Neighbors. I think the first time I really learned about this concept was in grade school when I received my teacher’s daily warning, “Michael, no talking to your neighbors.” I looked around and figured my neighbors were probably the kids sitting at the desks all around me who I could irritate. “Ahhh,” I thought, “my first neighborhood.”
I quickly discovered I could not exercise any control over who my neighbors were in class. I had to deal with the neighbor to the left who always borrowed stuff, the neighbor to the right whose desk resembled a landfill, the neighbor in back of me who always needed the teacher’s directions repeated, and the neighbor in front of me who wore pigtails that always cried out, “Pull me!”
Now that I look back, I must admit I also was a borrower and landfiller and non-payer of attention. As for the pigtails, I managed to deftly remove their rubber bands and shoot them with amazing accuracy. My pint-sized neighbors called me “The Rubber Bandit” and my teacher emphatically declared me incorrigible, which at the time I thought was a compliment that meant I was a really good shot.
Little did I realize my first schoolroom neighborhood would serve as a model of the neighborhoods I would live in for the rest of my life. There would always be borrowers and there would always be landfillers and there would always be flakey non-payers of attention. As for the symbolic pigtails of the neighborhood, I have no idea how that would translate, except that maybe I would still be incorrigible.
But over the years I have learned a lot about being a good neighbor. Much like in my classroom, I am surrounded by a refreshing variety of people. I have learned tolerance and respect and love. That and how important it is to put your name on the tools you lend out.
Sure, there are times when our neighborhoodship is tested. Like the time our next-door neighbors complained that some branches of our beautiful redbud tree with the gorgeous heart-shaped leaves happened to slightly hang over their driveway.
Evidently Bob and Pam (names have not been changed to not protect the guilty) felt the caress of a singular verdant frond of Miss Redbud upon the roof of their used Toyota pseudo-SUV would somehow damage it. Yes, they would have us hack the snot out of a stunningly lush living entity all because a tenderly graceful part of it delicately dangles over their property line and by happenstance embraces their poser vehicle. Geesh.
I told my wife this was like a scene out of the movie “The ‘Burbs” where Tom Hanks and his friends try to protect the neighborhood from the evil Klopek family. I felt it was time to get out the night vision goggles and spring into action.
However, before I could vault over their fence that night and start digging in their yard searching for human femur bones that I truly suspected were buried there, my wife calmly trimmed the tree and defused the crisis.
I guess I may have overreacted a bit. Perhaps our neighbors aren’t the ecological destroying, bone-burying malevolent villains I thought they were. My bad.
• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. The writer wants you to know that Bob and Pam are really great neighbors. He just wanted to see if he could write crabby. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.