Ms. Charles was a large woman. Nearly six-foot tall, she was sizable in the neck and shoulders, substantial in the bosom and mid-section, and most considerable of all in the hips and legs. She was stern, officious, and had the sort of temper that caused her to throw lunch bags at children who put them in the wrong part of the classroom. She kept a ball of nose-pickings in her desk which I saw for myself one afternoon when she left to use the bathroom, and feared her more for having found, believing an adult who would do such a thing to have moved dangerously beyond behavioural norms, and was thus capable of anything. Having noticed earlier in the school year that her weight was enough to cause the solid wooden floorboards of the gymnasium to bend as she walked, I was sure that were her ire fully inflamed, horrible, irreversible things would be done before she could be stopped. In addition to being unsettlingly large and angry, Ms. Charles possessed a singing ability of almost unnatural clarity, and pureness of note. Her voice was probably best described as ‘commandingly beautiful,’ and was like a late afternoon sun on a westward drive: encompassing, and unavoidable.
But this isn’t about Ms. Charles, although an angry, nose-picking fourth grade teacher with a voice for the ages trapped in a second-story classroom, does edge into something of what I am getting at. This is about getting punched in the face, twice, and the first time I saw the short film The Snowman. I was seven years old, and it was the last day of school before the Christmas break.
That year was the first of two in which I went to an older, post-war school, in an older, post-war suburb of Toronto. I was bussed there daily from a newer suburb that my family had moved to, one that wasn’t post anything, it just was. Our school hadn’t been built yet, as our neighbourhood had sprung suddenly from what had been farmer’s fields, a crop of four-bedroom brick houses with two-car garages, mud backyards, and no fences. The homes still smelled like paint inside, and many of the newly moved-in residents had newspaper for curtains, as they waited for the venetian blinds to arrive; and gravel driveways, as it had become too cold to seal them.
I’d found the move hard. The new house meant trying to make new friends, both in the neighbourhood and at school. In both cases my first attempts were rewarded with being punched in the face. And in both cases these landed, stingingly, on my nose.
The first punch came on our own street. It was a Sunday afternoon in late fall, and as we pulled up to our house in our blue Dodge Caravan with the back windows that couldn’t roll down, I noticed a group of kids close to my age playing street hockey a little further up the road. My parents encouraged me to join in, and, always partial to trying to slap a shaved tennis ball between arbitrarily designated posts (the curb and someone’s jacket generally made an effective goal) I walked up to the game.
“Who are you.” One of them asked, somewhat out of breath from a Gilmour-esque, end-to-end raid on a goalie who hadn’t stood a chance.
“I’m Paul. I live in that house.” I answered, and pointed.
“Ok.” We stood there. The game stopped.
“Can I play?”
He turned and checked the numbers on each team.
“I guess so. You can be on Pradeep’s team. With Ashish, Alex, and Josh.” He pointed my teammates out as he named them. “That means you’re in,” he said to a kid who looked a little younger than me, and was obviously his brother. “This is Bobby,” he told me, “but today we’re calling him Moby Dick.”
This made the other kids double-over with laughter. Bobby didn’t look very happy about that.
“Ty it. Call him Moby Dick.” Bobby’s brother instructed me. Seeing an opportunity to slide into a new group with a crowd-pleasing joke, albeit one I didn’t understand, I turned and boldly addressed the younger kid.
“Hi Moby Dick.”
Bobby stepped forward, told me not to call him that, and punched me hard enough on the nose to make my eyes water. I was too surprised to fight back, and was also suddenly afraid of getting my ass kicked by the plucky younger brother of the neighborhood hockey star. Instead I held it together long enough to say I’d go get my stick and come right back, and left. When my back was to the group I cried. I didn’t let my shoulders shake, but I also didn’t go back.
The punch in the nose at school was also unexpected, and comically clichéd, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. While there were more children being bussed to the school than were lived in the local area (which was why we were being sent there, despite it being a 20-minute drive), the students who were from that neighborhood had firm friendships and alliances from growing up together, while we interlopers mostly milled around alone or in pairs, at least at first. One group of local kids had decided to take advantage of this organizational discrepancy, and wholeheartedly embraced the Hollywood typecast of bullies in both their approach and mannerisms. They spotted me on my first day.
“Hey.” A large kid said, stepping in my way as I crossed the snowy schoolyard at lunch break. He was a head taller than me, had good posture, looked out from under half-closed eyelids, and was wearing a three-quarter length black winter jacket, and a knitted black hat. As I said hello, three other kids appeared and arrayed themselves beside him. They were all larger than me, and all had dark jackets.
“So. We got another new kid eh?”
“Well, just so you know, we run things around here. If you want to start a game, or make any new rules, that all goes through us. Got it?”
“Sure.” These kid weren’t in my class, and were clearly at least a grade or two older. I didn’t have any plans to start any games. I didn’t want any trouble.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
“Are we going to have any problems?”
I shook my head.
“Ok. Good. See you around.” He gave an exaggerated jerk of his head to his associates, and they walked off across the yard, one of them knocking me with his shoulder as he went past. Once they’d gone I went and watched a game of foot hockey that was being dominated by a red-headed kid named Aaron.
Later that afternoon I boarded the school bus for the ride home, being careful to get on the right one as there were five of the long, narrow vehicles in a line at the curb. I took a seat by a window on the side facing the sidewalk. I was staring into space when I noticed a group had gathered beneath my window. It was the dark jacket gang. The leader-kid said something, but I couldn’t hear him through the closed window. I shook my head and pointed to one of my ears.
“Remember,” He shouted, loudly enough to make it through the glass this time, “We’re in charge!”
I’m not sure what I was thinking, maybe it was anger at the move, and at having to take a bus to a school where the kids seemed to be purposely trying to act like characters from a poorly written movie, or maybe I just didn’t enjoy being spoken to like that then any more than I do now. But for whatever reason, I gave him the finger.
His face changed instantly. The bus had filled by this point, and the door had closed. The squeak of the brakes being released interrupted his response, but as we pulled away he made it clear that my insolence wouldn’t go unpunished, taking one of his mittens off and pulling his finger slowly across his neck. This move was then repeated by his sidekicks, and continue to be repeated until we pulled out of view around the first corner. I told myself it would probably all be forgotten by tomorrow.
Less than two minutes into disembarking from bus 160 the next morning, and with 13 minutes still to go until the bell rang to signal the start of the school day, the black jackets found me trying to keep my back to the school building.
“Well, look who it is.” The leader said loudly, suddenly standing in front of me, “Our bus-kid wiseass.” I turned to leave but found henchmen on either side. They grabbed my arms and held me in place. “Got anything to say for yourself?”
I shook my head. He nodded at one of the kids holding me, who pulled my toque down over my face. Then the big guy punched me hard in the nose, told me I’d better not give them any more trouble, and walked off across the yard, waving at his gang to follow.
It was into this somewhat difficult time of transition in my life, that The Snowman fell. Which I think is probably the same for most people.
Ms. Charles wheeled the projector into the classroom after lunch, and shouted loudly at a kid whose chair was a few inches out into the aisle, impinging her path; and another one who was sharpening a pencil without having asked permission to do so, dirtying her floor.
We all sat stock still as she threaded the reels, plugged in the machine, and pulled down the screen. A shrill screech made us jump, as Ms. Charles spotted Nicole Singh (not Nicole Allong, who was away that day) getting up to do the lights. Nicole admitted she had not been asked to do the lights, and returned cautiously to her desk. I looked out the window.
“Ok. Attention children. Who has seen the movie The Snowman?” None of us had. “Well then you are all in for a treat. This is not a movie you will soon forget. It will likely remain with you your entire lives, initially speaking to your young desires for companionship and magic in a world you are increasingly beginning to find isolating and mundane. Eventually though, when the years have overtaken you and brought with them a surety that snowmen cannot, in fact, fly, but do most certainly melt, it will serve to remind you that once you held a small but genuine hope that things could be otherwise. And that will be a thing that you will hold dear.” The classroom was silent. Ms. Charles nodded once, turned the projector on, and switched off the lights. Slowly, the music began.