I had a pet chicken. His name was Chuck. We spent quite a bit of time together the summer before first grade started. Of all our chickens, Chuck was the kindest. I guess you don’t really think of chickens as being “pets” and especially as “kind pets.” Chuck was a cute, plump little guy with red and gold feathers and a short red comb. He had those red squishy blobs of skin under his beak, also, what are those called? He barely supported his portly little self with two grass-blade thin legs.
At 6 years old, my shoulders were barely wide enough to support my disproportionately huge head, let alone support Chuck in the manner I wished: as a parrot. Because what 6 year old doesn’t want a shoulder-perching, talking, pirate parrot-chicken?
Chuck’s obesity may have been a direct result of my food-based training regimen. I taught him to come when called by using the age-old trick of bribing him with food. I dabbled a bit in chicken hypnotics as well, holding his beak against a seam in the concrete patio until his body went completely limp and he stared at that seam, tripping in chicken fantasyland like a stoner in the chip section of Walmart. After coming out of a hypnosis session and shaking his head a couple of times, he always looked a bit peckish to me, so I fed him then, too. (I’ll admit, when I put him under hypnosis, I tried to convince him he could talk. This never worked.)
As Chuck’s weight increased, his willingness to follow me on a leash decreased. Soon, he could barely carry his own weight, let alone lift his head with the old halter rope I managed to loop around his neck. Getting him to sit on my shoulder became a necessity.
I found an old rake handle, put it across my shoulders, and through a combination of chicken hypnotics and cracked-corn bribery, trained Chuck to ride on the rake handle.
The obvious next step in his progression toward Captain Flint status was to teach him to squawk, “Pieces of eight!” Then I knew we’d probably have to take our act on the road.
The beginning of first grade thwarted our progress. The hours I’d invested in Chuck’s growth — intellectually and physically — were replaced with my own growth.
There were other stressors to our relationship too. The day before first grade started, shortly after mom put the finishing touches on my bowl-cut, my brother took me aside.
“Look, I have to tell you something but you can’t tell anybody I told you.”
“Okay, I promise!” I was beside myself with anticipation. My brother, 5 years older than me, knew EVERY THING! Getting in on one of his secrets could give me a competitive edge in virtually any arena!
“Do you know what “retarded” means?” he whispered.
“I think so, isn’t that when you’re really dumb?”
“Sort of.” he confirmed.
“Oh, so, is someone in my class retarded?” I asked.
“Yeaaahhh.” he drew the answer out, lingering on the word, watching my expression as the gears in my head slowly spun.
“Well, you promised you wouldn’t tell anybody, right? You especially can’t tell mom or dad. Promise?” he made me promise again.
“OKAY!! I PROMISE! JUST TELL ME!” I hissed back at him.
“Okay, well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s actually you. You are retarded. And mom and dad don’t want you to know.” he put his hand on my shoulder, the same shouder where my chicken-parrot would’ve perched on his rake handle. “Everybody knows, and they’re going to try to be really nice to you at school about it, but you’re actually the oldest kid in your class.”
“What? I thought I was the youngest!?”
“Mom’s just telling you that so you don’t find out that you’re retarded.”
My mind was reeling, even though this did fit in nicely with the adoption theory that I’d been mulling over for a few months. I felt that I couldn’t possibly have any blood-relation to the people I lived with. Mental retardation added a new twist to the mix. Things were fine when I didn’t want to be related to them. I felt it was pure benevolence on my part to put up with them until I could cut bait and get out of town, which would happen around the time I hit age 13 (or, my REAL, horse-loving family came to their senses and took me back). What if it was pure benevolence on their part to keep me?
I carried the burden of my condition stoically for the first week of school. I viewed every smiley face on my handwriting practice with skepticism. Other kids’ attempts at friendship were met with a dull gaze and shrug of the shoulders. I just wanted to go back home and hang out with Chuck.
After several “frowny face” evaluations of my handwriting (I chose to draw chickens instead of the letter a), my mother cornered me.
“Teresa Michelle, I thought you were excited about school. Why do you keep drawing chickens instead of practicing your handwriting?”
“I don’t like school.”
“Why not? Aren’t you making friends there?”
“What about the other kids on the bus, are you making friends with them?”
“Do you like your teacher?”
After about 30 seconds of interrogation, I snapped (for the record I am the worst secret-keeper ever. The only thing that makes me any good at it now is that I can’t remember shit).
In the end, it took my parents a fair amount of time to convince me that I wasn’t retarded. It was also a trying period for my teacher, who daily had to coax me out of the coat closet where I’d taken up residence, too embarrassed to come out and join the class.
Eventually I was able to assimilate comfortably with others, right around the time I hit legal drinking age.