I recently took my son London along to the gym. After I had inelegantly completed my routine and he had demoed all the machines that would not land him in traction, we hit the locker room. He was giddy at the exclusive father-son time in an exotic locale where adults wearing hiked-up shorts throw medicine balls and slip on booties to skate back and forth on polished wood.
“Dad, next time we work out, I’m gonna shower,” London said, wiping invisible sweat from his unfurrowed brow.
“Not so sure about that,” I said, warily.
What I didn’t tell London is this: The last time I was in a locker room with a kid close to London’s age was well before he or his 13-year-old sister had turned my life into a baggy-eyed docudrama. I was an assistant teacher at a hippie elementary school and we went on a field trip to the local pool. Since I was the only male on the payroll, I was in charge of about a dozen 5-year-old boys. When we pulled up in front of the rec center, the kids spotted an African-American man locking his car.
“Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” they yelled out of the open window loud enough that the man spun around. He fixed his eyes on me as if, during Black History Month, I taught the youngsters that the best way to spread civil rights was to greet any black man they saw as if he were the greatest player in NBA history.
I quickly hurried the gaggle into the locker room to change. I thought if I moved quickly enough, I could be safely underwater before anyone could pick me out of a lineup. Trying to get that many boys unbuttoned, unzipped, unbuckled, untied, and then redressed and re-tied with their gear stowed and locked was like trying to get tougher DWI laws passed in New Mexico. About halfway through my childish costume change, the man miscast as MJ came in and started his own strip routine. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t hustle the kids out of there. Both of Sam’s legs got stuck in one hole of his swimsuit, while Jon had early aspirations as a nudist and ran around shouting, “Nudie! Nudie!”
Then the man dropped his underwear.
“Michael Jordan’s penis is so big!” one kid yelled, and they all turned and started pointing.
“It’s bigger than my dad’s.”
“It’s huge! Bigger than anybody’s!”
I suffered the type of paralysis usually associated with spinal cord injuries or ayahuasca ingestion. “I’m so sorry,” I mouthed to the hardened center of my students’ attention, but his deep frown showed that he wasn’t having any of it, and “it” sadly meant me.
“Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” one set of kids screamed while another chose “Penis! Penis!” each chant echoing off the low ceilings and tiled walls.
“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Martin yelled, a little removed from the other racist hooligans. Because he was normally a reticent kid, I figured he had trouble articulating his excitement at the sight of a real live riot. The locker room was spinning now as I looked from the gap-toothed mouths and bowl haircuts to a man yanking on his shorts like he just got caught in bed with his best friend’s wife.
“Ouch. Ouch.” Martin waddled over to me pointing at his groin. Upon further examination, I saw that he had caught a wrinkle of his scrotum in the zipper of his pants. This was in the pre-texting days so I couldn’t say “FML,” though the abbreviation would have captured my sentiment exactly. Even as a trusted teacher with a clean record, I couldn’t march a boy with that type of problem into the light of day.
“Hold on, Martin,” I said, clenching my jaw. “This is gonna hurt.”
Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.