To be sure, it’s no longer high on my list of things I want to experience in life. Now that I’ve reached my 30s, these old bones (*read in a rickety voice*) don’t heal as quickly, so I try to avoid slippery sidewalks and high cliff drop-offs as much as possible.
But in elementary school, it felt like everyone had broken a bone at least once. Kinda like everyone had to wear braces at some point or learned how to do a cartwheel. They would show up to school with crutches and a bright pink cast, and we would crowd around and sign it with black Sharpie, drawing little hearts or stars next to our names. It was like a rite of passage.
I don’t think it registered to my child brain that it would actually be painful to break a bone. I just knew that the classmate who’d been to hell and back had a fascinating tale and pink plaster to prove it. They would regale the story of how they tried to bike as fast as possible down a huge hill and their puny backpedal brakes didn’t come through at the critical moment, or they flew off the playground swing at the apex of its arc and met a faceful of gravel.
Long after the bones would heal and the cast was off, it was a story they could tell at the cafeteria lunch table or underneath the jungle gym on the playground, all the kids hanging on their every word.
It wasn’t that I wanted the attention. I just had an inexplicable insecurity about not having a broken bone story to tell. Someone would say, “Have you ever broken a bone?”
And one kid would say, “Yeah, I fell off the monkey bars,” and someone else would say, “Oh yeah, my brother landed on me with his skateboard doing a backflip,” and they would look at me and I would have to say, “No,” and feel an odd pang of shame like I had a third eye and no idea how to remove it.
I was a nonathletic and uncoordinated child, which would make you think I was more likely to suffer a fracture. In fact, the opposite is true, because I was acutely aware of my physical limitations and preferred stationary activities, such as coloring or eating snacks, or both at the same time. I was also scared of everything. I was scared of heights, going too fast, balls that kids threw at me, and any situation that required me to have reflexes faster than a slow-moving boulder. While other kids were apparently in training for American Ninja Warrior, I spent most of P.E. class missing baskets and failing at touching my toes.
I also drank milk like water; it’s a wonder I didn’t calcify like Lot’s wife over my breakfast cereal. I might as well have had bones of steel.
Thus, I spent my elementary school years watching what seemed like a revolving door of classmates snapping their tibias and fibulas, and feeling like I was missing out on a crucial childhood development milestone.
Ironically, my fortunes changed on the last day of elementary school. Our school would throw an end-of-year pool party for the fifth graders and their families as part of the graduation festivities. Houston is already sunny and hot in May, and splashing around in the municipal pool with school buddies was the perfect way to kick off summer vacation.
As you can probably guess, I wasn’t much of a swimmer, so I spent the day in my polka dot bathing suit bouncing around in the shallow end. With all the fifth graders and their siblings, the pool was a little crowded. We batted around inflatable beach balls or pretended to sword fight with colorful foam noodles.
The moment of truth was as anticlimactic as my pitiful athletic ability. As I jumped up to hit a beach ball, I lost my balance. When I stuck out my foot to catch myself, the opposing force of the water slowed my movements. Before I knew it, I had planted my foot on its side and leaned my weight into it to catch my balance.
My foot felt a sharp pain. I hopped out of the pool on my good foot, splashing chlorinated water everywhere, and made my way over to where my mom had thrown a beach towel over a lounger. Inspecting the offending foot, I noticed a large bump under my pinky toe that hurt when I pressed it. As I was wondering what to do, the lifeguard’s whistle sounded, the signal that the pool party was over.
My 18-year-old sister was home from college, and my mom sent her to help me change into dry clothes. Since she was a responsible adult, I told her my foot was hurting. She didn’t believe me and thought I was just being dramatic. My foot wasn’t dangling from my ankle? I must be dramatizing. In a huff, I toweled off, got dressed, and tried to put my shoes back on. When I attempted to pull my tennis shoe over my right foot, I started crying, and my sister must have realized there really was something wrong and went to fetch my mom.
My parents promptly brought me to the emergency room. The doctor gently examined my right foot; he must have noticed the conspicuous bump too. When he pressed on the ball of my foot, I cried out. My parents exchanged a worried look.
The doctor asked me some medically probing questions, like “How did this happen?” and I remember panicking and thinking it would be really, really dumb to say I had lost my balance, landed wrong on my foot, and injured myself with little to no effort. I mean, THIS was my jungle gym story. THIS was the moment that had eluded me my entire elementary school life. I imagined recounting the story at the cafeteria table, and my classmates spitting watery green beans out in raucous laughter.
So I came up with the best plausible story my 10-year-old mind could conjure, and I told the doctor someone had stepped on my foot in the swimming pool.
Not much more impressive than reality, but I didn’t think I could get away with telling him I had been doing somersaults off the diving board.
After the examination, the nurses whisked me away to do X-rays and other tests, before setting the bones and applying the cast. I honestly don’t remember any of it, which makes me wonder if any painkillers had been in play. I just remember being wheeled out to the car after several hours, exhausted and uncomfortable in a plaster cast that came halfway up my calf. My dad explained to me that I had dislocated a bone in my foot.
Not broken a bone, mind you. I’d only dislocated it, which didn’t involve a fracture, but the bone had merely been shifted out of place. But I still had a cast, and crutches, and the air of a survivor.
The pool party had been on the last official day of school, but everyone returned to the classrooms the next day for the graduation ceremony. Thus, in the eleventh hour, I had my moment to shine. I hobbled into the classroom with my new hot pink-accessorized limb to a chorus of gasps and exclamations. Any other order of business was quickly forgotten. Black Sharpie markers were passed around, and I propped my foot up on a chair, my classmates kneeling before me to christen it with their autographs and sympathies. I also derived special pride in explaining that I hadn’t broken a bone, but dislocated one, which was not a word in most fifth graders’ vocabularies and made me feel smart and important. It was probably the most attention I’d gotten in all of fifth grade, and okay, maybe I did like the attention, just a tiny bit. What little kid doesn’t?
Of course, I told the class the same fabrication I had given the doctor — that the cast was the result of someone stepping on my foot in the crowded pool. This set off a flurry of speculation as to who must have stepped on me. Suddenly, everyone in the class had an alibi for yesterday afternoon in the deep end or the locker rooms. A kid named Ryan* tried to accuse one of the larger and heavier students in the class, reasoning that it had to be someone of considerable weight to cause injury to my foot. That embarrassed the student, but my fifth grade teacher swiftly came to their defense, saying a small person moving quickly could do it if they stepped on me hard enough. At that, most of the class’s suspicions fell on Ryan, since he often got in trouble for being hyperactive and mischievous.
When I came up with the story, I hadn’t intended on implicating anyone. But I felt that I had already opened Pandora’s box, and Ryan was merely caught in the crossfire of misfortune. I thought to my 10-year-old self, “I better take this secret to my grave.”
The highlight, for better or for worse, was the graduation ceremony. At the end of the day, we assembled in the elementary school gymnasium for the last time. The fifth graders and their families were seated in rows of plastic chairs. When your name was announced, you walked down the center aisle to shake hands with the principal and receive your certificate.
My last name starts with A, so I was one of the first names called. The principal’s loud voice echoed out in the gymnasium, and my mom helped me to my feet. I felt innumerable curious eyes fall on me as I climbed out of the row and made my way to the front. In front of the entire fifth grade class, I hobbled down the center aisle with slow, unsteady steps. My sweaty hands slipped on the padding of my crutches. The awkward silence was punctuated with the clack, clack of the crutches meeting the hard gymnasium floor. It felt like an eternity had passed when I finally made it to the front.
The principal gave me a sympathetic smile as I approached her; she waited patiently while I found my balance and feebly reached out a hand to shake hers. I was hunched over like a nervous cat, trying not to fall, so she could only give me a little wiggle. The gymnasium was still completely silent, every eye on this small exchange. Finally, the principal handed me my graduation certificate, which got slightly crumpled in my grip. I hardly noticed, as my sole focus at that point was making my escape.
Mercifully, they called the name of the next student, and I hobbled around the outside of the rows and eventually sank back into my chair. Some kids from the other fifth grade classes twisted in their seats to get another look at me. I spent the next twenty-five letters of the alphabet wishing it was already over.
Despite that brief trauma, honestly, the rest of the day was not so bad. After the ceremony, all of us fifth graders lingered a few more minutes in the gymnasium to say our final goodbyes before summer vacation. I got to enjoy a little more measured attention when friends from other classes came by to admire and sign my cast. And of course, I had to tell “THE story” — with a little pride, but not without a little guilt.
I spent nearly all of that summer vacation incapacitated. It was a lousy way to spend my weeks off, but I got the full experience —I took baths with my leg sticking out of the tub, the crutches rubbed the skin under my armpits raw, and I had to find creative ways to scratch an itch under the plaster. Not to mention, after having the cast removed, I had to learn how to walk again. Funny enough, I discovered that I had a small bump on the back of my right heel where the cast must have irritated my skin. After enduring a summer of inconveniences and doctor’s appointments, I thought of it as something like a battle scar.
My foot was fully healed by the time I started the sixth grade. I found out that when you get to middle school, the cafeteria lunch table topics change drastically. Kids are less likely to ask you if you’ve ever broken a bone, and more likely to ask you if you’ve ever kissed a boy. Once you get into the world of block schedules, locker combinations, and learning what’s “cool” and what’s not, the trials of elementary school seem like a lifetime ago. The one thing that didn’t change was my performance in P.E. class.
I still have that small bump on the back of my foot. Sometimes it takes an extra tug to get a sneaker on my right foot, and I’ll chuckle over how embarrassed I was at my elementary school graduation.
I didn’t get braces until college, and I never could do a cartwheel. And I guess I can still say, to this day, I’ve never broken a bone.
*Name was not changed, and he truly was innocent. Sorry, Ryan.