I realized today that — despite at this point several years of story-telling masquerading as a blog — one of my favorite stories about my childhood has no presence on this site. Obviously, this is something I can’t let stand. Plus, I’ve been meaning to write this down again, as the only time I ever have written it down was in an AP Lang essay in 11th grade. Needless to say, it’s time for a reboot.
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It’s probably a bit of a cliché to refer to an idyllic childhood as “Eden.” Okay, not probably. And not even a bit of a cliché. It’s definitely terribly cliché. But even clichés have kernels of truth, right? That’s how they become trite in the first place. I think the majority of people with happy childhoods can identify a snake-apple tag team that dragged them into adulthood and/or reality, and most people can probably draw parallels to Adam and Eve, as well. Fewer people might get as far as the cherubim with flaming swords, but whatever. It’s a metaphor, not a perfect metaphor.
Anyway, the halcyon days of my youth were pretty Eden-esque — platitudinous parlance be damned. I frolicked, I pretended to be a dinosaur, and I generally enjoyed myself in this perfect world that seemed, as it seems to all children, to have been created exclusively for me. (I was a solipsist in Toyland, if that allusion is less clichéd for your liking. But I’m sticking biblical.)
The natural follow-up question to this statement is, well, where’s the apple? Where’s the snake?
These are the events that thrust one into the real world. East of Eden. Exile. Adulthood. And who can say when a momentous occurrence like this typically occurs? I can only speak for myself.
It happened in kindergarten.
Yes, kindergarten (from the German word “Kindergarten,” meaning, uh, “kindergarten”). That magical garden of building blocks and nap time, finger paints and recess. A garden in my Eden.
I don’t know what projects you had in kindergarten — raising caterpillars into butterflies, perhaps? Maybe just learning the alphabet was enough? Or did you finger paint your way onto your mother’s refrigerator every week? My kindergarten class incubated chicken eggs. The electric incubator with a dozen eggs inside sat on a bookshelf at the front of the classroom, humming with the warm buzz of motherhood. Cables and wires dangled from the shelf, writhing like snakes around the feet of the defenseless chicks. For two weeks we watched those eggs through the thick, clear plastic of the incubator; for two weeks we saw the baby chicks through the thick, misty fog of our imagination.
Now, reader, if my simile worried you — snakes! on a blog! — let me take a moment to assure you that the chicks needed to fear no serpent. That is, except for the one on the Chinese zodiac.
I was born in 1989 — the year of the snake. We snakes are supposed to be smart, determined, responsible, and, well, vain, mendacious, hedonistic. Regardless, “clumsy” is never mentioned. But as I made my way to the front of the classroom one day for story time or who-the-hell-knows-what-else time, I strayed too close to the incubator. My shoe caught on a power cord. I tripped and fell face first on the floor. There was a crash. And there was silence.
When I say “silence,” I mean silence. I can’t describe the noise in a kindergarten classroom when an incubator full of almost-hatched chicken eggs has just shattered into pieces on the ground. It’s more than a lack of sound. It’s silence.
I was afraid to look down. And I don’t remember if I did — in some sort of bizarre, probably-evolutionarily-induced coping mechanism, my memory of the incident cuts out right after I trip. All I know is that those chicks were about to hatch when I was in the back of the room, and were all sorts of hatched by the time I made it to the front.
This is the part of my AP Lang essay where I wax philosophical about the nature of life and death, past and future, limitless potential and stifled dreams. The part where I wonder if those chickens were destined for greatness or for Double Downs. I wrote that murdering those chickens taught me about the fragility of life, about the joys of living for the present because the future is uncertain, about how I had been shoved unfairly into an early adulthood by this act of violence. But in all honesty, I think this situation really taught me about mortification, not mortality — how to embarrass yourself (terribly) in front of a group of people you have to face every day for the foreseeable future.
“I crushed their lives,” I wrote, “and in return they crushed my heart.” Well, maybe. Probably not — I’m almost positive five-year-old Seth didn’t lose any sleep over his heinous act of gallinicide. But those chickens did crush my ego. I joke to the friends I’ve told this story to that it was one of my formative life experiences, being a killer. That’s not really true — I think I was too young to fully process what had happened with the chickens — but I did fully understand, even at five years old, the feeling of shame, of regret, of embarrassment I felt lying at the front of the classroom in a puddle of yolk. I was standing naked in my garden, not a fig leaf in sight.
Welcome to adulthood.