I only remember two names from First Grade. No other kids, not even my teacher. I even forgot the name of my second grade teacher who told my Mom I was a genius. Third grade was sharp-tongued Mrs. Schrum. No one could ever forget Schrum because her dad owned the local pickle factory, the largest employer in our small area.
I do remember Don Fancher, the class bully, and Bonnie Bowie, the dark-haired class belle who was my first girlfriend, standing in for Margret O’ Brien and Shirley Temple.
How curious it is that children often, at an early age, begin to act out what they will become. In high school, Fancher would roam the boys’ locker room like a prowling lion, threatening with his elastic belt to snap the naked rear of any boy who would not give him pocket change. Bonnie was a petite beauty who perhaps predicted the diminutive young lady who became my wife years later, a brunette at the beginning and a brunette for life.
Don, Bonnie and I were standing at the swing sets at recess. Once I had spouted off I was not afraid of spiders. Why I bragged about bravery toward arachnids I will never know. Perhaps it was to impress Bonnie as so many tried to do because she was the princess of the class. And she really seemed to like me, once pecking me on the cheek without warning. Don saw this and fumed as he was an awkward boy, ungainly, gruff and insecure like many nascent bullies.
He had heard of my bragging so one bright Spring day he approached Bonnie and me by the swings, holding a stick, not to threaten me this time, but to transport a fierce looking black and yellow crawler with the harmless name of Garden Spider that terrified us all whenever we saw its sometimes throbbing web.
“Fein,” he barked at me. “Heard you’re not afraid of spiders!”
My breath fled. I remember the quizzical look on Bonnie’s face, her black button eyes gleaming, wanting to see what the bully was up to for he had challenged me in various ways whenever Bonnie was present, trying, like Bluto, to steal Olive away.
At the end of the stick was a huge black and yellow Garden Spider. It probably wasn’t that big but it seemed like a tarantula to me as even decades later I can transport myself back to that scene.
“Yeah, why?,” I snapped back, pushing my courage ahead of my abject fear, for I was deathly afraid of spiders.
“Yeah, why?,” instantly understanding what he had in mind.
“Okay, Fein, I heard you say you were not afraid of spiders. So let’s see. Let my buddy here crawl down your arm if you’re not afraid.”
To be tested at six years old! My entire reputation, a word I barely understood, flashed before me. Refuse and Bonnie would never look at me the same, the bully squashing me like the bug I was as I was indeed the smallest kid in the class, other than Bonnie, both of us the opposite of Big Don.
I had no choice. I stuck out my arm and Fancher nudged the spider on to the top of it. It just sat there a bit, checking out its new scene, no way in a hurry, unable to hear my pounding heart.
Every other part of my being froze, but I tried to look brave. My eyes focused on the top of the swings. I never looked at Don or Bonnie. The recess crowd collapsed around us.
Finally, eight black legs, the yellow shining in the sun, sprinted (hooray!) down my arm to my wrist where I quickly flicked the spider off. A couple of girls screamed.
It felt great to be a hero, to stand tall before Bonnie, to forecast years later that I would be the one who strode into the principal’s office in high school with the courage to turn in Fancher for his bullying in gym class, which caused him to be suspended from school.
Bonnie moved away. I am sure she does not remember the spider or me, nor does Don. Whatever heroism I demonstrated in life—no more or less a hero than most of us who navigate our average lives—I will remember the black and gold monster that liberated me.
Originally published in The Write Place At The Write Time