I loved school when I was little. I mean really. Loved it! I hadn’t yet developed my healthy sense of self-consciousness and school was the place that opened doors to whole new worlds to me. Getting to school meant walking several blocks down my own street, hanging a left and walking for another couple of blocks before waiting to cross a busy intersection with the assistance of the Police Patrols. (Police Patrols were sixth graders who got to wear cool brown leather belts around their waists with a strap that went over the shoulder and a cool badge on the front. I couldn’t wait to be one.)
When I think back to those days, my memories always take me back to the fall. In the classroom, I looked forward to making colorful leaves out of construction paper. Or maybe it was a jack-o-lantern or a friendly looking witch on a broomstick. Out on the school playground, my classmates and I raced across the monkey bars to see who could get across the fastest. On that same playground, there would soon be a Halloween parade for all of the students to show off their costumes. I had a plastic witch mask. No costume. My mom and dad didn’t put much stock in Halloween. As much as I wanted a costume to go with my mask, I was grateful that my siblings and I were even allowed to trick-or-treat.
There were two girls in my neighborhood who walked to and from school with me. We made plans to visit and play after school as we shuffled our feet through the crunchy brown leaves along the sidewalks. Bunches of kids all left school and walked the same direction before branching off on various streets to go to their own homes. There was a boy who scared me a little bit and I was always on the lookout for him as I walked to and from school. Jeff King had a reputation as a mean kid. I don’t think he ever did anything to me, personally. I don’t think I really knew Jeff King much at all. I think I was just scared because he was a little older than me. He seemed so big to me. And he had that reputation. Sort of a daredevil. The mean kid.
One of those years, not long after school had begun, there were suddenly rolls of iron-on reflective tape at our house. That tape was everywhere. Mom ironed it on the backs of my siblings’ and my jackets. She ironed it along the sleeves. She ironed it on the corduroy book bag she had sewn for me to carry my things to and from school. I loved the reflective tape. I thought it added flare to my jacket. Everyone in my elementary school was suddenly sporting reflective tape on their jackets.
I was too young to make the connection about the reflective tape back then. It was only years later that I put two and two together. Our parents weren’t jazzing up their kids’ jackets because it was the seventies and it was cool and psychedelic. They were making sure we would be seen. They were trying to prevent us not being seen. They were trying to prevent us being hit by cars. They covered us in reflective tape because Jeff King wasn’t seen. Jeff King was hit by a car while riding his bike. Suddenly Jeff King didn’t seem like someone to be scared of. He was a little boy, with a family who loved him. I remember my dad telling me to pray for Jeff. It seemed like he was in the hospital for a long time. I prayed for him every night until the shock of his accident began to fade a bit and I stopped hearing about him. I remember wondering how long you’re supposed to pray for someone who is in the hospital and I stopped praying because I no longer heard people talking about Jeff King. When he died, I wondered if it was because I stopped praying.
That was so long ago and I was so very young. Too young to have any concept of what a tragedy this was for one family. My parents did what parents did back then. They did what they could to keep us safe without really talking about what they were afraid of. Every fall, I remember those early school years with fondness. And you’d think I wouldn’t remember my feelings so vividly after all this time, but every fall, I still remember Jeff King.