Monday, April 14, 2008

Like Butterflies In My Stomach

This is a true story.

Have you ever traumatized an entire class of kindergarteners at the same time? No? I highly recommend it—the sound of 27 prepubescent cries in unison is unforgettable.

See, I have witnessed and/or been the cause of just such a scene. It was over a decade ago, and those kindergarteners are all probably college students by now. And since the day in question affected me so much that I’m writing about it today, I egotistically like to assume that it touched my classmates just as much (if not more so). Regardless, this is a true story.

The place is New York City, the time is mid-January, 1995: this Friday is my turn for show-and-tell! You can tell how excited I am by the exclamation point at the end of that last sentence (and at the end of this one)! Each student only shows-and-tells once per year, so I need to make this the greatest showing-and-telling the class has ever experienced.

And as luck would have it, I’ve been presented with the perfect opportunity. You know when you’re playing volleyball/tennis/ping-pong/badminton, the other person has just hit a slow lob right towards you, and as the ball/ball/ball/shuttlecock seems to be hovering before your eyes in slow motion, you realize that you’re about to spike it directly into the other player’s face for the game-set-and-match? This is how I feel. See, our class has just read a story about bugs and birds and other garden-dwelling creatures—and as luck would have it, I just happen to own a dozen pet butterflies.

They all have individual names and personalities, and live together in a giant cardboard box with little plastic windows to make it look like an apartment building. Friday morning: I pick up my little butterfly box by its little string handle, and step out into the street, prepared to blow the class away. The kids and teachers will be so excited, I doubt I’ll even have to do any “telling”: It’ll be like taking candy from a baby, except “the baby” is “twenty-seven children,” I suppose “the candy” could be “a bunch of butterflies in a box,” I’m not really “taking” anything, and this analogy didn’t work at all so I probably shouldn’t have used it in the first place.

I live close to the school, so I walk; I’m shivering with excitement, and also because I’m wearing a sweatshirt while the temperature is in the single digits. I arrive and enter the classroom, my entire presentation memorized. “Today’s my turn for show-and-tell!” I shout, “Everyone come over here!” And the other 27 kindergarteners do. So this is what power feels like. My box is on the table in the middle of the room, with a white sheet covering it to add to the surprise when I reveal what lies beneath. So I grab the cloth and theatrically pull it off (I’ve been practicing my sheet-pulling for days), exposing the cardboard condo under it.

But the residents of the box aren’t moving.

There’s silence in the room. And then someone yells, “They’re frozen solid! It’s too cold outside and you killed them!” The entire class bursts into ear-shattering screams. But not me, still standing in shock, arm raised in the air, sheet waving like a sad little flag in honor of my failure.

The teachers spring in action, running from kid to kid, consoling them one at a time, like battlefield medics sprinting onto a war zone immediately after the shots have ceased. Eventually the tears stop flowing, but the rest of the class cannot bear to look at me for the rest of the day. I’m a pariah on my one day in the spotlight. After an eternity, the final bell rings. I silently slip on my coat and gloves, pick up the frosted cardboard box, and leave for the chilly New York streets.

The End

EPILOGUE: When I get home to my warm apartment, all the butterflies start madly flying around because it turns out that they’ve actually been alive the whole time, and the cold air just temporarily stunned them. Stupid butterflies.

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