidy stack of sheets in minutes. That was a basket of sheets. We were nothing like that. We had imagination, ideas. We were made to move. How come our teacher wanted to fold us and stuff us into a basket right after recess?

Charlie Martin was making a little bit of noise in the desk behind mine. He was folding paper. Miss Sample was talking about something. Who knows what. Fifty years later I sure don’t. But I do remember the feeling when Charlie’s paper airplane hit me in the back of the head. It was a light crisp impact. Better than the time he’d used a pencil and the point had gone through my skin and made me bleed. I wanted to laugh. It made me happy. Just a little sign from behind the periphery of my vision that another kid was thinking about me and dared to show me.

Miss Sample had another interpretation. I’m not saying she was wrong. But she really didn’t understand what was important in life. Neither did Mr. Barker, the principal. When he talked to Charlie and me that day about paying attention and respecting adults we knew it was bad advice. We understood that he was giving us a recipe on how to turn out just like him. He was really good at making kids feel small and insignificant, turning them off from the fun of school. We determined to be sure that was never going to happen to us.

Miss Sample droned about stuff that would be forgotten before my head hit the pillow that night, while Charlie Martin, through his actions made a lasting mark. And I’m not talking about the pencil scar. On the bus after school he showed me how he’d creased the paper just so, carefully aligned, symmetrical. I imitated his design as best I could. His stop was before mine and I saw him send his new glider off into flight as the driver ground the gears lurching jerkily away. It was a clumsy insult to the lilting grace of Charlie’s sailing handiwork.

My imitation flew! It left my hand without bursting into flames! Sure it spiraled wildly, nosing hard into the soft ground a few feet from where I stood, but I surveyed my creation proudly. That pitiful unbalanced disaster in the dirt had just given me my birth as an aviator. Sad as it sounds now it was a triumph then. I picked it up and pitched it at the clouds again and again. Then I ran home and sputtered the news to my mom.

“It flew! I made it. And it flew!”. Mom hugged me and fed me a peanut butter and jam sandwich with milk and listened. She didn’t care about paper planes. The interest in her expression, nodding and smiling, watching my hands fold and smooth a flat rectangle of letter stock was full of love. She knew what was important. And when I was with her I knew it too.

One day Charlie brought a book to school. We were allergic to books. This was different though. It was a book all about paper planes. We tried them all. We read it cover to cover. A first. We were focused and worked diligently. Inside my desk became a hangar for my fleet. Different shapes. Different types of paper. Slow planes, fast planes, loopers. For the first time I would open my desk with pride.

Tragedy struck the day Miss Sample stood between Charlie’s desk and mine and made us take our airplanes out and put them in the wastebasket. Right in front of all the other kids, I cried. Charlie seethed silently. I rubbed my puffy eyes. Charlie steeled his and locked them on Miss Sample. She turned away from him so fast. She seemed to lose her balance for just a second. Was she scared? Of an eight year old kid? He never broke that hot beam as he emptied his desk.

After I dropped my last plane in the bin I slumped back into my seat. Not Charlie. When he picked up his final plane he held it above his head and crushed it in his small hand. From the full height of his outstretched arm he released it and it tumbled down from his raised fist coming to rest atop the discarded fleet. I thought that bit of bravado was brilliant! What a punctuation mark! He wasn’t done. Without hesitation he took his math book and dropped it in. Then his reading book, his spelling list, pencils, ruler, crayons, every last thing from his desk went into that bin. Then he sat down.

Charlie missed a week of school after that. “It is for your own good”, we were told. “You’re never going to amount to anything if you cannot learn to follow rules”, we heard it more than once. “Mr. Barker has his eye on you”. What went through our heads was, “Who is it that doesn’t seem to be learning anything?”. We were learning what it took to break the tethers that hold us to the ground, if only for a short time. It was far from clear to us then, but by their example these grown-ups were planting the seeds that shaped our young minds as we grew, in ways they had not foreseen.

In my headset I hear the words, “Airbus 3545Kilo you are clear for takeoff on runway 27”. As I ease the throttles forward and feel the jet engines respond with a controlled roar I am transported back to that time when I folded that first paper airplane with Charlie Martin on the seat of the bus. I think of his dramatic flare, crushing his paper glider overhead in second grade and chuckle imagining the powerful persuasiveness his arguments must carry in the courtroom nowadays where he litigates for plaintiffs hurt by bad products and corporate malfeasance. I’d say we learned more from them than we gave Miss Sample and Mr. Barker credit for. Though it certainly wasn’t what they wanted nor what we imagined when we were eight.