Autobiographic notes: Light-hearted childhood scenes, 1969 to mid-1970s

© February 2017 Paul Cooijmans

The magic slate

When I was four years old I had a magic slate; a flat cardboard thing with a plastic screen, on which one could draw or write with a pointy object. By pulling a wiper, the little screen could be cleaned again for repeated use.

Then, the hated day came: the first day in kindergarten. I knew I would lose my freedom for years to come. Life would not be the same again. I would be forced, obliged, to spent hours daily there, and felt this as an injustice. No one had the right to claim my time and attention, was my conviction.

My mother advised me to take the magic slate with me, so that I could use it in case we would learn to write. In the morning she took me to kindergarten on the back of her bicycle. It was a low, mean, longitudinal building with a large aviary next to it wherein happily chirping birds were held captive. Just like I in that building, I thought. We entered, joining a herd of mothers with children. I had the magic slate in my trouser pocket.

A Miss Nelly told us always to put on overshoes before coming into the classroom. A bin full of overshoes stood outside the door. Under no circumstance should we enter the room without them, and upon leaving we were to take them off and put them into the bin again. I remember forgetting that once, in a rush because it was raining hard and my mother waiting in the car. Only after coming home we saw I still had the things on. The next time I went to kindergarten I secretly smuggled them in and put them on as if I had just got them out of the bin. No one noticed, so I think I got away with it.

Miss Nelly drove me into a room with some twenty infants. We were positioned at a table full of toys and ordered to commence playing. I was at a complete loss as to what to do, and toyed around with my magic slate. The biggest and most loud-mouthed boys grabbed hands full of construction materials — it looked like Lego — and started making lorries, trains, and race cars. I was unhappy and figured that the good life was over for good; from now on I would suffer bitterly. After minutes, the teacher forced me to play with something. It was forbidden to sit still.

During luch break, at home, I assured my mother — my father was at work — I was not going back to that place. Although I meant it, it was not taken seriously. She said that all boys have to go to school because otherwise they stay stupid. That baffled me; who was stupid here? I, or those infants crawling over the floor all day saying toot toot?

The worst was still to come though; that evening when I came home after my first kindergarten day, the magic slate was missing. I must have lost it at school. I never found it back.

Paul Cooijmans in the latter days of kindergarten.
Paul Cooijmans in the latter days of kindergarten.

The rabbit

In those kindergarten days, a rabbit lived in a cage in our backyard. One day the rabbit sadly died, I think it was shortly before Christmas. The next morning, walking to school, I met a girl from my class. Kindergarten was mixed then, in that boys and girls were kept together in a classroom. At age six you would go to a primary school for your specific sex; there were separate schools for boys and for girls. This would change in the year that I went to primary school though; I was in the first mixed primary school class.

But to return to the rabbit story: "My rabbit is dead", I told the girl.

"What do I care?!" she bluntly replied, and walked away. Cutting, full of contempt, indignant that I had dared bother her with such a banality.

I was shocked at this heartlessness, and the hatred and aggression in her demeanour.

Years later I thought how sad it was that one so young was so dulled, cold, and hard already.

Again later I understood that her attitude and response were normal, representative for humans at large, and that my perception of that behaviour was a peculiarity of mine, an intolerance, a sensitivity even.

What remains is the question, how much too good am I for this world, being oversensitive to such?

How much too good?

To the moon

After the first humans had landed on the moon, a laundry detergent company issued a gramophone record called Bim, Bam, Bom and the little man on the moon, containing a kind of radio play in which a little moon man, looking like a half cheese on legs, accidentally ended up on Earth with a returning moon flight. The three spry drummers Bim, Bam, and Bom helped Manus the moon man back home by getting him on the next Apollo flight as a stowaway. Of course, this went not without trouble and adventure. My mother obtained this record with a box of detergent, and I listened to it with interest.

One day in kindergarten, someone brought a copy of the record to school, and we played it in the gymnastics hall. When side A had finished and the record was being turned over, Miss Nelly used the pause to talk with us about what was going on and where Bim, Bam, Bom and the little moon man presently were. While nothing spectacular took place, this event does illustrate how current events were incorporated in the kindergarten curriculum.

Bim, Bam, Bom and the little moon man.
Bim, Bam, Bom and the little moon man.

The knife and the sword

One day I was walking to kindergarten on my own. It was a good six hundred metres, and when almost halfway I was joined by Popi, a boy from my class. He led us over a narrow path between houses by way of shortcut. There, we found a knife lying on the ground. We took it with us to school and showed it to Miss Nelly. She wrapped it in an old newspaper and put it away until school ended. Then she gave it to Popi to take home. I have no information as to what happened to the knife after that.

In the same period, I got a large sword to play with; it was made of plastic but looked like metal. Popi, who lived in my street, liked the sword, but said he had a much longer one at home. "Shall I get my long sword? Then we can fight like knights!" he said, repeatedly emphasizing that it concerned a really long sword. Some minutes later he was back with the weapon. It looked disappointingly short and small to me, barely half the length of my own. But he maintained it was much longer than mine, and put the sword's handle in the open end of the sheath, so that the sheath and sword combined were about almost as long as my sword. By cunningly moving his sword up and down longitudinally while holding it next to mine he made his appear longer. "Have you ever seen such a long sword?" he proudly asked, and attempted to start a fight, which went not so well because his sword was coming loose from the sheath all the time.

"You know what? I will exchange my long sword for that pathetic short one of yours. Then you will a have really long sword! Your mother will be pleased when she sees what a long sword you have! Come on, let me have that short thing, that is good enough for me. Look, now you have a really long sword!" While speaking he had taken my sword and pushed his one in my hand. "Try it! You have never had such a long sword before, have you?" he said while retreating with my sword. "I have to go home and eat now, but when I am back we will fight some more!"

I have not seen that sword back. My mother was angry when she found out I had traded away the new sword. She even wanted me to get it back, but, young as I was, I felt that one should not challenge or undo a done deal. Only after years it dawned to me that I had been robbed in a mean, vicious way. And it would take decades for me to see that such intrinsically evil individuals seek out exactly the rare perfectly good, honest, open specimens like I because they are the easiest to take advantage of. For who is one hundred percent good expects no evil from others, due to the phenomenon of projection. Ill doers, on the other hand, are ill deemers and therefore on guard.

I still regret the loss of the long sword. And it makes me vomit that one so young — we were about five years old — can be so conniving, so calculating, so purposely treacherous. I will never accept such inferiors as belonging to the same species as I.

Little cupboards filled with clay

A telling example of my way of apprehending the world took place in kindergarten: The teacher asked us to make a drawing of little cupboards filled with clay. I set myself to it, although drawing was not my strongest side. When all were ready, our drawings were compared, and to my utter astonishment I was the only one who had got it right, who had actually drawn little cupboards filled with clay! All the other kindergarteners had, by some bizarre misunderstanding, drawn a man; a big black man, with boxing gloves on.

For background information, it may be good to mention here that the Netherlandic for "little cupboards filled with clay" sounds almost exactly like "Cassius Clay", the name then still being used for Muhammed Ali, who, as it happens, had defended his world championship title the night before.

The log

Once in kindergarten we had a sports day with games, and all parents and other relatives were invited by way of audience. My favourite game involved rolling a log — a part of a tree trunk — over a course as fast as possible. In training sessions for this event I had displayed exceptional skill, and effortlessly left all other infants light years behind me.

How different it would go.

When we assumed our positions and the starting gun sounded, it became apparent that, of all available logs, I had been given the one with a large knot on it; a protuberance that kept it from rolling forward in an even remotely straight line. After each revolution of the log, I had to stop and lift or shove the heavy trunk to get it back in the right direction. Naturally, I lost ground rapidly, and when I finished last at considerable distance it seemed to the unsuspecting public as if I was clumsy and slow. Although the best in terms of ability, a trivial inequality had prevented me from applying that talent.

Thirty-one years later I recalled this event in an interview; an inattentive reader reacted and said to be shocked by my memory of the unfair race: "It shows that high intelligence is not always accompanied by mental maturity". I, in turn, was shocked by the amount of misunderstanding, the narrowness of mind. For this person must have thought I was commemorating the story out of still persisting frustration, rather than recognizing its being presented as a brilliant analogy of life. The lesson from that insultingly stupid response is that a paragraph such as one is presently reading is apparently required, at least for some.

The school doctor

In the years of kindergarten and, I think, early primary school, we had to be seen by the school doctor regularly. My mother, or perhaps a sister sometimes, took me to the pertinent building, a few hundred metres from where kindergarten then was. What I mainly remember from those visits is that the school doctor told me to hold the back of my hand against my mouth and blow, while he was holding my testicles in one hand and a necklace with balls of different sizes in the other. Meanwhile he was talking to my mother, who stood behind me. I always understood that something was not quite right, but it concerned nothing to worry about. It never came right.

Later, when I was 19 and went to the doctor with recurring pain in the groin area that I had had for years, it was finally revealed to me that one of the testicles was not in its proper place and the scrotum had not fully developed on that side. Not that this doctor had any knowledge of the findings of the school doctor; he just examined me and told me this, and I reckoned that it was what the school doctor had been talking about long ago.

Cooijmans Paul!

In primary school, we were visited twice yearly with the school dentist bus. Treatment was brutal and consisted invariably of filling one or more teeth with mercury amalgam. I do not believe they ever used anaesthetic. After a few years, the school dentist said my teeth were so bad that they could not help me any more, and referred me to a regular dentist to have the worst molars filled. "What do they mean, fill? The moonlighters… Those are way beyond filling!" the new dentist grunted, and pulled four molars straight away. A decade later, when I began to get wisdom teeth, he left those in place, saying there was plenty of room for them, with the four molars removed.

But to get back to the school dentist: When it was our turn, about four of us at a time would be sent from the classroom to the bus. There, you had to wait until your name was called. On one occasion when I sat there, the assistant shouted, "Cooijmans Paul! Cooijmans Paul! Is Cooijmans Paul here?" I looked at the others waiting, but no one stood up. The assistant came closer and asked one of us, "Are you Cooijmans Paul?" The good patient denied. Then the assistant looked at me and asked, "And you? What is your name?"

"Paul Cooijmans", I said.

"Well then stand up and come along!" she barked, and pulled me up and to the school dentist. To this day, I wonder where that Cooijmans Paul went she was looking for. I hope it has come right with his teeth in the end.

Sharing

"Shall we share our money for the fair? If we put all we have together every day we will have twice as much between us!" Comb proposed. I agreed. I had never shared before, so it seemed like an exciting new experience to me.

We looked what we had. I had nine guilders and fifty cents, and Comb had fifty cents. "Yes, that is how sharing goes", he said. "One day you have a bit more, and the other day I. But together we have more than alone!"

We went to the fair. Comb suggested to spend the ten guilders on twelve bumper car tokens. That was cheaper than buying one at a time for a guilder apiece. That way, our money would last longer, said he. I thought so too. Comb volunteered to go buy the tokens. It mattered not which one of us did that, did it? As soon as he had them, he whistled with his fingers and beckoned a number of other boys over. Quickly he shared the tokens between them. And, fair is fair, I got one too.

We all got in the bumper cars at once, and in minutes the twelve tokens were gone. Comb was suddenly gone too. I have not seen him back in the remaining days of the fair.

Running

In the latter days of primary school, I was the fastest runner. This resulted not necessarily in victory when we had to run to the other side of the field or hall in gymnastic class, though. Comb could not bear that I was faster than he. At the start, he would always stand next to me and push me back with his elbow. While running, he kept me behind him with his pushing and pulling and knocking, so that I could not pass and he would win. In the event that I won nevertheless, he would kick me to pieces during the break or after school, for he was the fastest and the strongest he said, and I was to stay behind him at all times.

Thus I learnt that the best are not always allowed to win, and that winners are not always the best, and that this is so because the bad are permitted to have their way. I have thought of a solution to that; what if we prevented the bad from doing their wrongful deeds? Would it not all go fairer in the world then? And why am I the only one who can think of that?

The bicycle race

When I was twelve, I got a new bicycle. In a nearby street I met a group of boys, one of whom challenged me for a race to the end of the street and back. I accepted, to the others' hilarity, since the rider in question — Woodenshoe — had a real racing bicycle and belonged to a cycling club, so was a trained athlete.

Notwithstanding, I acquired a firm lead soon after the start; Woodenshoe, however, called out to his friends that he was letting me go deliberately to pass me supremely later. I rode on and went through a slight bend in the street, after which one lost sight of me. A few hectometres further, the street ended, and I turned around.

To my dismay I saw Woodenshoe turn around as well; not at the end of the street as we had agreed though. He had only ridden just beyond the bend until he was out of his friends' sight, and now made a long nose at me and rode the remaining hectometre or so to the finish with two hundred metres stolen lead. Of course, this fraud ended the race for me, and I returned to tell the other boys of Woodenshoe's shameful behaviour.

Shockingly, I was not believed; one furiously called me a bad loser, and I was laughed at and physically attacked so that I had to make an escape (in which I succeeded because, in actuality, I was the fastest after all and no one could keep up with me). Once more, I experienced that the best are not always allowed to win, and the winners are not always the best, and that this is so because the bad are permitted to have their way.