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June 22, 2011 | 2:00 p.m. CST
I know my reputation as a klutz precedes me. Surely I’m not the only one who wishes to bury the more embarrassing episodes of my youth, but there is one story I just can’t shake.
I took a tumble in 2002 that has become mythologized both for the mental image it conjures and the mere absurdity of its circumstances.
I was a seventh-grader, awkward and uncomfortable in the body I inhabited. My glasses, thick enough to start fires, and gangly frame signaled that I was wholly without athletic gifts. Not a day went by that I didn’t trip on a cord, rug or unassuming staircase. I wore too much eye shadow, not enough deodorant and spent most of my time with my nose in a book. My best friends were the band nerds and the gifted kids, but I was unfazed by my social status. You won’t find a picture that doesn’t feature an ear-to-ear smile, despite the metal mouth that plagued my middle school days.
Unlike the cool kids, I took the bus to and from school. I carried a 40-pound backpack, which was almost enough to send me toppling backward. Each day I lugged my clarinet home to torture my beagle with my rudimentary playing talents.
The day of my epic fall was ordinary by all appearances. I rode the bus home and quietly looked through the window as I simmered over typical teen angst issues: Does he like me? I wonder if I can have a sleepover this weekend. What’s on Oprah today?
As the bus rolled to a stop at the bottom of my street, I gathered up my stuff and moved toward the door; I was the last one to exit my stop. I attempted to descend the steps, and I missed the first, grazed the second and flew forward because contact with the third just wasn’t going to happen.
My left foot hit the ground first, and my ankle rolled out while my body attempted to compensate with a landing on my right foot. Incidentally, my right ankle also rolled, and I landed face-first in (what was God’s only grace on that day) the plush, suburban grass. Beneath the crushing weight of the aforementioned backpack, I quickly realized I had become blind. I managed to reinstate my glasses to their rightful place just in time to see the school bus drive away. The other kids at my stop were long gone. Oh no, I’m fine. Really, go on without me.
Per usual, the first step to recovery was to gauge the damage. My faulty clarinet case had sprung open upon impact, releasing its five pieces along the sidewalk. On hands and knees, I worked to retrieve my mouthpiece and, more notably, my dignity. Having assured myself that all was collected, I attempted to stand. Weak ankles have plighted me my entire life, but a double sprain rendered walking the hundred yards to my house almost impossible.
In a move that took all the strength my tiny body could muster, I rose on one leg, then both. Looking like what could only be described as a less rhythmic, more heavily burdened version of the zombies from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” I hobbled home, alternating which leg I favored and wincing with each footfall.
I’m sure only minutes passed, but that 100-yard trek seemed like an eternity. I paused at the mailbox, the halfway point, mindful that no neighbors were watching. For all I know, they’d already called the kids indoors and shut the blinds because “That Hildebrandt girl was up to no good again.”
The moment I entered the garage, I crumbled as I dropped my stuff in the doorway. By the time I managed to crawl onto the family couch, the tears were streaming down my face as I tried to assuage my self-pity. I didn’t even care what was on Oprah anymore. My parents arrived home an hour later to find me dozing on the couch, drained. I recounted my afternoon, and though they tried to be supportive, I know they were stifling giggles. With two ace bandages, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food and my first mental health day, I was back in business and counting down the hours before my next big fall.
But no fall has been as momentous as that one. Nine years later, I still can’t live it down. The boy sitting in the back of the bus remembered the episode as clear as day at our high school graduation. My high school friends love to tell it at every gathering; I fully expect a reenactment at our 25th reunion. Even my college friends think it’s hysterical. Everyone has an “Annie-falling-off-the-bus" impression, and it still trumps every other embarrassing middle school story.
Yep, I took a tumble in 2002. Although it is possibly the most glorious fall of my life, it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Like always, I reclaim my dignity, giggle nervously as I brush off my knees and move on with life.