THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE
THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
May 13, 2017
Greetings, friends and celebrators of the joy to be found in stories—writing them, reading them, telling them, or hearing them. If you enjoy a good story, this weekly blog is for you.
I’ve decided this week to post a story I first published in the magazine Black Lamb. I believe I’ve also posted it on this blog at some time in the past, so some of you may find it familiar. If so, I hope you’ll agree it’s worth another reading. It recalls a favorite moment in my early twenties, when I had a part-time job as a teacher’s aide in a preschool. That happened to be my first paying job as a musician and my first paying job as a teacher. I learned a lot from that experience, and from its young protagonist, a boy named Milo.
John M. Daniel
Post Office Box 2790
McKinleyville, CA 95591
When I graduated from Stanford in December 1964, six months behind my class because I’d lost some time along the way to mononucleosis, I was already married, and my wife and I lived in an apartment above a garage in downtown Palo Alto. I got a job clerking in a bookstore in town for what was left of the Christmas season. When Christmas was over, I needed another temporary job quickly. We were being thrifty and earning as much as we could, saving for an open-ended trip to Europe. Our plan was to leave in March and stay abroad till the money ran out. Back then an American could still “do” Europe on five dollars a day.
So I scoured the want ads and checked with the Stanford student employment center, looking for work I wouldn’t have to commit to beyond the first of March. Nothing presented itself. Then I found a notice on the bulletin board of the Co-op Market in South Palo Alto: WANTED: Assistant Teacher for Greenmeadow Nursery School. Temporary part-time position.
I walked in, carrying my guitar, sat down, played and sang “High Hopes” for the kids, and was hired on the spot by the director, Doreen Croft. I was about to embark on my first job as a teacher and my first gig as a professional musician. I was also soon to learn a great deal from the little people in my life. As Oscar Hammerstein told us, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
Almost the very first thing I learned was that, no matter what Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir were telling us at the time, there is la difference between the sexes. Boys are unruly, loud, independent, and generally happy-go-lucky. Girls are businesslike, bossy, and quite sure of themselves on a number of subjects that boys don’t care anything about.
Kids of both sexes enjoy hazing, although even by the age of four or five they’re socialized enough not to be violent. But lord did they tease. Boys teased anybody who couldn’t do the monkey bars or took a spill on a trike. Girls were more indoor teasers: laughing in packs at the artwork of klutzes. Boys liked to hoot at girls’ undergarments, and girls liked to tell boys to wipe their noses. And there’s always one kid who gets teased the most. At Greenmeadow Nursery School, that winter of 1965, the schnook was a short, whiny, snot-nosed, eager boy named Milo. Milo was always It, whether the game was tag or just plain let’s-make-fun-of-somebody.
On sunny mornings I supervised sandbox play, monkey bars, and the swing set. In nasty weather, which was more often than not that winter, I helped out with finger paints and playdough, always careful (as Doreen instructed me) not to “teach” kids how to draw or mold anything representational. Most fun for me was playing songs for the kids, songs the kids could sing, like “Twinkle Twinkle,” “Itsy Bitsy,” “Muffin Man?,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “Swinging on a Star,” “Zippity Doo Dah,” and “Do-Re-Mi.” They couldn’t sing all of those, but Doreen let me sing them anyway, and for the most part they listened. Especially the girls. That’s another difference between the sexes. Girls pay attention when I sing. Boys don’t. It’s always been that way.
Then there were the musical games, which sometimes required my musical talents but often didn’t. Just standing around and keeping the enthusiasm up for such games as London Bridge Is Falling Down, Musical Chairs, and The Farmer in the Dell.
One especially rainy day, when we’d been through all the songs we knew and the kids were too restless for fingerpaint and playdough and wouldn’t sit still for Dr. Seuss, Doreen suggested that we play The Farmer in the Dell. “Everybody get in a great big circle,” she said.
The kids obeyed. They adored Doreen. I did too, for that matter. Researching for this piece, I learned that she died not long ago at the age of eighty-one, after careers as a trailblazing child psychologist, the director of the nursery school, the author of textbooks on children’s activities, and then as an actor on the big and small screens.
She taught them the song, and I accompanied her:
The Farmer in the Dell, the Farmer in the Dell
Hi-Ho the Derry-Oh, the Farmer in the Dell
We rehearsed that until everybody seemed to know the song. The girls learned it quicker, and the boys learned it louder, although some of the girls were pretty loud themselves. Then Doreen taught them the way the game is played, as the Farmer takes the Wife, the Wife takes the Child, the Child takes the Nurse, the Nurse the Cow, the Cow the Dog, the Dog the Cat, the Cat the Rat, the Rat the Cheese. One by one, members of the chorus are chosen by each other to step out of the circle and join the principal players in the center, the Farmer (chosen by lot) chooåsing the Wife, the Wife choosing the Child, and so on until the Rat chooses the Cheese. Then all the players except the cheese go back out and join the circle, and:
The Cheese Stands Alone, the Cheese Stands Alone,
Hi-Ho the Derry-Oh, the Cheese Stands Alone!
The chances of Milo ending up in the middle, chosen by the Rat, who had been chosen by the Cat, and so on back to the Farmer, who had been chosen by lot, were slim to say the least. My guess is that the Rat was a rat indeed, and a tease (I forget of which gender), who wanted to see poor Milo stranded and terrified in the center of all the other kids, who laughed at him and pointed at him and sang, almost shouted at him,
The Cheese Stands Alone, the Cheese Stands Alone,
Hi-Ho the Derry-Oh, the Cheese Stands Alone!
Little Milo was close to breaking, leaking tears and snot, until Doreen took charge and somehow got all those kids, those former farm personnel and bystanders, clapping for Milo, bowing to Milo, smiling their approval of Milo as they slowly, then faster and faster, circled Milo with what passed for love.
And Milo beamed.
After three final choruses, the game broke up, and Doreen put her hand on the star’s head. I know just how wonderful that hand felt.
When I went to nursery school in Cleveland in the mid-1940s, I was four, going on five. I don’t remember much of that experience. I do remember (or remember remembering) that there was a project where each of us was to bring an empty Quaker Oats box (a cardboard cylinder, remember those?) and follow the steps to turn it into an Indian tomtom. I made a mess of mine. I think I was good at playdough, although back then it was clay.
I don’t remember the teacher except in connection with one incident. We kids all sat on little chairs arranged in a semicircle, our attention focused on the teacher, who was reading us a story. I don’t remember which story. Maybe it was Dr. Seuss’s first book, still my favorite, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
“Johnny, stop that.”
Huh? Stop what? Johnny who? Me?
Yes, me, and now everyone in the class, young and old, was staring at me and snickering. What was I doing? I was doing something with my hands. What?
I’m sorry. I don’t remember. Perhaps I’ve suppressed it, but I think more likely it’s because even then I wasn’t told specifically what it was I was doing. But it must have been something pretty special, enough to make the teacher snap the book shut, pull a big bandanna out of somewhere, march across the semicircle, and bundle my hands in bright red cloth, to the hilarity of all my friends.
“You may wear that for the rest of the day,” she told me quietly, but loud enough to fill the room. “So you’ll remember, next time.”
Remember what? I’ll never know. But I do remember keeping to myself for the rest of the day, foregoing tricycles, clay, and Simon Says. I don’t remember being teased for wearing my red flag, but I do remember being ignored. I think I was supposed to feel embarrassed or ashamed, but what I felt was lonely.
Time came for us to sit in the semicircle again, back on our little chairs. Spread out on the floor before us were the poster-sized cards with pictures of the symphony instruments. The music game. My favorite. The teacher wound up the Victrola and put on the record, which played one instrument after another. One by one, in order round the semicircle, kids got up and walked in among the cards and chose the instrument that was playing. If a kid didn’t know the instrument, the next kid got to go. One by one, until it was my turn.
I knew every instrument, and this one was my favorite. The rippling, honey-toned, heavenly harp.
I realized I was the center of attention. How was I supposed to pick up the harp card with my hands bound together?
The teacher stood up and walked toward me, reaching out to untie the bandanna, but I turned my back on her, skirted around her skirts, and picked up the harp card with both bound hands.
The music stopped. The teacher dropped to her knees, untied my scarlet shame, and hugged me with what passed for love.
I think that even then, at the age of five, I understood a few things about this turning point in my life. My teacher had tried to embarrass me. She failed. She embarrassed herself instead. I learned, though it took me decades to realize that I had learned, that nobody can embarrass me. Only I can embarrass me. (And I’ve done plenty of that, but those are other stories to be told another time.)
I would like to think that Milo also learned something from his turning point in the middle of the circle, in the middle of the Dell. He might have learned that being the center of attention can be a good thing, that it’s okay to stand alone if you’re the Cheese, and that whatever affection you receive can pass for love. Unfortunately for Milo, if he learned those lessons, they were ephemeral, and good for one ride only.
Because the next time it rained too hard to play outside, and Doreen asked the children what game they’d like to play inside, Milo grinned and shouted, “I want to play the Farmer in the Dell, and I get to be the Cheese!”
Doreen said, “Milo, there’s no way of knowing who will be the cheese—”
“Me! I’m going to be the Cheese!”
“How about you be the Farmer this time? The Farmer in the Dell?”
“No! I get to be the Cheese!”
Well, Doreen gave in. A Farmer was chosen, and as the game progressed, The Farmer Took the Wife, and the Wife chose Milo to be the Child.
“No! I get to be the Cheese!”
So another Child was chosen, and the Child chose a Nurse, who chose, guess who?
“No! I get to be the Cheese, I said!”
And so on to the inevitable disappointment that we all must face and learn from: that there is no unfairness greater than the absolute fairness of the Universe, which hands out triumph and failure, joy and pain, creation and destruction, in equal and unpredictable measure.
We can’t always get what we want. Mick Jagger told us that.
And so it went. I earned my five dollars a day, my wife and I went to Europe, and that wasn’t quite what we expected either, but that’s another story.
This morning I tried to post a story on my blog, but it appears that Google Blogspot (or whatever it's called) has decided to post me not on my own blog site (which may no longer exist) but as one of many bloggers who post occasional contributions to the blog of Oak Tree Press. I admire Oak Tree Press, and I'm grateful to them for publishing a couple of my books, but I don't want my blog swallowed up by another blog. Even theirs.
You may be able to find my post, if you want to read my story "The Cheese," by googling Oak Tree Press Blog. But that would be for this week only, because I'm taking this change as a message from some wise source telling me it's time to quit blogging.
My schedule is too busy anyway, what with a publishing company to work for and a physical therapy routine that I must attend to.
It's sad saying goodbye to all of you who have read my blog, and especially those of you who have responded and those of you who have contributed 99-word stories every month. I urge you all to keep on writing if you write, and keep on enjoying the art and pleasure of stories wherever you find them.