word munchers, a memoir

almost twenty years later, i can still remember the mortifying half-standing, half-crouching stance my seven year-old body froze in, hovering helplessly above that orange plastic chair.  most video game devotees can identify a vague trend of slowly exchanging their social lives for the immersive captivity of gaming, but i can pinpoint the exact moment i branded myself a social outcast in pursuit of the top score.

third grade should've been the best year for me.  sure, i was still not white or popular, and my mom did still dress me in those hideous purple corduroy pants from china that made me look like i was wearing a giant crown royal bag, but i was slowly starting to fit in.  i had a great teacher- mrs. king, who wore cheerful reindeer sweaters and was a top-notch storyteller.  i had these awesome new white shorts with pink pockets on the back.  best of all, i had not just one, but two very cute boys in my class who vacillated daily for the #1 spot in my neverending list of crushes.  

but that third grade classroom also came with a shiny row of macintosh computers that commanded my undivided attention above all else.  here were the promises of entire afternoons spent creating artistic masterpieces in kidpix, writing the next great american novel in storybook weaver, or else tracking down that elusive minx carmen sandiego.  i embarked on dozens of failed expeditions down the amazon trail, and routinely died of dysentery on the oregon trail.  but nothing captivated my devotion as much as a simple, grid-based educational game featuring a poorly illustrated green frog creature- word munchers.

the objective was simple- guide your deformed little muncher frog across a grid of squares, consuming only the words that satisfied the grammatical criteria in each level while avoiding deadly troggle monsters.  enemy movements accelerated and time limits decreased as the game ramped up in difficulty.  there was a frenetic, addictive pace achieved at the highest levels that had me constantly coming back to munch more adjectives.  nevermind that it was secretly an english lesson masquerading as a knock-off version of pacman, i was an addict to the muncher life.  

that hapless wednesday afternoon brought heavy rainclouds, and as a result of the gloomy weather, the students of washington elementary were confined to indoor recess.  my peers weren't as thrilled about this; the socially well-adjusted citizens of mrs. king's classroom looked forward to the playground.  for them, it held promises of kickball games, freeze tag, rambunctious afternoons of trading beanie babies.  for me, a girl so dismally underperforming in gym class that the coach banished me from games so i could read logic puzzles instead, indoor recess was mecca.  thirty whole minutes at any computer i was fast enough to commandeer, thirty whole minutes to munch all the adverbs.  and that fateful rainy afternoon, i was determined to not just improve my grammar, but to achieve the very highest word muncher score yet.

there was only one catch to my plan- indoor recess bred boredom, and boredom inevitably meant high demand for computer games.  once i had put on an uncharacteristic burst of speed to lay claim to my chosen macintosh, i knew i had to stay put to defend my territory.  a vacated seat, no matter how briefly unattended, meant giving up the computer for the remainder of recess.  so i stayed firmly planted in that orange chair, despite the threat of increasing pressure in my bladder.  if i gave in to the call of nature, my word munchers quest would've been forfeit.  i had reached level 16, a hitherto unknown achievement that sent me frantically scrabbling across the grid in search of words with / o͝o / sounds.  i couldn't just quit, couldn't just give up this newly plumbed depth of munching.  not until i saw the high score.  i kept my legs crossed, squeezed so closely they might as well have been superglued together.  i wanted to be in that word munchers hall of fame so badly, as if seeing my name emblazoned across the screen in pixelated font would change me in some way.  i was seven years old, and my crowning achievement would be spelled out by a little green frog thing.  i would get the top score or die trying.

and though every humiliating detail is as clear and nuanced as if i have been living the experience groundhog day-style for the past twenty years, i still can't remember if i truly did attain the high score or not.  whether it was from the triumph of accomplishment or the resignation to the unbearable need for a toilet,  i finally stood up.

before i had even fully risen from that uncomfortable plastic chair, my bladder gave up.  i froze, paralyzed by my own incredulity.  this wasn't happening, this couldn't be happening.  i wasn't an infant, i was a grown-up third grader wearing very cool white shorts, crouching in the presence of two boys i routinely fantasized about marrying, surrounded  by all of my classmates.  i was a word munchers champion.  i couldn't possibly be urinating on myself.

a mannish girl with broad, tanned shoulders named emily noticed first.  pointing at me, she shouted in disgust, "are you peeing?"  the next five seconds caused a ripple of heads turning from every inch of the classroom.  my crushes stared.  i knew at once what my sunday school teachers always warned us about; this was hell, and i was almost certainly dead and suffering the cruelest eternal punishment.  total abject humilation.  the laughter rolled in like a crushing wave, and my eyes filled with tears as if my body couldn't wait to create more embarassing liquid.  the boy at the computer to my left, eric, let out a horsey, braying laugh and i yelled "it's not funny!" at him before tearing out of the classroom as fast as my legs could carry me.  

mrs. king must have called my parents to come to the school to bring a change of clothes for me.  i cried in the girls' restroom, wishing i could take up residence in the stall and live there until my third grade class graduated.  i knew i'd have to explain to my teacher, to my parents, and to my fellow classmates what had happened.  i knew i had to come up with a pitiable, persuasive circumstance that would shame the onlookers into feeling sorry for me instead of disgusted and uproariously amused.  and most importantly, i would never explain my word munchers frenzy.  what if mrs. king decided i was not responsible enough to ever play computer games in her classroom again?  what would my parents think if i told them i peed myself in a quest for grammar?

i would have to invent a medical condition.  i would tell everyone that my stomach felt like a washing machine, and i had no awareness or control of my bladder whatsoever.  this plan brought me back into focus, gave me resolve to finally vacate the protection of my restroom stall.  i was a seven year-old with a quest again- a goal to perpetuate a lie to shirk responsibility for my poor decision.  i washed my legs with wet masses of paper towels, mopped up my no-longer-awesome white shorts to the best of my ability, and stepped back out into the hallway.

 my mother was there to meet me.  she brought the horrible purple corduroy pants.