I stopped walking. My brother, David, paused and turned to me with a questioning look.
“I forgot my PE clothes,” I said, my voice tight with anxiety. Physical education was a major life issue for me in middle school.
Unlike every other Murphy in my family, I was not at all athletic. I attempted to make up for it by being incredibly nervous and tying my entire sense of worth to scholastic achievement.
The reason for my panic over the forgotten gym clothes was that, in my last year of middle school, I was sidled with a PE teacher that had this crazy idea that physical education, like other classes, ought to be graded on actual merit and skill.
After many weeks of volleyball mishaps, racket ball failures, and never successfully completing a pull up in the history of ever, my only chance at scraping together a decent grade in PE rested with “dressing out.” I would have never brought my clothes home in the first place, but this same merit-loving teacher also mandated that we take our gym clothes home every week to wash them–the gall!
“I’ll get them!” David said as he shoved his books at me and started taking off his jacket.
“No, you’ll be late!” I told him, which in my mind was even worse than not dressing out for PE. You could get a detention for being late. But my brother didn’t listen. He handed me his jacket to carry along with his books and then took off running toward our house, which was nearly two miles away.
“Don’t! You’ll get in trouble!” I shouted at him.
My brother looked back and gestured at me to not worry. The gesture was equal parts reassurance and annoyance. I knew it well. It was my brother’s go to move during other terrifying-only-to-me times in our childhood like waiting in line for carnival rides, when kickball teams were being picked, and when circus clowns scanned crowds of children for volunteers.
I stood there and watched him–fearless and running. Two things that I could never be.
My brother looked back before he turned the corner and yelled again. “Don’t worry! Just go to class. I’ll find you,” and then disappeared. There was no stopping him.
Being too chicken to be late, I rushed to Margate Middle: Home of the Spartans. I’d read somewhere that Spartans were denied things like bedding and underwear to keep them mean and hard. And in keeping with the Spartan tradition, the teachers at our school were denied things like basic funding and reasonable class sizes to keep them mean and hard, too. I also didn’t think Mr. Schultz wore underwear. It was just a suspicion, but it felt like it was true in that way that creepy things tended to be true when one was in middle school.
I went to homeroom. Mr. Schultz took attendance. Announcements were made over the loud speaker. The bell rang. I walked to my first period class in a daze of worry. The way-too-desperate-to-be merry blue and gold stripes of our school colors on the walls did not foster any school spirit in me at all.
Swarms of kids shuffled by. I looked around at all the noisy chatting and ruckus and, I thought, “There’s no way David is going to find me. He doesn’t know my class schedule.” I also thought, “With my brother’s grades, he might not even know his class schedule.”
A bag of gym clothes smacked me in the chest and snapped me out of my worried state. My brother had managed to toss them from across the hall through the crowd of kids and using me as sort of a human backboard, had landed it right on top of my three-ring binder. He really was so much more athletic than me.
“David!” I yelled at him as he weaved through the crowd to get to me.
“Quick! Give me my stuff,” he said.
I handed him his books and jacket. I wanted to ask him how he found me, how he ran two miles home and two miles back so fast, but I didn’t get a chance. He grabbed his stuff and then tore down the hall to get to his class.
“Thanks, Dave!” I yelled after him, but he’d ran so fast I doubt he heard me.
I looked into the bag and saw my terry cloth gym shorts and white t-shirt. He did it. My brother saved me. He ran all that way–just for his sister. I headed to class feeling like I was Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Theme music swelled in my mind. Life was touching and beautiful. I ruminated on how my brother and I were like a “real brother and sister.” You know like characters in a Disney Sunday movie. In my mind I’d been Touched By an Angel and my brother was just like John Boy from the Waltons.
I vowed to do something really awesome for David to thank him, but I didn’t see him on the walk home after school. Not seeing him after school wasn’t unusual. My brother and I lead different kind of school lives. I was kind of a bookish kid, who participated in lots of extra-curricular activities, and my brother had friends.
Somehow I never get around to thanking him for it, and my brother never brought it up. I never forgot it. I’d think about every time he and I would fight about something. I’d remember he was my brother. The kind of brother who would risk being late to school and run miles just to help me. I’d always vow to talk to him about it, but my brother had that social life, and it was kind of corny thing to bring up as teenagers.
I finally got around to thanking David for it when we were older–like out of school older during one of those “remember that time” kind of conversations you can only have when you’re a grown up.
Except when I told my brother this story of his incredible brotherliness he seemed unimpressed. He had no recollection of that day. I attempted to get him to remember the day and remind him this moment–this incredible brother-sister moment that apparently only I had experienced from our childhood.
When I was done, he said, “Big deal.”
I couldn’t believe it. He’d done this thing–this incredible thing for me and that’s all he had to say about it. But the truth was we were real brother and sister. There are heroes in the Disney-Sunday-movie moments of my life. And in this story, whether he remembers it or not, my brother is the hero for two reasons: 1) Because he ran all that way just to get me my gym clothes and 2) Because, to him, it was no big deal.