My brother Dave, is 5 years younger than me. For the first 11 years of his life he was the “baby” of the family. My older brother, Jim was the first-born, an honored place in any family, then me, the only girl. A surprise, my brother Tommy, showed up later. But, at the point of this tale, we were three kids, a set group. By the third child, parents are in a routine. They can roll "with the punches. They have been through it all...so they think. Such was the case in our happy home; "Donna Reed, "Father Knows Best" and their progeny.
The day Dave started kindergarten, Mom rejoiced. A half-day of no kids at home. Dave trundled off to school, wide-eyed and adorable. Jim and I had sailed through the rigors of kindergarten. The crying of separation anxiety gave way to finger painting, cookies and milk, story time and unrolling our rugs for “nap” time. I believe kindergarten now includes quantum theory and fashion tips but it was the late 50’s, early 60’s, so what did we know. It was an all-important step before “real” school. Socialization, discipline, manners and your first “report card!” Judgment! A grade! Setting the stage for a lifetime of comparison and competition. All seemed well as Dave brought home his little report card saying he was a well-mannered child and socialized very well. Of course, beamed my parents. He was one of us. From here he would matriculate and get all A’s. There was never a doubt.
Then came the earthquake that shook the family to its core. Somewhere around April, the “note” came from the teacher. Dave was seriously close to failing kindergarten! He couldn’t tie his shoes and he couldn’t skip! I felt my body start to convulse as I tried to stifle my laughter. One look at Jim and we both lost it, until we caught the look in Mom’s eye. We were silenced as if our mouths had been painted shut. This was a tragedy. Her baby couldn’t skip! How had she failed? What would the other mother’s say when they found out? School isn’t just about the children’s education. It’s the key to bragging rights for the parents. It’s an affirmation that they have done a good job. WE HAD TO HAVE A FAMILY MEETING.
We sat quietly at the dinner table, in our assigned seats, waiting for my father to burp so we could begin. Dave seemed slightly oblivious to the seriousness of his predicament.
“What the hell?” boomed Ralph, the family patriarch. “He can’t G** D*** skip! Who the hell cares? He’s a good kid, he’s house broken. For Christ’s sake, he’s 5. What the hell’s wrong with this teacher? I can’t skip, it hasn’t hurt me.”
There it was...an admission that Dave took after Dad and Dad was very proud. I was so jealous. I didn’t seem to take after anybody. I was fair my mother was dark. I was a girl my father was a boy.
“He can’t tie his shoes”, bemoaned our mother.
“Loafers, for G**’s sake, Kay, and pass the peas.”
“We can’t let him fail. He’ll be scarred for life.”
My mother was now on a mission. She shot my father a look I did not comprehend at the time. I now realize it meant, “just try and have sex with me until this is fixed!” Suddenly my father seemed to have a change of heart, and thus began the chapter in our family history, ‘Teaching Dave to Skip.’
“Kathy, take your brother into the basement after dinner and teach him how to skip,” commanded Dad.
“Because you’re the girl.”
To this day I fail to see the logic in this, but that was the answer that I heard for most of my life. To argue or disagree would subject you to a roar of expletives and the result would still be the same. So, it was easier to just quietly obey.
Have you ever tried to deconstruct a skip? Don’t. That way lays madness! I took his hand and started to drag him around the cinder block and concrete basement.
“Hop, Dave. No, one foot. No, the other foot. No, you’re running. No, slower. No, bend your knees. No, no, no...”
My brother’s coordination seemed to exclude an understanding of shifting weight from one foot to the other. He appeared to have braces on both legs, and yet, he did not. He teeter-tottered from leg to leg like Forest Gump. After an eternity of ten minutes, with Dave whining and me pouting, we trudged upstairs and I announced that he was hopeless.
“He’s just tired and confused,” defended my mother. “How would you feel if you couldn’t skip?” Was I expected to answer that? I gave her my best 10-year old yucky face and announced I had homework to do.
“Jim, teach him to tie his shoes,” I heard from behind my father's newspaper.
That seemed eminently more teachable than a skip.
“Why does Jim get to teach that and I get stuck with skipping?”
“He’s older, and a boy.”
This was the other answer that I got most of my life, when division of labor or rewards came up in the house. My father had a degree in mechanical engineering and I suppose he felt all males of the species had mechanical, spatial and technical instincts. I sat and watched as Jim tried to show Dave how to tie his shoe. His little finger’s struggled to loop the laces correctly and he kept dropping one half of the bow. Near tears, it seemed time to stop.
“We’ll try again tomorrow, honey,” cooed Mom. She scooped him up and took him to his room.
“Get me a beer on your way back hon,” barked Dad, at my mother’s back.
The next day we arrived home from school to learn that there was a deadline for shoe tying and skipping. The teacher had set a “test” day for Dave and he would have to perform in front of the whole class. Was Dr. Spock behind this ridiculous torture of my little brother? My mother tried to make light of what was at stake but even at 10, I could see the fear in her eyes. Nobody flunks kindergarten.
“Kathy, set the table for dinner and then skip with Dave.”
Knife, fork, spoon, and then grabbing Dave’s hand, we would circle the dining room table with my mother looking on, trying to coach from the kitchen. This was the mantra for a week. “Set the table and skip with Dave. Set the table and skip with Dave.”
The shoe tying was improving steadily. Each time he would pull his little bow, we would cheer like Super Bowl Champions. The skipping, not so much. I was failing. The weight of my brother’s future was on my shoulders. My mother alternated between loving, patient concern and all out anger at the stupid teacher with her petty rules.
These days, this would have been grounds for lawsuits, specialists, neurological testing, and possibly even 5 minutes on the national news airing the plight of the poor child who could not skip. Was it something in our water? Was it allergies to dairy, wheat and gluten? What percentile of 5 year olds could skip? What was the norm? Would his sad little face become the poster child for skippingly challenged children everywhere? Who should we blame that Davey couldn’t skip? But, alas, all we knew back then was our kid couldn’t skip and the looming consequences were huge. We were one family alone against the “machine” that was elementary education.
The night before Dave’s “big test” we had a dry run of his skill set. He tied his shoe perfectly; slowly, very slowly, but perfectly. Jim seemed relaxed. His task had succeeded. Mom had a tear in her eye, Dad a beer in his hand. Now came the skip. I held my breath as he skipped around the dinner table. He sucked. Less sucky than when we started but it wasn’t a real skip. Silence blanketed the room.
“You’ll be fine tomorrow,” my mother finally offered.
“I need to catch Walter Cronkite,” said my Dad and he left the table.
“Kathy, clear the table. Jim, pick up the dog shit in the yard. Dave, time for your bath.”
Nothing more was said. We all dispersed to our chores, nursing our private pain.
The next morning, Dad offered Dave some sage advice.
“Well, buddy, just remember, dogs lick their balls, that’s what they do...and kids skip. It’s not taught. It’s just instinct. So go get’em.”
Then Dad took Dave’s little hand and tried to skip with him to the car.
It was a tense day as we waited for the news. We got home from school and Mom was a sphinx. She wanted to wait until Dad was home to reveal the verdict. Around the dinner table that evening, plates full of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and creamed corn, Dave announced that he had passed kindergarten. He could tie his shoe and he skipped okay. We erupted with applause and glee. He was a hero.
He never really skipped in front of us again. He walked, ran and drove cars. He has some foot troubles and needs orthotics, now, but he is over 60.
I was teaching a class of college students recently; an acting class. We were doing some physical movement so I asked them to form a circle and skip. They were appallingly bad. Some had never even tried to skip. Evidently our education system has rethought their priorities. It made me wonder at the pressure on poor Dave and the family over something that is no longer a consideration. Like what happened to all those Catholics who went to hell for eating meat on Friday and then the rules changed? But, that’s for another time. We can’t rewrite history, so ‘Skip with Dave’ will always be a part of our family legend. Did this episode scar Dave for life? Doubtful. There are so many other scars from just living. But, when I think about all our roles in this little drama, I have to say, it was one of my family’s finer hours and far more a preparation for 'real life' than quantum physics or fashion tips.
About the Author:
Kathryn Rossetter is an actress/writer/acting teacher and private coach in NYC. Her essays have appeared in No Kidding; Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Gettysburg Magazine. She has also written several solo shows including, Ripe and Starving Hysterical Naked, as well as two screenplays, Fine! and Virgin Territory, that were semi-finalists for Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. She is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Fellowship for writing and developing solo performances. Kathryn lives in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC with her little Chihuahua mix, Squirt. Feeling trapped after months in pandemic lockdown, she finally got herself a car for the first time in over 25 years.