Built in the early 1970s to house the freshman and sophomore classes, Lake Forest High School’s West Campus was a giant, brick and cinder block monstrosity which was designed with all the charm and comforts of a state penitentiary: sterile, uninviting, uninspiring, practically windowless, colorless, and completely joyless.
It’s warden was Mr. Kleck, the West Campus Principal, who was secretly given the nickname “Banana Fingers” for his freakishly enormous hands. He roamed the academic dungeons in his plaid polyester sports coat, smelling of cigarettes and body odor; wielding his insignificant power with what appeared to be more brawn than brain.
Wishing to remain far beneath the high school radar, I did everything I could to steer clear of Mr. Kleck.
I don’t remember why we were in our street clothes – and me in my clogs – for P.E. class that day, more than likely an outdated State of Illinois Board of Education documentary on health, hygiene, and the hazards of smoking.
Pie charts and diagrams.
Mildly graphic surgery footage.
Plastic teens in dungarees.
A man speaking through a permanent breathing hole cut into his larynx…
blowing smoke rings.
Yet somewhat indelible.
After class, us boys and girls set off for our respective locker rooms, down separate cement staircases (like North Shore Shakers), to pick up books and head to the next class.
I never saw the last step.
Somewhere before the first landing, the clog on my right foot attempted a daring but foolish escape, getting only as far as the arch; so when my half-shoed foot mis-landed at the metal edge of the cement step, I plunged toward the crowd of surprised friends and new enemies walking down the stairs just ahead of me.
Twisting and hurtling through the unsuspecting, bodies were strewn to the sides of the steps, against the cinder block walls. I came down hard on my back, momentarily unaware of all but the grim, fluorescent-lit ceiling above and the cold, cement floor below.
Returned to the moment by the moans of the stunned and wounded getting to their feet, I attempted to do the same, but was gently pushed back to the unforgiving concrete by our gym teacher, Miss Bradshaw.
“You can’t move,” she said.
“I’m fine,” I replied with an embarrassed smile, attempting to sit up again.
“No,” she said as she pushed me to the ground (a little more firmly this time), “I mean I can’t let you move. Kelly, run and get Mr. Kleck.”
The words “I’M FINE!” exploded against their cinder block surroundings.
“I’m sorry, Anne. It’s school policy. Mr. Kleck has to make sure you’re not injured.”
While the remainder of the class was sent away, I lay there like a one-shoed idiot, waiting for the dreaded Banana Fingers, imagining how the news of my nose dive was already spreading through the bleak, inhospitable halls of West Campus.
Mr. Kleck appeared, sprinting unnecessarily up the flight of stairs. His figure loomed over me like an oppressive cloud of brown plaid and Aqua Velva. His giant, cigar-shaped fingers moved toward me, shadowing my entire, horrified face.
Demonstrating the correct workings of all my moveable body parts, I hastily answered all the questions, eventually ensuring my captors there would be know need for an ambulance, lawyer, or help up.
I avoided all eye contact for the remainder of the day.
Before the bruises even had a chance to heal… it happened again. Almost a carbon copy of the last time. This time, however, most classmates (veterans) opted to give me plenty of berth and fewer casualties were reported.
But people were beginning to wonder.
And this time, Mr. Kleck insisted I visit the nurse’s office before returning to class.
(Publicly bumbling and stumbling having become my accidental past-time, the school nurse, Mrs. Waldeck, and I would become well acquainted my freshman year, during which I visited her ward almost monthly.)
Mrs. Waldeck met me at the door that day.
She was shaking her head. Scrutinizing my footwear.
She hated clogs.
She loathed Dr. Scholl’s.
Like the ones I wore one early spring day a few weeks later, when everyone at West Campus was anxious to break out of The Rock and breath fresh air.
There were still patches of mud-colored snow and ice everywhere, but I was thrilled to have on a brand new pair of white, Calvin Klein jeans and red leather, Dr. Scholl’s sandals.
Jean, Megan and I were on the front lawn of the high school throwing a Frisbee around. That semester, the three of us had been in health class together where we were hypothetically being taught the basics of CPR.
To help us, we had “Annie”, a training manikin with a spiffy red track suit and the ability to inspire far more giggling and sexual asides than careers in the health industry.
One of the first things taught was how to approach the injured party and determine what the problem might be.The introductory phrase we were instructed to use was, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?”
This did not go unnoticed.
Then came some gentle shaking, followed by the serious stuff – cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
I wasn’t really paying attention.
Neither were Jean or Megan.
So things didn’t bode well when chasing an errant Frisbee, my wooden, single-strap sandals (slick with melted snow) sent me hydroplaning across the new grass into a cold, muddy puddle, slamming me hard against the still half-frozen earth.
Searching for the wind knocked out of me, I bolted upright and watched Jean and Megan race my way.
Megan was first to my side.
Kneeling beside me, she grabbed my shoulders and shook vigorously, and with an enormous smile asked, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?!”
And then fell into a fit of laughter.
Jean wasn’t laughing.
Grabbing me from behind with a brute strength her five brothers would have been proud of, my great, Amazonian pal lifted me off the ground and – grossly misdiagnosing my predicament – started to perform the Heimlich Maneuver.
I didn’t know whether to laugh, vomit, or pass out.
Eventually recognizing the international arm waving signal for: “FOR GOD’S SAKE, STOP DOING THAT!”, Jean released her hold and I slipped to the ground exhausted and humiliated, but alive and breathing again.
My “rescuers” led me arm in arm across the lawn, past snickering peers given an even bigger laugh when passing revealed my grassy, mud-stained ass and “big girl” undies – now exposed – thanks to that lethal combination of white pants and puddles.
When Mrs. Waldeck looked up from her desk upon my arrival, it was hard to tell whether her expression was more anger, aggravation, or pity.
It certainly wasn’t surprise.
Mumbling something about pinochle as a proper past time and a big bonfire for burning all clogs and sandals, she led me to the back room of the nurse’s office where I could wash up.
Offering the terribly unsatisfactory suggestion that I slip on my gym shorts for the remainder of the day, I couldn’t hide the dread of being exposed to further ridicule and, thank goodness, Mrs. Waldeck couldn’t help but feel sorry for me. She handed me the the phone and suggested I call home to see if my mother might bring a new pair of pants.
Mom, as was the norm, was nowhere to be found.
Apparently, the day’s humiliation was far from over.
And this Annie was feeling anything but all right.