The October of my second grade year was all about scarecrows. We used candy corn as bingo pieces on scarecrow-themed boards full of vocabulary words, we colored scarecrows on worksheets, and we made them out of popsicle sticks. We folded paper into origami scarecrows, we painted them in art class and we wrote about them in our spiral notebooks. Even our classroom was decorated in die-cut construction paper pumpkins, scarecrows, and hay bales and while it may not have been innovative, it was certainly on-theme. All of this had to do with a book we were going to read at our Halloween party and like sitting through a month of previews, every day reminded us that this particular book about a scarecrow was a big deal.
As adults, time seems to move faster with each passing day—we go from Christmas-to-Christmas and wonder where the year went—but when you’re in second grade, time moves at an annoyingly slow pace and the gap between the start of the new school year and the Christmas vacation feels like an entire lifetime. So for the long month of October that, to us, felt stretched out like taffy, we were as scarecrow-centric as a group of second graders could be.
At my elementary school, very little interaction took place between the different classes in each grade. We had our teacher and she was ours to claim while the other classes had their teachers and that was their problem. A palpable weirdness descended when another teacher wandered unsupervised into our room or, God forbid, when other classes would merge with ours for an hour to learn about dinosaurs or hydrogen. We preferred our teacher and being well-versed in stranger danger, we wanted to be left alone.
Still, sometimes our class would merge with another for an hour of communal book reading, something I learned early on was merely a way to kill time at the end of the day. Teachers were attuned to the same unwritten understanding we students were: within the last hour of school, no one wants to do anything. No learning, no teaching, no thinking. So, they’d either let us run around the playground or have us sit down on the floor while they read from an oversized picture book. These tended to be nominally more wordy than something from Dr. Seuss but not as cumbersome or committal as a book with chapters. As we gathered around her like Mother Goose, our teacher would read each page and then flip the book around so we could see the illustrations.
I was always more interested in the illustrations than I was in the words. I wanted to comb over every inch of the picture on the page, taking note of every bug and blade of grass the artist had drawn. Even at that young age, I knew those details were intentional but no matter how good a spot I got on the floor, I was never able to get more than a momentary glimpse of the picture. It was profoundly irritating.
When the week of Halloween finally arrived, we were further teased about the much-lauded hero of our scarecrow book. We learned our hay-filled protagonist was lifeless and unkempt, but most importantly, he was not the least bit intimidating. The crows he was supposed to be scaring held court on his shoulders, unafraid of him or his should-be-imposing silhouette. After this month-long build-up, the straw dude on the stick wasn’t even capable of doing his job? Sounded to me like we’d been taken for a ride.
The day before Halloween, each class in our grade took one piece of a scarecrow’s body and stuffed it with newspaper. Our class stuffed his shirt, another his pants, and so on. The point was to collectively build the real life version of our book’s scarecrow who could serve as our mascot on Halloween. So as a class, we stuffed the scarecrow’s red plaid shirt and though his torso looked lumpy and bulbous, we’d done our part. The next day, we had our party to look forward to and as second graders do with most things, we forgot about the scarecrow twenty minutes after we stuffed his shirt. It wasn’t our fault. We were only moderately formed tiny people at that point. We did what we were told, walked in a single file line, and our favorite time of the day was snack time. We didn’t have the capacity to dwell on yet another scarecrow, especially a dud like this one.
When it came time for the class party the following afternoon, our teacher led us into the hall where the other second grade classes were also congregating. Great. Still, it was finally time to read the much talked about book and our teachers were going to take turns reading the pages aloud. Propped up in a rocking chair toward the end of the hall sat our pieced-together scarecrow, the inanimate centerpiece to our hallway reading nook. Our red plaid torso was tucked into jeans, boots, and oversized gloves while a burlap bag bearing a pleasant scarecrow face stood in for a head.
As the teachers read and showed us the pictures most were too far away to see anyway, our entire grade sat with our legs crossed—or as it was insensitively called then, “Indian style” —listening as they told his story. The book wasn’t long, but sitting on the hallway floor listening to them read from an advanced picture book wasn’t the most engaging party idea. I’d found a spot in the front few rows, again, because I wanted to see the illustrations. I listened intently but mostly I was thinking about the party afterward where I’d indulge in cookies and candy and baked goods–all chocked-full of gluten and peanuts and everything kids are allergic to today.
While visions of pumpkin cookies danced in my head, the teachers read the un-scary scarecrow’s tale. To my best recollection, this Scarecrow’s story sounded an awful lot like Oz in that all he wanted was to fulfill his purpose as the protector of the cornfield. Crows mocked him but he was determined to live up to his destiny. His lament seemed to go on and on but as we approached the end of the story, while I was leaning in to get a good look at the picture on the page, the inanimate Scarecrow mascot we’d stuffed full of newspaper jerked to life and violently screamed!
The Scarecrow’s elongated scream echoed through the hall full of second graders and I let out a guttural straightforward scream à la Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone—my body frozen in a fear that could be felt all the way down to my atoms. Without a moment’s pause, as I and dozens of children continued to scream in unholy terror, the Scarecrow jumped out of the rocking chair and lunged at us in the front few rows, screaming again only louder.
There’s a moment in Jurassic Park when Laura Dern is alone in the electrical shed turning the park’s systems on one-by-one. As she presses the final power button and the lights begin to turn on, a Velociraptor juts out from behind a row of pipes, screeching at her. Well this Scarecrow might as well have been that Velociraptor because when he lunged toward us, I screamed again–an elongated, little-boy-soprano scream à la Laura. It was a very dark, very loud moment for a seven-year-old. Some children jumped, others covered their eyes, but all were paralyzed with fear.
We were still screaming when the scarecrow ran down the hallway and out the doors. The cool October air blew in, the shock of which caused our screaming to stop, but we weren’t given a chance to regain our composure or catch our breath. No. Instead, our teachers shouted, “Get up! Chase after him! Hurry!”
Seven-year-olds are trained to do what they’re told and so while we were still completely stunned, dozens of second graders and I mindlessly herded ourselves outside like zombie cattle. Some children cried as they ran, some screamed in fear over the possibility of actually catching him, I only remember audibly repeating No, No, No, No No, as I ran in the herd. We were operating on “do what your teacher says” autopilot, running around the perimeter of the building to chase after a grown man in a scarecrow costume. “Go on! Get him! Find him!” our teachers egged us on, encouraging us to chase down the very thing that just scared us into never trusting again. We never did find the demon-possessed scarecrow though; a few pieces of newspaper tossed around in the breeze was all that was left of him.
Slowly walking back to our classroom for the Halloween party, I realized my classmates and I had been duped into believing the scarecrow was a cute prop only to discover it was possessed by Satan. Our teachers got a good laugh at our expense and we wound up victimized and screaming on the industrial-carpeted floor. Entering our classroom, there should’ve been a pep in my step knowing candy, cookies and baked goods full of gluten awaited me, but I was still catching my breath from it being supernaturally knocked out of me. At that point, I just wanted to go home.
Phoebe Buffay said on Friends, “I love the second grade. It’s so much better than first grade where you don’t know what’s going on and definitely better than third grade with all the politics and the mind games.” She clearly never met this scarecrow. I spent the rest of the day looking out our classroom window, terrified he’d come back for another round. That afternoon, my bike ride home was a brisk one, the sound of the straw-filled demon’s screaming still reverberating in my head, prompting me to peddle faster. That was the last time I allowed a scarecrow to be emblemized as my Halloween mascot. I’d just stick with The Great Pumpkin from there on.