When I was in fifth-grade, there was a chubby, quiet boy in my class named Barry Wilson. He was a so-so student, and we really didn't hear much from him until about mid-year when Mr. Jorgensen asked the class, "What would you need to take with you to Mars in order to stay alive?"
"Food?" asked a child. "Right," said the teacher.
"Air?" "Right... Barry, what would you say? What else would an Earthling have to bring to Mars?"
Barry pondered. All the obvious life-support stuff had been said, but he gave it his best shot: "Underwear?" he suggested, and the classroom exploded with mirth.
My dad, who had managed theaters at Army camps, once told me soldiers are so starved for entertainment that they make the best audiences. I would argue that children in classrooms are even better audiences.
Our laughter went on and on, partly because every minute or so, Barry would shout "UNDERWEAR!" following it with a strange yell of suppressed laughter being uncorked, "DYYEEEAAAA!" Soon we were laughing at Barry's laughter more than at his funny answer. And before it was over, Barry was on the floor, actually rolling in the aisle. Mr. Jorgensen was laughing too, which is just as well, because he would've needed tear-gas and a billy-club to quell this laff-riot anytime soon.
We learned no more about outer space that day, unless you count our recognition of the new star who had just appeared in our firmament. Our laughter had produced a chemical change in Barry. For the rest of the year, the least little thing would cause him to give his trademark yell of "DYYYEEEAAAA!", and we'd all go nuts. Those must've been long months for Mr. Jorgensen, but they flew by on wings for the rest of us, especially for Barry. In the time it took to utter one magic word, he'd gone from non-entity to top entertainer.
I was reminded of Barry this week by a sequence of events that began when my fifth-grade daughter, Marie, tried to embarrass her second-grade sister, Sally, by secretly stuffing Sally's backpack full of Sally's underpants. Marie was hoping her sister would unwittingly pull out the underpants in the classroom and incur the derisive howls and jeers of her peers.
But, the underwear bomb was discovered and de-fused by Sally, while she was in my wife's car getting a ride to school. Sally gnashed her teeth and left the underwear in the car. Later that day, my wife took Marie and 4-year-old Wendy to the doctor's office for Marie's allergy shot. The car's backseat was full of underwear, so Marie smuggled a pair out of the car and into the waiting room where she put them on Wendy's head and encouraged her to caper around. The bored and afflicted folks sitting there were yet another appreciative audience, but my wife cut short the floor show by snatching the bloomers off Wendy's foolish little head.
The next day, Sally tried the backpack trick on Marie, but Marie didn't fall for it. Marie countered by putting three pairs of Sally's underpants into a brown lunchbag, writing "Sally, 2nd Grade" on it, and giving it to the school secretary for in-class delivery. Sally already had her lunch with her and was wary of the second brown bag, so this trick didn't work either. But both girls were titillated by the involvement of a grownup in what the girls are calling The Underwear War.
I don't know what's coming next, and neither do they. Both girls are keeping a close eye on their luggage, wary of more pranks. At this point, I doubt either of them would trust her sister to pack her parachute. Their game seems to be good clean fun, so I haven't intervened. The only thing that disturbs me about their underwear obsession is the epilogue to the Barry Wilson story.
Barry disappeared from our school after fifth-grade and reappeared years later in high school. I spotted him in the corridor on the first day of my junior year. He had lost a lot of weight, but he didn't look slim; he looked diminished. "Hey, Barry!" I yelled, glad to see him. "UNDERWEAR!"
I'd given the password, but Barry looked at me with blank anxiety. I asked, "Don't you remember Mr. Jorgensen's fifth-grade class?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, edging past, and he never spoke to me again. I soon found out that Barry was a sophomore, not a junior like me. He'd lost a year. Was it the one we'd spent with Mr. Jorgensen?
There's a lesson here somewhere, but I'm dog-gone if I know what it is. I don't claim to have an answer, only a question: What is it about fifth-graders and underwear?