With our recent move has come the transition for my children into a new school system. Fortunately we have found ourselves in what appears to be a very active school and district. This is nice because even though a large part of our family is within a relatively easy drive, we don’t really know anyone in our new town yet. So, logically, we have tried to take advantage of all the program opportunities to get out there, meet some folks, and insure that our boys don’t fall into an antisocial stupor.
It’s good for them to get out there. But what it means for me, is that just the other night, I experienced my first elementary school Skate Night. Actually I should clarify that it was my first as a parent. I well remember the skate nights of my own elementary days. My home town had a very nice (I didn’t appreciate how nice at the time) roller skating rink and all of the grade schools in the area participated in a monthly skate night to raise money for the school.
For those of you whose schools had similar events, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it was THE event around which the entire elementary social structure was based. As the night approached a flurry of notes (mostly the kind that ask you to check a box) made the rounds through classrooms, deals were made and broken in the dark corners of the lunch room, and desperate girls and boys volleyed for social position around the single most important question: Who would couple up for the moonlight skate at the end of the night?
It was a magical event. A time when a geeky nobody could show up in all the right clothes (tight-rolled Guess jeans and a Hypercolor shirt), just the right moves (you can skate backwards…on purpose?!), and a pocket full of cash to blow on the juke box and a plate of nachos to share with that someone special who against all odds, might venture out onto the floor with you. The mighty could tumble (literally) and heroes could rise on Skate Night.
Fortunately my boys are still in kindergarten and second grade so they aren’t into all the drama just yet, but I know it looms on their horizons. As I walked into the roller rink, I expected to be flooded with memories (both good and bad) of Skate Nights from my past, but it didn’t happen. I mean, the drama was certainly playing out just as I remembered it, and I can’t deny that I smiled as I watched the groups of fifth-grade boys and fifth-grade girls shuffle around one another in a dance that I’m pretty sure my generation choreographed.
But three much bigger memories flashed through my mind as I helped my boys lace up their skates:
1. A neighbor from a few years back took his children for their first time roller-skating. He returned home two days later after surgery to repair his torn patellar tendon. A few months later he could walk again.
2. A few months ago a friend from my college days took her children for their first time roller-skating. After surgery on her broken ankle and a lot of painful therapy, she is more or less walking again.
3. My own mother, having made it through first Skate Nights with three children already, accompanied her youngest daughter onto the floor and was immediately involved in a collision that resulted in a badly sprained wrist. She enrolled me in lessons and never skated again.
Although it always seems like a pretty good idea at the time, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that strapping wheels to our feet has not always worked out so well for humankind. And I’m guessing that the first person to ever have his name associated with the roller skate, probably wished he’d never tried it.
John Joseph Merlin (born in Belgium in 1735) was a very talented inventor. He first made a name for himself as maker of clocks and other mathematical instruments in France. Later he would continue his successful career in London where he would build wheel chairs, invent a barrel organ, improve upon many existing stringed instruments, and design simple robots that inspired Charles Babbage (whose invention became the forerunner of the modern computer) when Babbage was just a young boy.
But for all of his successes, John Joseph Merlin’s name is most often remembered as the man who in 1760 literally crashed his way into the London social scene on a pair of roller skates of his own invention.
An accomplished violinist, Merlin had been invited to play at a masquerade ball in London. In order to make a memorable entrance (I mean, lots of people can probably play the violin, right?), Merlin strapped a line of metal wheels onto his boots and rolled his way into the ballroom, straight at the very large, very expensive mirror that adorned one wall, and remembered that he had forgotten to install brakes.
The mirror crashed around him causing serious injury to Merlin, his violin, and to the roller-skating industry, which, after that stunt, didn’t gain much traction (if that’s even possible) until the early 1900s and didn’t ascend to the very height of fashion until the Disco Era.
I am happy to report that I fared better than did my neighbor, my friend, my mother, and John Joseph Merlin. I didn’t break any bones and neither did the boys. Though I am also thankful that the little one thought strapping wheels to one’s feet turned out to be a pretty stupid idea and he’s not anxious to do it again.
If my older son felt the same way, he didn’t say so. He came home tired and maybe a little battered and bruised, but there was a strange gleam in his eye, like maybe he had just begun to glimpse the social possibilities of Skate Night and I’m betting he’s not going to want to miss out. Maybe I should get him enrolled in some lessons.