I sat next to Michael Jackson in the 4th grade. Not that Michael Jackson, but Mike Jackson, my friend since he moved from England to attend our Kindergarten at Pennekamp Elementary school in 1975.
Mike, I and my brother had been friends since he arrived from the UK, and we had been in just about every class together until Ms. Goldsmith’s 4th grade classroom in 1979. We did all the stuff that normal kids at the time would do. We rode bikes, played army men and Godzilla, and we shot realistic guns at each other on the school grounds. We even made plans to move into a huge house together with all of our other friends in the neighborhood when we grew-up.
In November 1979, Mike invited us to his birthday party at Straw Hat Pizza. Straw Hat Birthday parties were always awesome. They always included double-cut slices of pizza with huge cheese bubbles, pitchers of root beer, free rides on the mechanical horse, silent movies, and especially, video games. Straw Hat was one of the only local places that had arcade games, so it was a no-miss event for sure.
There was one kid though, that I’m pretty sure was not at Mike’s birthday party: Stanley Jones (not his real name). This is not a knock on Mike, because except for when we were in Kindergarten, not too many people invited Stanley to much of anything. Stanley had been in our Kindergarten class for a short time, and we played with him on the playground. The one thing I liked the most about Stanley was his enormous toothy grin, a smile he displayed with complete honesty at any given chance. However soon after Kindergarten started Stanley was moved to the “Resource” classroom. “Resource” was separate room where kids from all grades went who needed special attention. Stanley went there off and on, leaving Kindergarten class, and returning to play with us. Then then one day he left, and never came back.
Soon after Mike’s 4th grade birthday party, he and I were sitting in our classroom, working on a math ditto. Math was my favorite subject in the 4th grade, but as I was zooming through the the purple ink on the page, I glanced at Mike’s paper to see how he was doing. I noticed that Mike had not answered a single question. Instead, he was doodling, drawing some amazing little illustration of space ships in-between the questions. Soon after, Ms. Goldsmith came by and chastised Mike for not being further along on his work. I felt sorry for Mike. I remember thinking, “What was he going to do in his life he never learned his Math?” ” How could he live in the big house together with all of our friends when we grew-up if he never made it out of school?”
If the prospect of Mike’s future bothered me a little bit, the prospect of Stanley’s future stuck in the back of my head. I wondered if Stanley would ever be allowed back into a regular classroom, but it never happened. Kids like Stanley were often left behind, as the throngs of students passed them by in the halls. Besides some of the more popular kids saying mean stuff under their breath at them as they passed, they were hardly even acknowledged. I never joined in, but instead was the kind of coward that just watched and never said anything to defend them, even when Stanley was the target.
There was very little understanding among us of Stanley or his particular issues, and I’m sure there were good reasons for us not being told. Still, a little information would have gone a long way. He and the other kids in “Resource” were sequestered away, partially for their own good and I’m sure, partially for ours. Whatever issues befell Stanley and whatever his thoughts and feelings were about it, I never knew. He was just whisked away where we hardly ever saw him.
I do recall speaking to Stanley on occasion, and in the 4th grade, he and his “Resource” class started to appear on the blacktop when we were out playing for morning recess. At that point, Stanley appeared defeated, or at the very least, exasperated. The huge smile he displayed in Kindergarten was long gone, replaced with a sort of knowing grimace. I’m sure the years since we all had class together had not been easy. Kids in the 70’s could be very creative with their cruelty, and I’m sure Stanley was the recipient of much of it. Eventually, I believe, Stanley was put back a grade, but he did manage to make it all the way through Mira Costa High School and graduate. However, by then, I had lost complete track of him.
At the same time, Mike, my brother Jeff and I remained pretty good friends through most of our school years. We went on to Begg Junior High School, where we continued to be friends. We played video games together, and we traded Atari 800 games in early 80’s. We hung out together for our first couple years of high school, listening to Depeche Mode and getting into all sorts of trouble. We even got caught together by mom after we snuck a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps into a screening of 2010 at the Mann Theater, and reeked of it afterward. However, as people are wont to do, we grew apart. By the time we graduated from high school, I’m not sure we even said goodbye to one another.
Nearly 12 years later, I was working at Mattel Toys ,building web sites and games. I was working in the I.T. department, which traditionally is all about things like databases, spreadsheets, HR systems, and making sure the computer network is working. However, I had been hired to build web sites for an IBM AS/400, and worked myself up to building ecommerce sites, then to consumer web sites and games. Since my main customers were the brand web teams in the marketing department, I spent most of my time working with them, co-located in another building away from I.T. The regular I.T. department had hard time understanding what I did, and game development in particular was the hardest for them to grasp. It was a constant struggle to get I.T. management to understand that games were essential to the success of the consumer web sites (our sites which were some of the most visited kids web sites on the internet). I never planned it this, way, but here I was, working between the lines, serving two masters: customers who wanted games and web sites and could not understand I.T., and my bosses in I.T. who could never grasp that games were what made our projects success in the first place.
Lo and behold, one day a new artist walked in, and it was Mike Jackson. He had most of the spent the previous decade working on all sorts of graphic design projects, including a PC game by Steve Meretzky named The Space Bar. Mattel hired him to design web sites, and he began working on HotWheels.com among other boy branded projects, none of which were things I was building, since I was mostly working girl’s branded sites and games at the time.
About 3 years later, Mike and I got the chance to work on a project together. HotWheels.com wanted to add some Flash games to the site, and they had tapped us to both to a build game for the Monster Jam license. I spent a few days mocking-up a game that used some basic mathematical slope calculations to move objects down a hill, and when it was ready, I showed it to Mike so he could start designing graphics for it. As I was demoing the game for Mike, a thought struck me: When we were sitting next to each other in the 4th grade, I worried for nothing. My destiny might have been working out those Math problems, but Mike’s was not. His destiny was in-between the lines of that math ditto, and his doodles were worth more than those math problems ever could have been, at least to him.
A few weeks into the game project, Mike and I attended a child testing session at the Imagination Center at Mattel in the main tower building. We were both happy to see that our game was the favorite among the kids testing that day. On the elevator ride up to the Cafe for lunch, we were talking about the game, when the car stopped on the 2nd floor and in walked none other than Stanley Jones. He was working on the mail crew at Mattel. Mike and I both greeted Stanley, and asked him how he had been. With a huge grin on his face, Stanley told us he was living in house in Manhattan Beach with his family, and how much he loved his job delivering the mail.
When we got off the elevator later and walked back to our building, I turned to Mike and asked him, “Hey, when we were in Kindergarten, did you ever think you, I and Stanley Jones would all be working at the same place almost 30 years later?”
“Never” he replied.
By the way, the game, Crashzilla Crusher, turned out okay. While the game looks primitive by today’s standard, the kids in 2003 LOVED it. The game was played millions of times, and it proved the Hot Wheels brass that we should make even more games down the line. We went on to produce over 200 games for Mattel web sites, making them some of the most successful kids web sites in history.
However, Mike and I never got to work on another project together like Crashzilla Crusher. Mike got moved around to other projects and managers who did not appreciate his skills, and soon he left to work for Sony Imageworks. I stayed at Mattel for many more years. The web team moved to several different buildings, before ending up in the main Mattel building, where we stayed until I left. Even though Mike was gone, I saw Stanley Jones more often, delivering the mail and and doing other odd jobs on our floor. Sometimes he recognized me, and other times not. On the good days, we often talked in passing about the Hometown Fair, and the beach volleyball tournaments he watched when he walked to the beach He even lamented one time about how he missed all of the kids we went to kindergarten with, and wondered what had happened to them.
On my last day at Mattel, as I was carrying my boxes out of the building, Stanley rode the elevator down with me. He told me again about where he lived, and how much he liked his job at Mattel. Sometimes he told the same stories more than once, but I never mentioned it to him. One of my last memories from my 15 years at Mattel was Stanley’s smiling face disappearing into the elevator as I walked out into my future. When I think of Mattel now, I like to think of Stanley Jones, happy, riding the elevator with the mail cart and talking to people as he walks the cavernous floors and back-ways of the Mattel corporate headquarters, hopefully finding success and happiness in his life, working between the lines just like Mike Jackson, and just like me.