6: The Steeple

6: The Steeple

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

The Steeple

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

~Mark Twain

Mom and Dad were thrilled to move from Paterson, New Jersey to the green suburbs. “Just think,” Mom sighed. “We can grow a garden and breathe fresh air!”

Dad said, “And no more gangs!” In Paterson, my little brother was pushed around by older kids, and the high school I would have gone to had a tough reputation. “In Midland Park you’ll have nice friends and be safe.”

But I wasn’t happy. I knew who to watch out for in Paterson, and my brother soon would too. You became street smart. The suburbs scared me — trees hanging over you, no sidewalks, silent houses that made it feel like people were watching you. I told my dad I didn’t want to move.

“Are you nuts? Trust me, it’ll be lots safer and friendlier.”

I wanted to trust Dad, but I had just turned twelve and knew the difference between sure things and hope.

The suburban junior high was cleaner and newer than my city school, but it was not Disney World. Being a new kid was awful. Everybody stared, and I walked around lost for a week. Teachers mispronounced my name. They tried to be nice by asking where I came from, but when I said, “Paterson,” twenty noses wrinkled. Guys bumped me. If I bumped back, a bigger guy bumped me harder. If I didn’t bump back, a smaller guy bumped me. The new kid is supposed to be nobody, not there. If I talked to a girl, somebody dumped Jell-O down my neck.

But every new kid gets a chance sooner or later. Mine came outside the Dutch Reformed Church a few blocks from our new house. It had a tall steeple. The first thirty feet were built of cobblestones and the top was made from white wood that tapered up into the blue. Two guys from my class were climbing the cobblestones. No one said anything — not even “What’s up” — but I joined them. We squeezed our sneakers into the spaces between the cobblestones and felt for handholds, climbed three or four feet, then jumped down. The rounded rocks stuck out from the mortar at most an inch, so we slipped a lot. Then we climbed sideways and around the corner. They gave me a regular turn so I felt pretty good. Like I was with them, almost.

After twenty minutes the big one said to me, “Let’s see how high you can go.”

“Yeah,” the other said.

I shrugged, climbed up maybe five feet, started slipping, pushed away and jumped. I rolled when I hit the concrete.

“Wuss.”

“I bet you can’t touch that window,” the big guy said. The stone windowsill was at the top of the cobblestones, way up there.

“Yeah, right!” I said. Just bending back to look made me dizzy.

“Hey, we did it.”

“Sure you have,” I said.

“You saying we didn’t?” They stared hard, and I knew what was going down.

I glanced up. The guys made cackling chicken noises and flapped their arms like wings. “Brrrack! Braack! Braack!”

I could hear Dad’s voice in my head. “No! Don’t be stupid! You’ll break your neck! Be smart. Trust me.” But I didn’t. Dad made me move here, didn’t he? If I had to be stupid to make friends, I would do it.

After a deep breath, I climbed fast to get it over with. My foot slipped about two feet up and down I came. The guys smirked. “Real sweet!” So I went slower, feeling for the roughest, most protruding stones, got a good hand grip, then another, wedged a sneaker tight in a crack, then the other a little higher. One stone at a time, steady and slow. Until one guy below me hissed, “Man, he’s doing it!”

I looked down. Mistake. I couldn’t see their bodies, just their upturned faces, mouths open. I must have been fifteen feet up. I swayed, pressed my face to the stones and shut my eyes. I wanted to melt into the stones. No escape ladder, no rope. I was hanging up there by myself. I glanced up. The stone windowsill didn’t seem that far, but my toes were cramping. I reached for a new hold, then another and inched higher. I knew now — knew for sure — those guys had never done this. But I would. They suckered me into it, but I’d do what they only dreamed of.

I inched higher until the sill was maybe six or eight feet away. If I touched it, they’d respect me. They’d know I had guts. They’d want me around. They’d tell everybody I climbed the steeple. There’d be no more Jell-O and bumping in the halls.

As soon as I thought that, I didn’t want to do it — not for them. If I could do this on my own, stupid as it was, what did I need them for? Teasing seemed like nothing now. I felt with my feet for cracks below me and inched lower. Descending was more difficult, and when my toes found slick places, the panic rose again. But I kept at it. If you got up, I told myself, there’s a way down. You just have to find it. My fingers were killing me. When the ground came closer, I jumped.

The guys came up to me. “You almost did it! You could have got there. Why’d you stop?”

They were excited, and I had the respect I had wanted. But it didn’t feel good. I shrugged and said, “Why don’t you show me how you did it?”

“Aw well...” They made empty sputtering noises, and I walked away. I had done something stupid that I would never do again, but I realized it had nothing to do with moving to a new school. Nobody pushed me up there. It was about me deciding if I would do whatever people wanted so they’d be my friends. I didn’t need them that much.

~Garrett Bauman

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