by Tiffany Palumbo
Shawna ran up to me, eyes glittering.
“Leah's dad bought her new scissors. The sharp ones. The ones without the rounded edges!” Judging by her look blackberries beneath our feet. Smell it in the green, sticky sap of the fresh-cut vines and in the sun-warmed leaves above our small heads. This was the fourth grade, and this was our freedom.
Before the planning, before the work, before the multitude of stinging scratches covering our arms, legs and faces, there was a fence. Not a particularly unusual fence, to the untrained eye. To teachers, parents, and anyone else over the age of eight, it was just a long, low, chain-link fence that surrounded the school yard, corralling those of us who soon grew bored with tire swings and picking out quartz from the playground gravel. There was a narrow gap, just where the two ends of the chain-link met, but did not line up (due to poor planning on the part of some half-cocked engineer). The poles they had used to stabilize the fence were placed close together—too close for someone to escape, perhaps, but far enough apart to stick a daring arm or leg through, if one were so inclined. The breeze in the forest was cool and soft. The hairs on our arms stood up as it kissed us, reaching out desperately as we were, and we inhaled deeply, breathing past the metal scent of the fence and inhaling the scents of moss and fresh, growing trees.
Beyond the fence were the woods. Tall, dark pines and fir trees crowded up against each other, choking the warm sunny days down to little more than a shady grove. There were things in those woods, bad things. Ian's brother said so, and he was a year older than us. Things like “bear traps” and “wild dogs” and “pedophiles.” We surmised the last one to be some sort of robber, garbed in black and white-striped pajamas with a sack of money over his back. Whatever they were, they were all in that of satisfaction, I must have looked as elated as I felt.
“Have her go to the back and cut there. Those vines are huge!” Shawna nodded and ran off, orders memorized.
I stepped back for a moment, surveying our progress so far. Impressive, but not yet complete. It would take several months' worth of recesses to reach our goal, and that was if we didn't get rained out most days—which we did. But still, victory was close. We could smell it. Smell it in the rotting forest. And we wanted out.
The Seventh Day Adventist Church—to which our school belonged—encouraged a life of modesty and veganism. Women wore dresses, jewelry was strongly discouraged, and the land of milk and honey is roughly translated into something like the land of Boca Burgers and tofu. Carob was a daily tragedy. Once a week, we would walk to the church across the street and listen to a sermon. Daily class activities included bible-based based board games, and it was here that I was subjected to Veggie Tales instead of classroom movies.
Obedience and placidity were enforced above all else, save God. Once, when the younger students had started to become “too rowdy” on the bus, the driver went from class to class, preaching about the dangers of distracting the bus driver and not sitting quietly in your seat. He was armed with a double chin, the vice-principal's blessing, and a PSA-style VHS that showed multiple reenactments of students causing their entire school to crash tragically into the swampy abyss—if only they had just read their book and waited for their stop!
At home, at home, life was similarly restrictive. Parents who send their children to private school expect a certain type of behavior, not the kind typically seen in children who attended public school. The term itself was nearly filth in your mouth, after all. When a school bully—who proudly referred to himself as “Bubba”—refused to stop teasing me, I told him God didn't love him, so when He made him, he put his head between his legs so he could kiss his own ass. He was in the eighth grade, and he cried. I was kicked off the bus and grounded for two weeks.
Many of us accepted our fates with the kind of weary patience seen only in prisoners and the elderly. Day in, day out, do our time and just get out of there. A few, however, were not subdued so easily.
Eventually, we devised a plan. A dirty, mischievous, stupid little plan that only fourth graders or failed supervillains could come up with. Along one part of the fence, there was a section of overgrown blackberry bushes. An invasive species, these monsters quickly overtook any open space available, turning fields into endless brambles, and fences into walls of thorns and snapping vines. The logic was that, since the woods had always been there, the bushes had, too, so the fence must have been built around them. If we could find some way to cut through the vines, we could eventually reach through to the other side, and travel that magical land of bear traps and pedophiles. Our own secret tunnels, just like in Mexico!
Implementation didn't take long. All that was required for our plan were scissors and a willingness to become bruised, scratched, and mildly dehydrated. It started out small, but quickly gained steam. Five, sometimes six of us at a time would spend their recess feverishly hacking away at the vines, with two or three (usually new recruits) being forced to carry away and dispose of the debris. Such determination seemed to be frowned upon, however, so the rest of us set out to distract the teachers—pulling hair, starting fights, flattering their egos. Soon we had a cave of vines big enough to hide almost all of us, and still we kept cutting.
The teachers grew suspicious that this was more than just a passing fad. This was no “members only club” that lasted for a week and was based off of your love of horses and hatred of Matt Formby. No, we meant business, and this time, we little bastards were organized. They began cracking down on our plans, hoping to avoid parental involvement (and potentially a lawsuit). They chased us away, we'd quietly sneak back. They'd pat us down for scissors, we began hiding them in the bushes before we left. Eventually, they stationed a teacher by the bushes, but by then we had recruited the third graders, and their recess was on a different schedule than ours.
At this point, our parents had started asking us how the hell we were going through scissors so fast, and where were we getting all of those scratches from? We lied. For a bunch of elementary-schooled kids stuffed into a private school without their consent, this was our best chance at independence. From school to the bus to home to back to school again, our lives were rarely our own. Even church was not an escape, as the school belonged to the Seventh Day Adventists. While we were nowhere near physically capable of taking care of ourselves, none of us really cared. This was our dream, this was our project, and it was so much more than a game.
Finally, the teachers struck their killing blow. “Recess is a privilege, not a right,” they told us, and those who abused the privilege were to be punished by having it taken away.
We weren't hard to spot: grass-stained clothes, peppered with minor flesh wounds, and guilty, terrified looks plastered on our faces whenever the topic of scissors was broached. The other, more “well-behaved” children would be allowed to go out and play, while the rest of us stayed inside, organized our desks (books from tallest to shortest, they told us) and twiddled our green-stained thumbs. There is always weakness within the resistance, and the teachers were able to pick out the weaker ones in the class with startling ease, manipulating them with sweet, toxic bribes of extra-long recess and volumes of praise. Soon, our forces had dwindled, until only Shawna and myself were left. When we had finally “earned” back the privilege of recess, the ravenous blackberries had grown back to nearly their full glory, and their knotted traps were even too much for most grown men to handle on their own, let alone two small girls.
A few feeble attempts at revival were made: we tried to build a fort out of old grass clippings by the runner's track. Escape was no longer an option, but perhaps we could hide ourselves, glean some privacy even as we gleaned the freshly-cut soccer field. We were scolded and the clippings were removed. After a while, the dream had caged itself, giving up on any chance of success or escape to the world beyond our own. Sometimes, though, we would wander back to the chain-link fence, slipping our arms through the gap, relishing the cool forest breeze, and wondering about bear traps and pedophiles.