IN THE TRENCHES: A Tale About Being "All In This Together"
As I sit on my patio after having video-dinner with my parents, I contemplate one of the topics that dominated our conversation: what it will mean as the world tries to figure out how to “get back to normal.”
What is “normal”? For me, normal looks mostly the same as the past couple months. Extreme isolation, health concerns taking top priority, juggling multiple government agencies, and feeling like it’s a triumph to simply not lose the claw-hold I have while eking away at Baby Steps. *shrug* SOP.
How long can we keep this up?
Last week, I had to venture out for AllTheFood. I also finally needed gas for the first time in 2 months. As I maneuvered out there, I was struck by how familiar the atmosphere felt. Not because I had experienced it so many times, but because I hadn’t.
My external environment felt like the rhythms of my internal environment.
I have never felt this from the majority of people I encountered in a random outing — not once in my entire life. People being aware of each other’s radiuses and holding a quick conversation with their eyes so that maneuvering to 6 feet could occur smoothly. Consideration. Kindness first. Deeply aware of their impact upon others and vs. versa. Moving in synchronicity with those outside one’s own Pack.
I had to go inside the gas station that day. As I approached the door, the guy coming out turned his back to it and pushed it open, holding it for me. He didn’t carry the vibes and expressions of, “I’m a guy and you’re a gal, therefore it is law.” He also didn’t radiate “it’s what a gentleman does for anyone.”
No. He was exiting on the side that had the push bar, which meant that he didn’t need to touch the door handle in order to leave. So that I wouldn’t have to put my grubby mitts on the pull handle, he held it open and smiled at me.
Not that “I’m such a gallant gentleman” smile. Not that “this is just what I’m supposed to do” twitch at the corners of his mouth as he blathers on his cell phone or doesn’t really acknowledge the person he’s holding the door open for because he’s absorbed in his day.
Nope. A legitimate exchange took place between us that was as much for my benefit as it was for his and for that of everybody connected to us. It was intentional, not habitual, and it was for Our benefit. The greater Us. Because we’re All In This Together.
And we always have been, we who exist on this little damp rock, in this solar system, in our little corner of the galaxy and beyond.
It just took a globe-stopping pandemic for a lot of people to realize that, and to fully appreciate it.
Being outside my home and encountering so many people who had stepped into this cooperative, compassionate, thoughtful mode of operation and mindset feels as personally familiar as it does as societally foreign.
I’m used to My Pack and I operating this way, with each other and with strangers alike. It’s why they’re in My Pack.
But I’m not used to strangers of The Majority feeling familiar. I’m used to the discordant buzz, the self-absorbed, greedy vibe that grates on my empathic sensibilities like nails on a chalkboard. I’m used to feeling like a misfit or weirdo or like I’m alone in a crowd, not like I’m humming in the same vibration as the crowd.
I loved that day.
The next time I had to venture out, I was extraordinarily sad to encounter the gal coughing and sneezing all over everything — without a mask on. She let her kids run around and put their grubby mitts on everything they could reach. And when our eyes met as I glanced at her over my mask, she sneered at me like, “What are you gonna do about it? Worry-wart mask-police.”
The rest of the outing went on in a similar way. The tales I’m hearing from my friends this week echo it.
The magical bubble has broken.
Annnnnd welcome back to Planet Earth where the humans dwell, hacking and clawing and coughing out exhaust in our never-ending quest to remain at the top of the food chain, dominating and destroying everything in our way instead of perfecting the arts of cooperation and symbiosis.
I really do love the sensation of Belonging. Oneness. Unity.
It has always been a fleeting experience for me. One that I mourn every time it is obliterated in the reminder that I am Other. That I am a THEM in the eyes of all of Them — and especially when I realize that I have gone back to seeing others as Them myself.
Fifth Grade Spring
Ever since we lost our teacher in October, Trench has been our unifying force. Mr. Ericksen (not remotely related to the Wicked Witch, Mrs. Erickson) taught us that game, so we play it more religiously than we go to church. He was the only teacher who has ever been able to bring my classmates together — this pack of rebels, smart-mouths, teacher-tormenters, and bullies.
I was safe in his class. Safe and challenged in my school work.
Some days I still pull out that newspaper clipping of me, Tanya, and Mr. Ericksen when I won first place in the big Conservation Day Essay Contest, and she won second. We’re standing there with one of his arms around each of our shoulders, and I’m actually grinning for a photo. It’s the too-big grin, almost laughing. That means it’s the real one.
I really miss him.
I can’t think of a single one of my classmates who doesn’t, and that is saying something! He was always so excited about whatever he taught, and he could challenge everybody from straight-A students to the kids who were looking to be held back for the second time.
Yet he was strict enough to keep all the troublemakers in line. He never lost his cool, and that was the thing — nobody wanted to see him lose his cool. He was tall and fit, and even thought he had bright, red hair and a thick, red beard —something even worse than having brown eyes and dark hair in this land of blue-eyed blondes and sandy, feathered locks—even the most popular kids liked him. He had this way of flicking his eyes at somebody two seconds before they even thought about misbehaving, almost like he could read their minds. That guy really did have eyes in the back of his head, and after the first few weeks under his watch, our class seemed to settle down like a pack of piranhas that had just been taken to an all-you-can-devour buffet.
I don’t know how he did it, but it was like magic. Even outside of class, the normal shoving and threats and name-calling stopped. It wasn’t just that the bullies kept their noses clean whenever he was around. Something in them actually started to change.
Six months later, it’s never stopped.
Half a year ago, Mr. Ericksen lost his kids and their babysitter while they were riding on a four-wheeler. They got hit by a train and died instantly. Our favorite teacher was crushed. So were we, especially when he moved back to Australia where he’d taught at an exchange program last year.
Nobody blamed him, but everything changed. Definitely for him, and for us, too. In the face of that one horrible thing, our whole class has banded together even stronger than when he was here.
We try to remember what he taught us. We try to carry it on. We’re not Cool Crowd, Rebels and Rejects, all at war anymore. We’re just the Fifth-Graders.
Every single recess, we chalk out our rectangle and its center line on the blacktop. Somehow, we pick captains and they pick teams without so much as a squabble. Nobody else plays Trench. Just our class.
Every once in a while, some of the sixth- or fourth-graders try to join in, but they just don’t get it. They also don’t last more than a day. I think they feel like they don’t belong, and really? They don’t. They weren’t there when he taught us the game. They weren’t there when we lost him. And they aren’t there in our homeroom every single day when we look up at that desk and the gaping hole over his chair.
Because it’s still his chair.
Mrs. Elhoffer might sit in it. She might stand up there in front of the blackboard and try to teach us things, but we are his class and we will be from now until we become sixth-graders. Maybe even beyond.
I feel bad for her. She has been a substitute teacher at our school for as long as I can remember, and I can only imagine how many times she must have dreaded hearing that she has to sub for our class. She’s never been able to manage the troublemakers or keep the chitty-chatters on track, and now it’s a thousand times worse. It’s like all the anger and the loss and confusion over Mr. Ericksen gets dumped on her every day.
Calvin made her cry the other afternoon. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. He makes a lot of people cry.
But he hasn’t made me cry this whole year. Not once.
Because he’s a Fifth-Grader and so am I.
Teachers who aren’t Gil Erickson, students who aren’t fifth-graders, school administrators who try to help us through this Terrible and Trying Tragedy…they’re all targets for this festering ulcer that burns in our stomachs. We are a volcano with a smoking crater. We are a dogsled team that has slipped its reins and dumped its driver. We crash through the woods, still tied to each other as we try to find our way back home. Anything that gets in our way is run over, mangled by our clawing feet and our snapping teeth.
The only thing that calms us down is playing Trench.
It was right here in this chalk-drawn rectangle on the blacktop with Mr. Ericksen that he taught us how to sight upon our target, take aim, and knock out any obstacles that got in our way of success.
It was here that he taught us to move together, to feel each other’s rhythms, to be as one — a true team, rather than crashing into each other as we tried to save ourselves from the flying balls of our opponents.
It was here that he taught us to dig deep and hunker down. To watch for dangers and avoid them — and to snatch them in our hands, making them useless if we could.
Trench is a lot like Dodgeball, with a few big differences. Inside the large rectangle, two teams are separated by the line that divides the space in half. There are multiple balls which every teammate hurls at the opposition with as much force as possible in an effort to knock them out. (Since we’re only fifth-graders, if you hit someone in the face, you are automatically booted out.) If you catch a ball that someone has thrown, then the thrower is out. When you’re out, you get sent into the Trench that surrounds the whole rectangle.
Here is where the similarities to Dodgeball end.
In Trench, everybody who has been knocked out becomes a third team with an agenda of their own: to knock out anyone who is still inside the rectangle, no matter which team they started on. In this way, even though we all started out as Us and Them, everybody finishes the game as Us, even the last-one-standing. Because the game doesn’t end with one person as the sole winner, or even winning it for their team.
The game ends when The Team finally knocks that last person out and everyone is in the Trench together.
Unfortunately, I am standing here in the middle of the empty Trench lot, while all of my classmates but one stand against The Wall.
The Wall is a wide stretch of brick that makes up the north side of the elementary school. Any kid who gets in trouble at recess has to stand there until it’s time to go back inside for class. If you do something really bad, you might have to stand there every day for the rest of the week.
This is the case for the whole fifth-grade class except me and Nancy.
It all started when Leo whipped the ball at Tanya, hitting her square in the nose. Tanya accused him of doing it purposely; he denied it. Sides got picked for real. Instead of hurling balls at each other, they were hurling swear-words and the kind of threats they hadn’t made at each other in half a year.
“Don’t!” I yelled over the ruckus. “You guys, don’t!”
But nobody could hear me over the screaming, and then somebody’s foot stepped across the line into Enemy Territory. An out-and-out brawl erupted in the middle of the playground.
My mouth dropped open. The air got vaporized from the entire town. All I could do was stand there in the Trench with a ball in my hand, gawking at the kind of scene you’d only see in something like Spartacus or The Outsiders. Clothing got ripped. Hair got torn out in clumps. Noses bled.
Inch by inch, I backed away with my eyes huge and unblinking, and my heart up in my throat, choking me.
Oh, no-no-no-no…not again. We’re not supposed to be fighting each other. We’re supposed to be as one, everybody in the Trench on the same team!
In less than thirty seconds, all those bonds that had been holding us together were shredded, just like Kimberly’s meshy shirt and Steve’s pre-ripped jeans.
By the time the teachers broke it up, sending the brawlers to The Wall, only Nancy and I stood on the outskirts.
Now as I stare at them, I don’t quite know how to feel. I miss them already. I know it’s the end of this beautiful thing, and I’m really mad at them for fighting. I’m really, really mad at them for breaking it all. Yet I want to cry for every one of us because it’s all there in their flashing eyes and curled lips, their bloody noses and puffy eyes. My eyes are burning, too. We’re all hurting. We’re all lost and angry and confused and sad, and now I really don’t know what to do.
All along that wall, kids growl and snarl, hating each other and every adult supervising the playground. They make muttered threats whenever the teachers’ backs are turned. Some of them are old enemies renewing feuds that have been going on for years; others are former-friends.
Yet whenever they look at me in all my freedom and vindication from crime, their gazes burn in a united grudge. I consider going to stand among them, just because. But my mom is one of the playground supervisors. She patrols back and forth between the Wall and the rest of the yard, not letting anybody near my classmates.
Would it be worth it? To push past her and stomp over there, being branded a troublemaker right along with them? To have her tell my dad when he got home…
If it would be worth it, I would ball my fists on my hips and tell them both, “No. This is important.”
But it’s all broken now.
It’s all fallen back into how it’s been since kindergarten, only with six months of lava and pumice and ash puking out of the blown crater. No matter which group I might pick to stand next to, there will be the other groups hating me for it, like always, and then I’d get in trouble at home on top of everything.
When I meet my best friend Mari’s eyes, she rolls hers and slumps against the Wall. At least she’s not mad at me. I have no idea where Nancy went, so I leave the Trench lot behind and sit on the swings.
In spite of the enemy lines, the rest of my class still has one thing in common — they are all mucking their way through the trenches of fury and fists together, while I stand apart, one of only two Good Girls who were uninvolved. Even Mari tried to gouge out Leo’s eyes for what he did to Tanya, and I didn’t think those two girls liked each other very much.
On the one hand, I’m relieved not to have to tell my dad that I was in a brawl or that I supported one, but on the other hand, I’m back where I have always been — alone inside the lines, exposed with a pack of hostiles surrounding me as they sight, take aim, and prepare to annihilate me.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a game of Trench. When they hit me, I will not be welcomed into the fold.
Because I am no longer one of them.
Was I ever? Not truly. All this belonging I’ve felt since October — it’s never felt like it had anything to do with them suddenly liking me.
And now we’ve all remembered that.
The tense, too-big, “because it’s time to” smile.
To this day, I still wonder what might have happened if I’d chosen to stand against the Wall with my classmates. Would it have changed anything?
They way most of them contributed to breaking it was by turning on each other. The way I added my own fracture was by not having faith in them.
I simply didn’t have that program in my hard drive anymore. The default Trust In My Peers Program had been wiped from my system back in kindergarten. I had no capacity to believe they wouldn’t revert back to normal the second our Bubble of Solidarity had been popped.
Could it have been salvaged if every last one of us had stood at that wall together?
I’ll be honest and admit, I still don’t have faith in that.
Absolutely, for a few days or weeks, I would have belonged to one of the cliques that temporarily banded together on account of the Trench Warfare lines. But those groups fell apart quickly, as my gut instincts had told me they would. They hadn’t been formed by a magnetic force of people who liked each other, respected each other, played well together. They’d been formed out banding together against a common enemy, and enemies in those days shifted far more frequently than the Minnesota weather.
Except, of course, where kids like me were concerned. I was one of the most consistent enemies of my classmates. That I could rely on. That I could trust.
And that is very sad.
Fifth grade stands out in my memory as one of the most damaging years of my childhood.
Could I have prevented what happened next if I had shown my support for my classmates themselves, in spite of finding their actions atrocious and appalling, anathema to everything I stood for?
I keep trying to find the place inside me where I could have had faith that the best versions of them all would have risen to the surface once the dust had settled.
But by fifth grade, that kind of faith only existed in a faerie tale land I’d had to stop believing in years before, because it hurt too much every time it was shattered. Every time my inner Luke Skywalker — “there’s good in her, I can feel it!” — was taken advantage of and then stabbed in the back the moment I wouldn’t do exactly what they wanted.
Because I was still me, just as incapable of dumbing myself down or throwing the game for popularity. Just as incapable of paying the prices they demanded for their friendship, and I don’t believe that picking a side in the aftermath of the last Trench game we ever played would have dulled their anger and jealousy with me.
If anything, they might have seen what I did next as an even greater act of betrayal, had we been calling ourselves “friends.”
But their definition of friendship had always seemed skewed to me, based more on who they were keeping out and who they were ganging up on, rather than building the bonds between them. The way they had allowed me to band with them for six months in the wake of losing Mr. Ericksen — it had felt more like a temporary case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
I go about bonding and belonging in a very different way.
And that has always been one of my greatest heartbreaks.