That year I invited Penniless, Hunchback, Four Eyes, Invalid, Pimples, and several others to my birthday party. My school nickname was Jinx. It had long stopped being tragically offensive: we all had one. Our teacher had nicknamed us all and we accepted our new names pretty fast. He did his best to make us all hate each other. He was pretty successful at that. His favorite word was lesson.
- Let that be a lesson to you!
- What you need is a good lesson!
He never entered the classroom without a cross in his hand. He had his ritual: he’d take the crucifix out of his bag and then hang it on a nail in the wall. Every now and then he had to add fresh plaster around the hole in the wall, as the nail ate through it. At the end of the day, he’d take the crucifix down, leaving a pale, cross-shaped mark on the wall.
He nicknamed Invalid for the limp. The boy had one leg shorter than the other. I can’t say he was mean to him, or that he humiliated him. On the contrary, he made us help him: let him sit if there was only one free chair left, lend him our notes, let him go through the door first. But he never called him by his actual name, Sanjin. Always just Invalid. It was hard for us to call him anything else after days and days of Invalid, let me see your homework. Invalid, eyes front and no talking! Invalid, stay in the classroom: you can’t play outside. You’re invalid.
What power could we kids possibly have over that?
What power could Penniless have? Her real name was Zlata and she really was penniless. A motherless child from the country, living in a rundown house in a back alley downtown.
My mom had baked a cake for that party. We bought balloons and blew them up together. She brought paper from her office and we decorated the apartment with ribbons. I had never had a birthday party before that; my birthdays were always celebrated in the family circle: two grandmas, one grandpa, mom, younger sister, one old aunt, and no dad. He had left us long ago and no one missed him. Many kids have had birthday parties, but I only went to some of them. Those for kids in my group.
The teacher wasn’t too fond of me. I was no angel, but I wasn’t a bad kid, either. His reason for not liking me? The inability of my mother to help him with a mortgage. He was number forty-six on the waiting list, looking to buy an apartment. He wanted my mother to help him jump up several places; push him twenty places up, at least. When she failed, he blacklisted me. Once we had to paint flowers in the art class: black paper, white paint. I painted a huge flower with many petals and loops and dots. It was lush and fancy. He picked up the paper and lifted it in the air for all to see.
- Not bad, Jinx. Looks like you aren’t useless, after all.
That was almost a compliment.
Us kids weren’t really close friends, but we were all united in hating him. Even Suzana, whose dad was an doctor and helped the teacher cut lines, get treated by the best doctors around and even invited him into their summer house one year, and was thus treated well. The teacher nicknamed her Sweetheart. Day in and day out he’d tell us she was his favorite and we should all look up to her, but she hated him anyway. Kids can smell injustice from afar. We liked to be equals, even if for us it only meant we all hated him equally.
Still, we formed cliques – not because we were truly friends, but because we had similar crosses to bear. Naturally, Penniless, Hunchback, and Jinx found themselves in one group, while Sweetheart, Smartie, and Bardot stood together. President, Einstein, and Handsome mocked all of us who didn’t have Levi’s, while Four Eyes, Invalid, and Pimples just sat quietly in the corner not to attract the unwelcome attention of Muscle and Afro. There were several kids with neutral nicknames and no discernible minuses or pluses, who hung around with all of us: Olive, Spark, Blondie, and Taylor. I guess their parents hadn’t stepped on the teacher’s toes, or maybe he was still expecting something from them. They could still prove to be useful.
In the sixth grade, one year after we had finally escaped the teacher, we started hanging out at the skating rink. We felt almost normal. The cliques came together for a while, laughing and screaming on the ice. So I invited everybody to my birthday party. All of them; the Pathetics, the Neutrals, even the Golden Ones. Too afraid to invite them directly, I asked Taylor to do it for me. All three of them agreed to come. Saturday, three o’clock, Jinx’s place.
My mom put on a record and Louis’ raspy voice filled the living room, decorated as if it were New Year’s. We pushed the table into a corner and arranged on it canapes we had made together. I had already eaten so many of them I could skip straight to the cake that was waiting in the fridge, all colorful, decorated with candy and edible glitter. We lined up the chairs and armchairs along the wall to free space for dancing – I had seen that at Blondie’s birthday. She lived in a nice house in the hills. Her parents had arranged everything for the party and then went out to leave us to our fun. I loved what they had done with their living room. I could see they wanted us all to have a good time and they cared about their daughter very much. We only had to promise not to spill juice anywhere.
The teacher had a talent for destroying friendships. When he would notice us being friendlier than usual, chattier or happier, he’d pick one of us to teach us all a lesson. The victim would have to step in front of the class and the rest of us were expected to list all their wrongdoings. At first the class would be shy, but the teacher’s encouragements would eventually bring on a tornado of accusations, lies, and fabrications.
- She stole money from my coat! From all of our coats!
- I saw him puncture someone’s tire during recess!
- She yelled at the cleaning lady!
- He threw bread in the garbage and then lied about it!
- She hid my shoes and I had to walk home in my slippers!
There was no way to prove the truth. In the beginning, when we still hadn’t learned that lesson, we’d defend ourselves. Later we realized we were just slowing down the whole process: the smart thing to do was to just wait it out. Bow your head, stay silent, and wait for it to be over, then scuttle home. That happened on most days.
When one side of the record ended, my mom turned it over. Louis sang about a wonderful world. That side ended too, and as mom turned it over yet again, we exchanged a knowing look. Not all of them could be an hour and a half late. I had been sure at least some of the Pathetics would show up. Mom let the record play again and left, saying she would come back shortly. She did come back soon, bringing with her four kids from the neighborhood, their mothers and younger siblings. I had them, I had my sister, we had the music.
We danced and ate the canapés and blew out the candles and cut the cake. We threw around paper ribbons and played Hide and Seek and Never Have I Ever. Moms sipped coffee and laughed. It was the best birthday party ever.
On Monday, when I sat at my desk, Penniless came over and asked me if I was feeling any better. I didn’t understand her question and just sat there, so she continued.
- Good thing Taylor called us all, otherwise we would have all showed up on your door. You could have infected us!
I mumbled something in the line of yes, you all dodged a big one there. It was better than revealing the truth: my friend had ruined my birthday on purpose. At least I decided it was better. Taylor wasn’t one of the Pathetics, but she’d hang out with us sometimes. Sometimes we even had hot tea at my place after ice skating, as I lived near the rink. The following Saturday evening, exactly one week after the party, she came over. My mom answered the door. When mom came back to the room soon after, I didn’t ask a thing. As far as I was concerned, the birthday party my mom had saved had been magnificent.
Taylor soon faded out from my circle of friends, rendered powerless by my ignoring. The rest of us finished elementary school without seeing much change and moved on breathing a sigh of relief. We were happy to part ways, happy to know we’d find new friends and never have to see each other again. And we never did, despite living in the same small city, in the same small world.
Those shameful eight years stuck with us like a lump in our throats. I never looked back on my elementary school years without feeling nauseous. The bitter aftertaste didn’t even dissipate when I read the teacher’s obituary in the newspaper.
Cover image by Suzana Matić