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Erasers

Ms. Crum asked the three of us to pick a number between one and one-hundred. The winner, which would be the person who picked the number closest to the one that Ms. Crum had written down on a folded up little piece of paper, would win something. Why fold it up, Ms. Crum?

She was standing at the front of the class, facing us, and by proxy, us facing her. She could have kept the number confidential without having to crease the paper all up like that; Post-It notes weren’t exactly transparent. She could have just written it down at her desk and left it there, stuck it right on her desk, the drawers facing where her lap and teacher’s chair were generally placed. Teachers love presentation. That’s why they have that huge board behind them with the projector and the gold stars and everything else. Without it, they’d just be one of us little angels, but much larger. Ms. Crum was not large, but larger than us angels.

“Okay,” she said, as she folded it up around seven times - the maximum amount of times a secret piece of paper can be folded, allegedly - although I swear I seen her fold it an eighth time - and then she said “Okay” again, and put it in a clenched fist, and said, “Now, the winner, the boy who guesses the number closest to the one I wrote down on this deal will be the victor.”

Gilbert and Lester were the other two boys in the running. The three of us were classmates by default, and maybe friends for the same reason. The two of them were best friends; Lester is my best friend, says Gilbert, and vice versa. I had never been called a best friend. There were few people in the student body to call me that, but still. But still, we were friends, at least, even if just by default.

We played a game with our hands to decide who would have to choose a number in what order, the loser being the one who guesses first, and who would go second, third. Playing with Rock-Paper-Scissors with three people can be frustrating when everybody’s hands make the same gestures, or even if they all make different gestures. In that case, everything beats everything.

Gilbert, a true chucklehead, always made a rock formation with his hand, making my decision much easier. I would always rotate between the two man-made things. Easy victory for me.

I lost to Lester in round two when I decided to go with the chucklehead approach of the rock. Lester chose paper, which covers rock, something that always frustrated me. Paper covering something means that it claims victory? I could throw a rock right through the paper. At the end of the day, paper isn’t really shit at all. But I would still often pick paper.

The guessing order would be: Gilbert, Me, Lester.

“Okay, Gilb, what’s your guess?” Ms. Crum locked her hands behind her back, note still covered by her knuckles, furthering the confidentiality of the answer, pointlessly. Gilb, as a nickname, cracked me up. Sounds like somebody nervously swallowing spit. An onomatopoeia. "Gilb!"

Little Gilb placed his chin in his hand, specifically his thumb and index finger, creating their own artificial smile in place of his mouth, his chin resting under the webbing. He spent thirty seconds contemplating his answer, probably, I guess, to mull over all the choices of numbers he could choose to guess from. There were quite a few to pick from. It seemed like he felt that there was much at stake here, so he oughta make a logical choice, he figured, I figured.

“50.”

Ms. Crum let out an “Ooooh,” like how a live audience might let out on the set of a sitcom where two unlikely kissers end up kissing. Like to imply that Wow, This Is Getting Heated. Nobody kissed, of course, but the “Ooooh” seemed to indicate some sort of response in her, like, wow, this boy Gilbert made a controversial, smart choice. It wasn’t smart. I would have done the same thing. I swear Ms. Crum liked Gilbert and Lester a hell of a lot more than me, so she would just default to building them up, rather than me.

She asked me what my guess on the number was. I let out a quick “51.” I had decided after the game of rocks and paper and scissors how my decision-making would be formed. This wasn't a game of chess or anything, or even checkers, really. It was more like a game of Tic-Tac-Toe, and one of the players (me) figured out long ago how to always win, or at least, how to never lose. The other player in this comparison would be Gilbert, the idiot, who would probably always default a lose/draw by putting an X in a corner.

“Ooooooooh!” That made me feel good. She recognized and understood my way of playing. Any normal person playing a game with something at stake would make this decision, I’d think. Ms. Crum, the teacher, surely she didn't actually think this was a brilliant move. Surely she knew how to play games like this. I quickly found it to be patronizing.

Gilbert gave me an annoyed and surprised look, like I was supposed to guess any of the other 98 numbers available. Did he want me to give myself less of a chance to win? But I wanted to win, of course. Why would I blow my chances for the sake of Gilbert liking me a bit more? Would he only like me a bit more, put me in the “Best friend” category, on the grounds that I didn’t win?

“Alright, Lester, what’s your guess? Final answer. Say that at the end, so we know you’re sure on it. And you can’t go back on it after that, because you said final answer.” It was Gilbert who asked Lester this rather than Ms. Crum, like he was taking this potential victory in his own hands. He didn’t need the authority of the teacher to get this show on the road, and they already had some kind of rapport, the teacher and the other two number-guessers, where they were friendly and joke-y, a feeling that I always felt a little outside of; not that I wasn’t enthusiastic about joke-telling or anything. It just seemed that Ms. Crum would joke with them a lot more than she would with me. Or maybe I just didn’t tell jokes as often? Or good ones? Or maybe I simply just wasn’t the kind of funny that they were? Or at the least, maybe even at the worst, she didn’t think I was funny.

We were once being taught the difference between Ms. and Mrs. And she said it was crucial that we know the difference, lest we offend somebody. I asked her if the Ms. that came before her name meant that she was not married? And she said that she once was married, but she was now the opposite, which was not married. I asked what happened, for some reason, like I asked the question, verbatim, “What happened?” She said that her husband passed away two years ago. Small town, this was, and still that news eluded me.

I brought up a small issue with this, being that when a woman is widowed, out of respect for said woman, people still use the term “Mrs.” to identify the sad lady with the dead husband. She said, “Huh?” I repeated the thing I said word-for-word, as if she didn’t hear me or something. She said something about how either one she chose to go with was her choice. She wanted to go by Ms. because she wanted to go by Ms. I said how that seemed improper, according to the schoolbook I had in front of me. And she told me that reading ahead was rude and annoying, as was prying about details regarding a person's deceased, formerly betrothed. She didn’t call me either of these words, but it was the first time I felt like somebody was linking me with those adjectives. After that, she never really treated me like a kid, like in the classic sense of a kid. I was just some guy who lacked the wonder and curiosity of his elders, and would be made to feel that way. To me, I thought I wanted to learn more than them. But maybe I was just rude and annoying.

This was a pretty small classroom. It was small, population wise, is what I mean, as in, just us four. These would be the same children who I started Kindergarten with, and would later attend High School with, which was in the same building. The entire sum of K-12th would not often total more than thirty people, obviously having no need for a separate schoolhouse. But the room itself for our class, me, Lester, Gilbert, was also quite condensed as well. A measly linoleum-coated cell, but it seemed accommodating enough to house the three students and teacher quite nicely. It was tiny, but much bigger than the four of us combined.

Lester, going last, because he picked a piece of paper to beat my rock, did the same thing that Gilbert did with his hand and head, almost, but clenched his fist and rested his chin on it, rather than the hand being open. It was something kind if humorous for a child to do, like he just saw a picture of The Thinker, that statue depicting a man thinking, and thought to himself, that’s what somebody “thoughtful” may do - and also for a child to think the definition of “thoughtful” is to be full of thoughts, goodness.

Lester, as well as Gilbert, was objectively less smart than me, I think; it was concluded as even younger children, as voted by the other two, that I was the “smart” one of the three of us, but maybe I was simply clever, not smart, and upon further thinking on it, maybe I was neither. Maybe I was cross-eyed, for all I knew, and nobody was nice (or mean) enough to tell me that I had some sort of delicate condition, like I was medically dumb, or had funny eyes, or something. Nobody told me straight-up, back then, at least, that I wasn’t funny, or wasn’t smart, or wasn’t cross-eyed. But they sure acted like it, even if their words indicated otherwise.

I definitely felt like the least-liked out of the classroom, even including Ms. Crum. Was it because I was labeled as the smart one? Or did I kind of present myself as that in meeting them when we were six and seven. Did I just act like a know-it-all when we were six and seven? We were all friends, in a way. We had no choice but to be close. We spent twelve years (minimum) together, many hours a day, many months a year. But it’s even easier with such a small number to determine who is the least likable, the easiest one to determine who would be sent off the island. I am fairly certain I know who the other three would vote off of the island. Ms. (Mrs.) Crum and the other two boys on an island together. As 3rd graders we would often talk about which of us three would be the most likely to have sex with her first, which I remember being a facetious group-think thing (obviously she was not in attendance for this; imagine). She was essentially the only female we had frequenting our company, with the exception of a few of the girls in other grades, which were for some reason off-limits; our teacher was on-limits. I was the least likely, due to my never having kissed anybody besides Mother and probably Father too, in my young, young years, and also because I was a few pounds above hefty. Lester was the most, because he was the tallest, not fat at all, and had kissed several girls that lived in North Dakota, which is where his grandmother lived. That was fair. We were now a couple years older, but still twenty years her junior, and we would still talk about who would fuck her first, but it felt less like a joke now. On the island she could have sex with both of them and get pregnant and go by whatever she wanted, Ms. or Mrs. or Miss or whatever without the pedantic Me giving her tips on how to carry herself, whatever.

Lester gave me one of those smiles that isn’t really a smile, but it kind of is, physically; it indicates something completely beside something nice, more like a, “Yep, sorry, but this isn’t necessarily a comfortable or good predicament we’re in,” the smile being a straight line, bookended by upwards-pointing outer rims of the mouth. It looked kind of like a bracket symbol that fell on it’s side, like how I imagine a robot would smile. But if I saw a robot doing the smile, I would rule it as sincere. If I saw a robot smile with a bracket, I would consider him to be a nice robot.

Lester was a robot for Halloween, the same year that he decided he would get Ms. Crum pregnant first. He drew a smile on the cardboard head with two right angles on both sides, forming the smile. We walked in the middle of the road and trick-or-treated, and the smile that rested on his square head, albeit artificial, made me feel warm, like he was somebody I could trust and be around. Without the robot head, and generally when human children and adults did it, I felt like it meant something else. I would later see that smile on the faces of people who seemed to tire of me, as if to say, Enough Of This, Thanks But No Thanks, probably also due to me thinking I was smart, but the end product being annoying. They never said I wasn’t smart or funny either. But always gave me that bracket smile.

Lester let out a “Sorry” towards me before he gave his answer, and then looked at Ms. Crum.

“52.”

Gilbert gave him a quick glance.

"Final Answer."

“Ooooh.”

Son of a bastard.

He boxed me in, trapped me, beat me at my own game. Son of a bitch. Always how it was with these two.

My chances of winning these eraser-toppers was one in one-hundred. Gilbert and Lester had a much greater shot at winning. It felt this way with them often, even if it didn’t involve a guessing game. We could be playing Mario Kart, or pretending to be WWF wrestlers on Lester’s trampoline; it often felt like my chance of winning was slim, solely because all I had was my “smarts.” Why didn’t I have a fourth classmate here to guess 53? And if I was so smart, why was I here with these other two birdbrains? I wish that robot was here. He’d probably guess 53, and then look at me with that sincere robot look.

Ms. Crum opened the piece of paper, like she forgot what the number was that she had written down. "Okay," she said, like she often said as she segued into an important point. "The number is."

She read the number for more than five seconds, a time much too great for a one-to-two digit number. I could have written the number in less than one second, surely.

She gave me the same robot smile. She stuck the Post-It on the chalkboard behind her. The piece of paper read “51.”

No applause, no cheering, and why would there be? Maybe if our class was larger, there would be. But the air in that classroom reeked of disappointment and poor sportsmanship in that moment.

Ms. Crum pulled out the box of eight pencil-topper eraser things of assorted colors out from her desk drawer. The seven colors of the rainbow were represented, and then a grey one, for whatever reason.

She said that since Heck guessed the right number, he would be given the box of spear-headed little deals. Heck was short for Hector. I am Hector. I am Heck.

I held the box in my hands, happy at my luck. This was entirely luck, as most things are. Do what you can with whatever wit you have, and then fling and pray that the people you're surrounded with are filled with less luck that day. I felt a sense of relief that somebody was looking over me.

Ms. Crum said that a poor sport would keep all winnings to himself (or whoever-self; the only pronouns she generally used were He and His and Him, considering the main, and only, gender in her classroom, were boys, three of them, all of them in attendance, today; you get what I’m saying? Small class, this was), and that a good sport would distribute some of the prize to the non-winners, also known as the losers. She did not use the word loser, but I felt like she might, in the alternate version of the story, if I was the boy who guessed a losing number. Wow, maybe my thought-processing like this just manifested people to act towards me like I figured they would? Maybe me thinking that thought even was unhealthy, narcissistic? I didn’t think that, of course, then. Maybe I did. If I was actually smart, I probably did. But who knows.

She said that the right thing to do would be to split them amongst the class. After being handed them, I held the box out towards Lester and Gilbert, telling them they could take two, each, I guess. I didn’t need all eight. I didn’t erase that much.

Lester took blue and indigo. Gilbert pulled out green and yellow.

Ms. Crum gave me a look of somewhat-approval, like, almost there, sport, you've almost done the right thing. Her eyebrows were raised in a childish, gimme-gimme-like fashion. I held the box of four remaining erasers towards her, reluctantly. I felt my mouth turn into a bracket.

It was certainly a human bracket, not a robot bracket.

“Ooooh.” She held her arm up in a T-Rex fashion. “Thank you, Heck, that is very thoughtful of you.” She claimed the red and orange ones dipping her hand in, leaving me with a total of two erasers. Two per person, including myself, the winner, like I didn’t really win anything, just about, like the number-guessing thing could have just not happened, the paper folding, the Thinking Man, it could have just as easily not happened.

One of the remaining erasers was violet, and the other grey. I put them on both of my pencils. They sat alongside my plastic art supply box. Purple and grey. I wasn't even able to win myself a primary colored one, but I suppose that's what the pecking order called for around here. I had, for myself, one secondary, one neutral. Secondary, neutral.