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By Staff | Jun 5, 2015

When I was a kid, I disliked school. Despite my deep aversion of academics, there was one scholastic activity that I thoroughly enjoyed – field trips.

Field trips become more commonplace toward the end of the school year. This makes sense; why introduce the concept of fractions when there is only a tiny portion of the academic calendar remaining?

And when the weather turns balmy, many kids (such as me) can’t concentrate, because we are staring out the window and imagining all the fun we’re missing. Who can think about verbs when there are trees that need climbing?

I attended first grade at Oslo District 95, a one-room country schoolhouse. Eight grades – a total of about 20 kids – were taught in one large room. It seemed more like an extended family than a school.

One spring morning we were told that we were having a track and field day. The students from a neighboring country school would compete with us on the sacred ground of athletic endeavor, otherwise known as our schoolyard.

The athletic events all involved footraces. This was because our school had no athletic equipment, but every kid had shoes, so footraces it was.

Purple and blue ribbons were awarded for first and second places. A white ribbon was given for third and a green ribbon meant “nice try.”

I came home with a fistful of green that day. Still, it was much more enjoyable than spelling practice.

On the final day of school, we took a field trip to a local roller rink.

This was an era when roller skates were physically clamped onto your preexisting shoes. A set of such torture devices were affixed to my clogs and I teetered off to the rink.

Due to my dearth of athletic ability – the only skill I had mastered involved making rude noises with my right hand and my left armpit – I could barely stagger around the rink as I clutched the rail like a drowning man.

It took a long while to make one circumnavigation, by which time my toes had blossomed with blisters. The older kids breezed coolly past, their heinies free of floor grime and bruises. I envied them.

The rink’s electric sign switched from “all skate” to “couples only.” My flailing skating might be construed as attempted assault, so I lurched toward the cantina.

My parents had given me some pocket change to buy treats. I was in line for a soda when I noticed a knot of boys gathered around a blinking, clanging box. I was told that it was called a pinball machine.

I decided to investigate and was instantly transfixed by the fantastic contraption. There were lights, bells and a ricocheting silver ball. Talk about sensory overload.

When the sign went back to “all skate,” most of the boys returned to the rink. I finally stood at the head of the pinball machine, but nothing happened when I punched its buttons.

“You gotta put in a nickel,” suggested a bystander boy. I dug a coin out of my pocket and stuffed it into the slot.

The mechanical marvel leapt to life, flooding my brain with a tsunami of flashes and dings. But then everything stopped.

“Game over,” announced the bystander.

“What do I do?”

“Put in another nickel,” urged the boy.

And so I did, until all five of my nickels were gone.

“Too bad,” shrugged the boy after my pocket was emptied. “You didn’t even win a free game.”

“When do I get my nickels back?” I asked, eyeing the delectable selection of soda and candy.

“You don’t,” grinned the boy as he skated off.

I slumped onto a nearby chair. First the blisters and now this thieving machine. It wasn’t fair.

“Are you OK?” asked a voice from above. It was one of the older girls from District 95. At 12, she was among its senior scholars.

“The pinball machine took all my money,” I confessed, “and now I can’t buy any treats.”

“You can have half of my candy bar,” she offered.

I gratefully accepted. I felt better after the jolt of sugar.

“Want to skate?” she asked, holding out her hand. I was too shocked to do anything, but take hold and totter beside her out to the rink.

“Look at me, skating with an older woman,” I thought as we inched along. I felt just as cool as the big kids.

Even though we weren’t in class that day, I still learned something: the race isn’t always to the swift or the strong.

Sometimes it goes to the forlorn-looking kid who stumbles across an unexpected pronoun of kindness.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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