She Chose Down
I used to be a middle school science teacher, and one of my favorite kids — let’s call him Ryan — was sensitive. I love sensitive kids because they know exactly what time it is. I marched his class around outdoors a lot and Ryan hated it: the bugs, the branches, the grass scraping against his pants, the cold, the hot, the tickly wind, everything. I get it—the outdoors can be overwhelming, but I took him outside everyday for an entire school year, mostly because I’m lazy and it killed time, but also I like being outside and I think it’s good for 12 year olds.
Anyway, Ryan began to tolerate the outdoors with more equanimity over the months I was his science teacher, until the day he grabbed a stinkhorn mushroom, mistaking it for a bamboo shoot. For those of you unfamiliar with the stinkhorn, you are fortunate in that you might yet have lived your entire, blessed life without casting around in your mind for a metaphor to describe an odor that can only be likened to the semen of a creature from the only horror movie you wish you’d never seen. Truly.
Once Ryan realized what had happened, he became upset in the way only a middle schooler who has Forgotten Himself can be upset. Ryan made a scene, and so I took him to my office after he’d washed his hands a dozen times and still poked his fingers under my nose, insisting I smell what he could still smell. I let him help me file some papers and read a National Geographic about robots. Soon he started making face shapes with his hands from that scene in the movie Labyrinth (starts minute 2:06) in which Sarah, a teenaged girl trying to save her baby brother from David Bowie and his codpiece by solving a glittery, boobytrapped stone labyrinth, is rescued from falling down a well by a bunch of creepy talking hands. They give her the choice between hauling her back up to the top and continuing in the rigged labyrinth, or letting her down to the bottom of the well. The hands are impatient “Up or Down?” they want to know. And when she chooses down, they jeer at her: SHE CHOSE DOWN.
Ryan was completely absorbed in his hand puppets for a few minutes — he had settled down now. Then, still looking at his hands, he said, “You know in Labyrinth when Sarah is caught by the Helping Hands? Why did she choose down?”
“Well,” I said, “Doesn’t she say it’s because she was pointed that way anyway?”
“That’s a dumb reason,” Ryan said.
And I thought about how much life this kid had to live, and how the shock of adulthood is the frequency with which we find ourselves in these situations: Up or Down?
And sometimes — often, in fact — we choose down. I don’t know why either.