Built in the early 1970s to house the freshman and sophomore classes, Lake Forest High School’s West Campus is 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.
Its warden is Mr. Kleck, the West Campus principal, who’s secretly been given the nickname “Banana Fingers” for his freakishly enormous hands. He roams the academic dungeons in his plaid polyester sport coat, smelling of cigarettes and body odor; wielding his insignificant power with what appears to be more brawn than brain.
Wishing to remain far beneath the high school radar, I’ve done everything I can to steer clear of Mr. Kleck.
Such best laid schemes…
After watching an outdated State of Illinois Board of Education documentary on health, hygiene, and the hazards of smoking, including pie charts and diagrams, mildly graphic surgery footage, phony teens in dungarees, and a man blowing smoke rings through a permanent breathing hole cut into his larynx, us boys and girls set off for our respective locker rooms, down separate cement staircases, to pick up books and head to our next class.
I never see the last step.
Somewhere before the first landing, the clog on my right foot attempts a daring but foolish escape – getting only as far as the arch – so when my half-shoed foot mis-lands at the metal edge of the cement step, I plunge toward the crowd of surprised friends and new enemies walking down the stairs just ahead of me.
Twisting and hurdling through the innocent and unsuspecting, bodies are strewn to the sides of the steps against the cinder block walls. I come 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 attempt to do the same, but am gently pushed back to the unforgiving concrete by our gym teacher, Miss Bradshaw.
“You can’t move,” she states.
“I’m fine,” I reply with an embarrassed smile, attempting to sit up again.
“No,” she says as she pushes me to the ground (a little more firmly this time), “I mean I can’t let you move. Kelly, run and get Mr. Kleck.”
“I’M FINE!” explodes against the 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 is sent on their way, I lay there like a one-shoed idiot, waiting for the dreaded Banana Fingers, imagining how the news of my nose dive is already spreading through the bleak, inhospitable halls of West Campus.
Mr. Kleck appears, sprinting unnecessarily up the flight of stairs; his figure looming over me like an oppressive cloud of brown plaid and Aqua Velva. His giant, cigar-shaped fingers moving toward me, shadowing my entire, horrified face.
Demonstrating the correct workings of all my moveable body parts, I hastily answer all the questions, eventually ensure my captors and I have no need for an ambulance, lawyer, or help up, and hobble away, bruised and humiliated.
Less than two weeks later, it happens again – a near carbon copy of the last plunge. This time, however, most classmates have learned to give me plenty of berth on the staircase and fewer casualties are reported.
But people are beginning to wonder.
And this time, Mr. Kleck insists I visit Mrs. Waldeck in the school nurse’s office before returning to class, who meets me at the door of her office.
She’s shaking her head. Scrutinizing my footwear.
Mrs. Waldeck hates clogs.
And she loathes Dr. Scholl’s – just like the ones I’m wearing a couple weeks after my staircase accidents, when everyone at West Campus is anxious to enjoy the warming weather.
There are still patches of mud-colored snow and ice all around the school grounds, but it’s officially spring and I’m sporting a brand new pair of white Calvin Klein jeans and red leather Dr. Scholl’s sandals. Jean, Megan and I are on the front lawn of the high school throwing a Frisbee around.
The three of us have been in health class together where we’re being taught the basics of CPR. To help us, we have “Annie”, a training mannequin with a spiffy red track suit and the ability to inspire far more sexual asides than careers in the health industry.
One of the first things taught to us is how to approach the injured party and determine what the problem might be.The introductory phrase we’re instructed to use is, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?” This is followed by some gentle shaking, after which comes the serious stuff – cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
I haven’t really been paying attention. Neither have Jean or Megan.
So things don’t bode well when chasing an errant Frisbee, my wooden, single-strap sandals (slick with melted snow) send 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 bolt upright to see Jean and Megan racing my way. First to my side, Megan kneels beside me, grabs my shoulders, shakes vigorously, and with an enormous smile asks, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?!” and then falls into a fit of laughter.
Jean isn’t laughing.
Grabbing me from behind with the strength of her five brothers, my great, Amazonian pal lifts me off the ground and – grossly misdiagnosing my predicament – starts to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
I don’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 releases her hold and I slip to the ground exhausted and humiliated but alive and breathing again.
My “rescuers” lead me arm in arm across the lawn, past snickering peers given an even bigger laugh when passing reveals my grassy, mud-stained ass and “big girl” undies – now exposed – thanks to that lethal combination of white pants and puddles.
When Mrs. Waldeck looks up from her desk upon my arrival, it’s hard to tell whether her expression is more anger, aggravation, or pity.
It certainly isn’t surprise.
Mumbling something about pinochle as a proper pastime and a big bonfire for burning all clogs and sandals, she leads me to the back room of the nurse’s office where I can wash up; then offers the terribly unsatisfactory suggestion that I slip on my gym shorts for the remainder of the day. I can’t hide the dread of being exposed to further ridicule and, thank goodness, Mrs. Waldeck can’t help but feel sorry for me. She hands me the the phone and suggests I call home to see if my mother might bring a new pair of pants.
Mom, as is the norm, is nowhere to be found.
Apparently, the day’s humiliation is far from over and this Annie is feeling anything but all right.