It is Alex LaCroix’s fault.
Even as a 1st grader, I know he is pure Virginia white trash—all the LaCroix’s are, my mother says. Still, blonde haired, blue-eyed Alex Lacroix is the most handsome boy in class, if not the entire grade. Even if he is shorter than I am.
It will be two decades until I understand the Napoleon complex, but Alex LaCroix has it in spades. Regardless, I’d have done anything for him, an angry little boy whose mother worked nights at ShopRite.
We are lined up for a field trip to the woodlands behind the school. Excited, we carry little plastic cups with domed tops in our left hands and plastic spoons in our right.
“Today we are making terrariums,” says our teacher, auburn hair piled high on top of her head. She wears blue eyeshadow and a beige pantsuit with a wide-collared shirt.
“We’re making geraniums?” asks a girl with braids in my class.
“Ter-rar-i-ums. Geraniums are flowers. We are making terrariums.” My teacher repeats the word slowly and patiently. We all start hopping on one foot for no reason while she attempts to properly instruct us. “When we get to the woods, use your plastic spoon to dig up soil.”
“Soil is the earth, the ground, the dirt. Layer the soil at the bottom of your terrarium. Then, plant moss or grass or tiny flowers. Make sure you scoop up their roots or your plants won’t grow!”
At this point, we are beyond ready to create our own veritable Gardens of Eden.
Just before we head out the school’s heavy front doors, Alex LaCroix spots Mac.
Like most elementary school custodians, Mac is the most beloved person at the school. He seems to be there at all hours, unlocking the front gate, helping direct traffic, cleaning up vomit in the classrooms, opening up milk cartons in the lunchroom, and giving high fives to kids in the hallway. He seems like the only adult who is chiefly there to personally help us, not like the principal who seems distracted or the teachers with their glares and worksheets or the school nurse who smells funny and doesn’t like children in her clinic or the librarian who wants us to read—but doesn’t like us to touch her books.
Mac walks by our line and puts out his hand to give each one of us a high five.
And then Alex LaCroix whispers a word—a word that I have never heard before. It sounds silly coming from his mouth. I laugh. Alex LaCroix looks at me and repeats it a little louder. I say it, too. Then he says it louder, and I laugh and laugh. When I say it again, I catch Mac’s eyes.
To my utter horror, Mac’s eyes are full of disbelief. It takes me a moment to realize that the word Alex LaCroix and I are saying is the cause of Mac’s distress.
It takes my teacher less time.
She unceremoniously plucks the spoon and plastic cup out of Alex’s and my hands. A stern lady from the office appears and takes the two of us by the shoulders and seats us in a small conference room.
I burst into tears and weep until I can hardly breathe. Alex LaCroix sits across from me, looking ugly and unrepentant. He picks his nose.
🜋 🜋 🜋
I come to dislike Alex LaCroix as I watch the red second hand make endless rotations around the clock’s face. Someone brings me my lunchbox, a meal meant to be eaten outside with my classmates and our new terrariums. Instead? I’m stuck in a windowless room with stupid Alex LaCroix.
I open my Scooby-Doo lunchbox to eat my American cheese sandwich (with Miracle Whip, not mayonnaise) on white bread. My mother had packed orange slices and some Fritos, but they taste like ashes in my mouth. I throw the food back into the lunchbox except for the Hostess Twinkie. It’s cold comfort, as my stomach is still knotted from seeing Mac’s hurt expression. I place the Twinkie, half-eaten, on top of the lunchbox—the picture of Scooby Doo’s gleeful face making me even sadder.
Alex LaCroix gets free school lunch since his mother works nights. He eats a lukewarm piece of meatloaf and green beans with gusto, making me hate him all the more.
We both drink cartons of milk in silence, loathing one another.
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Hours drag by.
Finally, our stern-faced principal gently explains to us how the word we said in the school hallway was mean-spirited and unkind.
I start crying again, blubbering into my hands. Alex LaCroix eyes my Twinkie.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here for the rest of the day,” she sadly adds. “And I hope you choose to never use that terrible word ever, ever again. Will you promise me?”
“I p-promise!” I cry.
“Alex?” she inquires, looking at him with one arched eyebrow.
“Yes, ma’am,” he mutters, cowed at last.
🜋 🜋 🜋
When the 3:00 p.m. school bell rings, we are dismissed to gather our things from our 1st grade classroom. Alex LaCroix simply leaves, running into his friends and disappearing into the crowd. He rides a bus, so there isn’t much time for him to loiter.
I, however, am a walker. As the hallways clear, I trudge to my classroom with my head down, hoping to collect my green sweater and my backpack with my stickers before my teacher leaves. I’m hoping she might give me the plastic cup and the spoon so I can make a terrarium in my backyard, even though it won’t be the same, even though it won’t be displayed in the classroom window with my name labeled on the side in masking tape.
I see Mac alone at the end of the hallway. He’s mopping up the footprints from hundreds of children’s shoes, cleaning smudged fingerprints off of windows, bagging trash from the numerous receptacles around the building.
Consumed with profound gratitude for this man—Mac—the kindest and gentlest of souls, the man who makes our school a home, I run over to him on my childish feet and hug him at his knees.
Mac looks down, laughs, and tousles my hair.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, eyes flooding with tears.
“And I’m sorry you missed terrarium day,” Mac replies. “But look—”
And with the showmanship of a magician, he produces a plastic spoon and a cup and gives them both to me—two things I need to make the perfect terrarium.