The burner ignited beneath the stew of conflict when, during lunch, the boys chewed with their mouths open. The girls broadcast their disgust by sticking their tongues out. This ugly stalemate continued until the attending adult, Miss Pfafferkorn, intervened.
Though volatile, tensions would have relaxed by recess were it not for the note delivered during snack time by Sarai Bungtower—chief female liaison to icky boys through Darren Wilkerson (whose t-shirt Sarai had kissed during field day 2003).
Boys, read the note. It continued,
Sweat prickled Darren’s palms as he absorbed the note’s import. Despite its undetermined meaning—was it a command for the boys to smell feces or a statement of purported fact?—the message’s aggressive tone could not be mistaken. Hey, thought Darren, I don’t sniff poop! He looked to Sarai and asked, with eyes alone, if he must deliver this cruel message. Sarai nodded. Such a simple thing, a nod. Yet with it—a dip of one freckled chin—the entire 5th grade class of room 3E embarked in earnest upon the path to battle.
Dutifully, Darren returned to the throne of T’Byron Jones. His silk-haired eminence lounged at the purple desk, which sat majestically athwart the map of The World. Darren’s downcast eyes bore grave foreboding and a chill breeze blew from the classroom’s rotating fan. T’Byron, a brilliant tactician and reader of men, understood that Darren—his trusted aide—held a missive of considerable weight. That in Darren’s hand trembled the key to some unholy door or an incantation with the power to herald the end of living and the beginning of survival.
T’Byron opened the note and read, mouthing the words under his Oreo-flavored breath. He asked Darren what sniff meant. His wisp of a dark mustache twitched. With deliberate gravity, T’Byron raised his head, glaring across the room to the obvious mastermind of this nefarious declaration.
Helena Grouper-Sarkey, heir apparent to “Large” Laird Sarkey’s Lawn Accessories empire, innocently jotted in her “Watch Me Spell” workbook.
“Helena,” said T’Byron. Ever the innocent, Helena pretended not to hear. “Helena!” T’Byron thundered, prompting Miss Pfafferkorn to remind everyone to use their inside voices. Still, Helena did not relent. Oh would she have simply met his gaze perhaps the wetted fingers of decency could have extinguished the flaming wick of war. Yet Helena’s sweet face stayed glued to her work, cradling in her features a devilish grin. Without recourse, T’Byron rose—his towering head nearly scraping the pterodactyl mobile—and stormed across the classroom. As the Red Sea clove at Moses’ behest, so too the children of 3E scrambled to avoid T’Byron’s light-up Sketchers. Finger stiff with indignation, T’Byron poked the striped shoulder of Helena’s lavender Baby Gap blouse. She turned. Meeting his stern gaze, Helena flared her olive nostrils and sniffed long and lustily. T’Byron crumpled the note.
News of the message spread with infernal haste. The class dissolved into tumult, to wit: Miss Pfafferkorn could only rein order by showing the children pictures of her pet bunny Pistachio.
And then recess came.
Under the flaming late-September sun, the boys and girls huddled in their respective camps: the boys in the cool sand beneath the jungle gym and the girls on the dandelion-dotted copse behind the swings.
In the shade T’Byron—boys crouched in a ring around him—limned a sober plan. Despite T’Byron’s commanding voice and Walpolean mien, his boys grew restless in the humid air. Battle had been promised and it would be battle they had. Whining gave way to horseplay gave way to Phillip Phillerson, a hotheaded colt, breaking ranks. Putting agency to his sticky hands, Phillip burst from beneath the playground’s rubber-coated steel, bayed and lobbed a hoary chestnut in the general direction of the girls. Like mice from a lifted bag of dog food, the girls scattered. In a matter of quick seconds, whooping females engirdled the young men’s camp, wielding handfuls of sand, clumps of grass, and other sundry ordnance. T’Byron cursed Phillip Phillerson and barked for his men to hold position.
The boys huddled together for protection from the ensuing onslaught of debris. From all sides, things you’d find on the ground whanged off the playstructure. Luckily, no missile found its mark. The boys were safe—but not for long.
Helena, a gifted commander in her own right, quick understood the disadvantage of her troops’ enfilade. With withering speed she changed course, calling the girls with an ululating shriek. She relayed her orders and her women nodded. Damn the prolonged assault, she basically said, doomed to interruption by an attending adult (remember the Great Stinkberry Battle of last Wednesday). We must strike at their hearts. You women, proud and strong, know what to do. The girls nodded and lined up near the twirly slide, their glittery bows, barrettes and plastic jewelry spangling in a dread mosaic.
“Tag,” came their high feminine call. “We’re it.”
Lo how the boys did quake: facing, as they were, a vengeful tide of cooties. Some boys wailed. Others crumpled in desolation. Perry Horboe looked kinda pumped. The girls’ count began at the customary ten, their voices merging into one leviathanic cry.
“Nine. Eight,” said the girls.
Yet as the winds of war blow, so too do they shift. For T’Byron, brave T’Byron, had a stratagem as yet unused on the field of playbattle. With a word, he brought his young soldiers back together and told them what must be done. The boys’ eyes grew wide.
“Five,” said the girls.
“No…” croaked Kip Ingersoll, fumbling with his fogged glasses. “I… I can’t!”
“We have to,” said T’Byron.
“Two!” said the girls.
And madness though the plan may have been, conflict often rewards the unsound mind. Some of the boys—Kip Ingersoll, Nathan Pliffshmelter and Germaine Huggins (whose wheelchair was really hard to roll through sand)—thought of flight, of forever cursing their souls to the narthex of the church of War. But, upon looking again at T’Byron’s stalwart face and really cool No Fear t-shirt, their courage rekindled. No, these nineteen boys confronted their lot in solidarity, struggling to wrench their collective hides from the tip of grinning death’s scythe.
“One!” said the girls. “Ready or not here we come!”
In that moment, for T’Byron Jones, time halted. The scene glowed as if imbued with divine beauty. The earthy aroma of maple bark filled his chest. He felt cool triangles of sweat glittering at his temples. And across the rolling sandbox, the line of women warriors stormed. Were he a wiser man, perhaps he would have seen the enemy, these girls, as vulnerable and human as he, shrieking through the same cracked lips, peering from the same frenzied eyes, bounding on limbs that pumped with his own fear, courage and conflict’s brutal adrenaline. He would have seen that he was they and they were he. That all war was purposeless self-harm. Suicide.
Alas, like so many other notions, it passed him by, unnoticed. So the moment ended; survival instinct blotted T’Byron’s mind and he existed without thought. Without memory. A spirit of action.
The dazzling amazons rushed in, shaking the ground with every footfall; hunger triumphant painted their faces. They did not want to simply tag — ye lords no! — they wanted the boys to be it!
“Hold!” T’Byron cautioned, his arm raised to the playplace and above it the azure sky. The boys smelled the coming cootie onslaught—girly body spray and freshly washed clothes rode the howling wind. “Hold!” repeated T’Byron, his resolve an implacable girder, standing in unbent support of the brave boys that dared call him friend, leader, master. The girls’ protean line bulged and morphed in its approach. They were seven feet out. Now four. Now two…
“Now!” roared T’Byron. The boys sprung out as one—their backs replacing their fronts—and yanked their pants beneath pale buns that gleamed in the radiant sun.
The girls screamed and withered. This line of puny butts broke their charge like waves ‘pon a bulwark. Helena threw herself to the soil, shaking her ragged fists at the cruel fates. How could she have overlooked the possibility of a full moon? She had guided her trusting girls to calamity. What God—or even demigod—would forgive her now? The boys did not relent; their posteriors stayed proudly proffered, some waggling, some immobile as granite—Germaine Huggins had even managed to prop himself up, revealing a sliver of a cheek—as girls scattered in defeat.
And so that day nineteen plucky boys-turned-men emerged victorious from the skirmish, though their victory proved short lived: the administration, upon learning the enormity of their war crimes, punished the boys with the grave sentence of no longer being able to play with Gumby, the class hamster.
But in that moment, pulling up their pants, the boys knew the glory that glows in the breast of those who dare. That radiant splendor when against fate and fear and odds incalculable, one stands unbroken, wondering in awe if this world had ever been so right. Yes, chests thrust to the brimming horizon, the boys of classroom 3E whooped in satisfaction, drinking the quaff of life in its potent, undiluted fullness.