Jeff Phillips: The Side of the World


I attended kindergarten in Saginaw, Michigan. I was in the afternoon session, we only went for half a day. My friend Jay would come over to play in the morning while his mom went to work. Sometimes my friend Gavin would come over, too. Gavin came over before Jay did one morning and I thought it would be funny if we hid from Jay in my closet. Jay had a hard time finding us, wandered all over the house, but my mom led him back upstairs. Jay could hear us giggling, he tried to open the closet door but I pulled it shut. I wasn’t ready for the game to be over just yet. Gavin was the first to relinquish when it was clear how upset Jay was, that shutting Jay out had hurt his feelings. I was slower on the uptake, slower to come down from the odd intoxication and hilarity of messing with someone.

Things were tense between Jay and myself after that.

Later that year, my brother pointed out to me, on the globe he had received for his birthday, that where we live in North America is on the side of the planet. When I tried to pass on this new knowledge that I was excited about, to Jay, on the school bus one day, he was quick to become defensive. He possibly thought I was trying to mess with him again. He was fervent in his denial, slamming his finger down on top of the toy truck he carried around with him that day. He pointed hard, straight down. “No, we live on the top of the world!” I tried to convince him that what I was telling him was the truth, my voice got louder, too, and I was the one the bus driver yelled at and asked to move seats up to the front where she could keep an eye on me. As I settled in behind the bus driver, Jay told her I was a bad kid and the bus driver said “yes, he is.”

I couldn’t help but hold a grudge against him. A few days later when Jay was over, he was telling me something about a song that was on the radio, and I screamed at him. “You! You didn’t have to tell me that! I already knew that!” I wasn’t really angry about hearing something I already knew, but it rubbed me the wrong way, Jay thinking he knew something I didn’t. As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I realized I was being tyrannical, and I think it was the first time I wished I could rewind a moment, maybe think a little more before speaking, but it also felt great to unleash.

By the end of our time in kindergarten, Jay’s family moved into a new house for the start of summer, and it had a pool. Jay told me he was having a pool party and was inviting everyone from our class, except for me. I replied that I was going to set up our wading pool in the backyard and invite everyone except for him, and Jay just laughed. I think it was first time I heard him laugh.

That summer we moved to Pittsburgh as my dad moved up the J.C. Penney regional corporate ladder. I wasn’t quite old enough to be cognizant with that move that it could be an opportunity to start over, but having my first experience with losing a friend made me anxious for a chance to make new ones. Whereas for some kids, a move to another town is heartbreaking, I felt I had the ideal situation; a new school in an entirely different state where the kids wouldn’t be team Jay, wouldn’t even know Jay and that he had a pool, and I was ready to be the new kid, a nice kid, a kid who wouldn’t hide from you and think it was funny. But to my surprise, I made a whole slew of neighborhood friends and flashlight tag in the late evening was a regular thing, where hiding was a celebrated skill.

I’d still inadvertently hurt friend’s feelings. I’d be bossy and not let a playmate have his turn to pretend to be president of the United States after we learned a little bit about government in school. I’d tell a friend’s secret to another friend in front of him to get a rise out of him. I’d push a girl off a deck because she wouldn’t give me back my toy gun. I’d ask one of the other new kids, from Japan, who was shy and still learning English, if he even knew how to talk.

A mean streak doesn’t temper easily, but a few years later, as I became more aware of the stings that result from remarks I uttered, antics I instigated, a conscience emerged. If you experience that hollow resonance, that look in someone’s eye that flickers of humiliation, sometimes physical pain, as a direct result of something you did, at a crucial point in your development, you start to learn that other people have perspectives and sensations separate than your own. The thing about hurting someone’s feelings; is that it may be a necessary evil, in eventually, not being so evil. Feeling crummy about making another person feel crummy is a building block for the existence of empathy.

On that first day of first grade, I was relieved to get on a bus and have a brand new bus driver, one who wasn’t in agreement with Jay that I was a bad kid. In fact, my bus driver was quite jolly, an older man named Dwayne, who would often say when you took your seat, “buckle your straps, hold onto your hats, and away we go!” Dwayne’s driving of the bus wasn’t necessarily a getaway joyride from those days of Jay. Bus routes only make the same loop over and over again. Sometimes you’re able to stare out the window and see your reflection on a dark, rainy morning, and sometimes the shapes that blur on the other side of the fog start to look like phantoms from the past.


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