Adoption Series: Milk money

Ted Leonhardt
5 min readOct 22, 2023

Mrs. Hays slipped on the wet porch step. The milk money basket hit the asphalt, spewing nickels, dimes, pennies, and YES, a few quarters across the playground.

Gary and I didn’t hesitate. A few quick steps and down on hands and knees to gather the still rolling coins as fast as we can, not precisely thinking what was next.

Mrs. Hays, our second-grade teacher, righting herself from the fall, might have thought we’d come to her aid.

Gary looked at me. I looked at Gray, knowing, not knowing, but feeling the rush of opportunity. And we went for it. Pockets so heavy, so full, I could feel the pressure on my thighs as we ran. Across the gray schoolyard tarmac, down the dirt bank, where grass struggled, and onto the sidewalk. Now into the freedom run driven by the sheer exhilaration of the moment. Breaking away, crossing the street now at full tilt, down the block, matching each other stride for stride, alive with the madness of it all.

And into the corner store, out of breath, giggling with our power, digging the coins from pockets and spreading them out on the grocer’s counter.

“Shouldn’t you boys be in school.” Said as he counted the change. Without answering, we picked flavored candied wax mustaches, chocolate bars, and hard candies from his shelves. He, happy to have a sale, even though it must have been obvious we were a couple of truant second graders, didn’t pursue his line of thought.

Decades later, over half a century later, as I write, I wish I’d known long ago that trauma in childhood often results in episodes of acting out. At the time, I could not think thoroughly through consequences before acting and struggled with self-regulation. I’m sure I was viewed as unpredictable, often volatile, and maybe extreme.

Anyway, I do remember Gary and I, hands full, exiting the store to sit on the sidewalk and lean on a stone wall, warmed by the midday sun, to consume our score. Loving every bite. Laughing at our faces with the black wax mustaches. Knowing there’d be hell to pay. Knowing the exhilaration, the moment of freedom, the breaking away, the absolute disregard of authority, if only for a moment, was worth what we both knew we faced back at school and most likely at home.

Knowing we had to go back but still drawn by our freedom, we dawdled a bit and played in the woods on a vacant lot. But the fun was gone now. Our hearts not in it. Our spirits down despite, or maybe because of, the sugar rush we’d felt. Not knowing the time but feeling the time to return had come, we walked slowly up the block towards school to be met by the principal’s secretary. She must have been sent to find us.

Then, what seemed an endless sit in the big wooden chairs, feet not touching the floor, outside the door to the principal’s office, studying the fine grain fir floor, hearing her on the phone to Gary’s mother and Mrs. McCoubrey, the woman I was boarding with at the time. Then, down to the stock room for the spanking with the wooden paddle, we knew was required.

It hurt. And to my shame, I cried. But with each blow, I knew even with the pain and the tears, I’d done something important that day. I’d felt the pure thrill and exhilaration of having complete control of my own actions in the face of impossible domination. I vowed to find a way to escape captivity when I could.

Mrs. Hays wasn’t a bad second-grade teacher. Once, she’d praised me for my drawing of Columbus’s ships, giving me the pleasurable warm glow of success for my artistic skill. I’ve often thought her praise was the first step into my creative career.

Months before Gary and I made our mad milk run, another incident laid a base deep within me for rebellion that day.

You see, my dad didn’t think I could reliably carry the money to school each day to pay for the milk at lunch. So, he carefully calculated the costs for a school year of milk money and wrote a check for the total amount. I was to hand in the check, which would solve the problem for the entire year.

You can guess what happened. At lunchtime on the first day of second grade, I stood in the milk line with all the other second graders. Waiting with some fear, I’m sure, for the moment when I’d had to hand my paper check to the sixth grader who was handling the cash and passing out the milk. I knew it was an impossible situation with no way out. When my turn came, I offered up the paper check, which was rejected as expected. Cash in the proper amount was required, of course.

Now, I faced a dilemma between the school’s rejection of Dad’s check and the terror of facing him having failed once again in an essential task; I naturally chose the seemingly easy way out. On the way home that day, I stopped in a wooded lot. Tearing that check into the smallest bits I could manage and scattering them into the underbrush. No one the wiser, I relaxed.

Naturally, I knew nothing of balancing checking accounts and monthly statements. As a methodical type, Dad kept on top of money details with religious vigor.

Dad wasn’t the kind of man who could say: “Oh silly me, I should have realized that a sixth grader who hands out the milk after getting the cash would not know what to do with a check. I’m sorry for putting you through this, Teddy.” No, Dad was the kind of man that decided how things should be. And if it didn’t go the way he planned, anger was the result.

When Dad’s checking statement arrived at the end of the month, he asked me about the check. A second month and maybe a third passed before I was forced to confess.

So, when Mrs. Hays dropped the milk money, I don’t know what my buddy Gary was thinking, but I was primed for action. Primed to break free, if only for an afternoon. I expect it was payback time for that fucking check and the attitude behind it; I had to suffer.

I was inspired to write this by a psychodrama hosted by Bob and Marianne Shapiro, which I attended. It was an evening session. I was one of seven participants. You can learn more about them and their practice here: https://www.rehearsalsforliving.com

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Ted Leonhardt

Helping designers and other creative professionals win negotiations. Author, coach, trainer, consultant. http://www.tedleonhardt.com