The Cheese

Note: A longer version of this article first appeared in Black Lamb magazine.

When I graduated from Stanford in December 1964, six months behind my class because I’d lost some time along the way to mononucleosis, I was already married, and my wife and I lived in an apartment above a garage in downtown Palo Alto. I got a job clerking in a bookstore in town for what was left of the Christmas season. When Christmas was over, I needed another temporary job quickly. We were being thrifty and earning as much as we could, saving for an open-ended trip to Europe. Our plan was to leave in March and stay abroad till the money ran out. Back then an American could still “do” Europe on five dollars a day.

So I scoured the want ads and checked with the Stanford student employment center, looking for work I wouldn’t have to commit to beyond the first of March. Nothing presented itself.  Then I found a notice on the bulletin board of the Co-op Market in South Palo Alto: WANTED: Assistant Teacher for Greenmeadow Nursery School. Temporary part-time position.

I walked in, carrying my guitar, sat down, played and sang “High Hopes” for the kids, and was hired on the spot by the director, Doreen Croft. I was about to embark on my first job as a teacher and my first gig as a professional musician. I was also soon to learn a great deal from the little people in my life. As Oscar Hammerstein told us, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”

Almost the very first thing I learned was that, no matter what Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir were telling us at the time, there is la difference between the sexes. Boys are unruly, loud, independent, and generally happy-go-lucky. Girls are businesslike, bossy, and quite sure of themselves on a number of subjects that boys don’t care anything about.

Kids of both sexes enjoy hazing, although even by the age of four or five they’re socialized enough not to be violent. But lord did they tease. Boys teased anybody who couldn’t do the monkey bars or took a spill on a trike. Girls were more indoor teasers: laughing in packs at the artwork of klutzes. Boys liked to hoot at girls’ undergarments, and girls liked to tell boys to wipe their noses. And there’s always one kid who gets teased the most. At Greenmeadow Nursery School, that winter of 1965, the schnook was a short, whiny, snot-nosed, eager boy named Milo. Milo was always It, whether the game was tag or just plain let’s-make-fun-of-somebody.

On sunny mornings I supervised sandbox play, monkey bars, and the swing set. In nasty weather, which was more often than not that winter, I helped out with finger paints and playdough, always careful (as Doreen instructed me) not to “teach” kids how to draw or mold anything representational. Most fun for me was playing songs for the kids, songs the kids could sing, like “Twinkle Twinkle,” “Itsy Bitsy,” “Muffin Man?,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “Swinging on a Star,” “Zippity Doo Dah,” and “Do-Re-Mi.” They couldn’t sing all of those, but Doreen let me sing them anyway, and for the most part they listened. Especially the girls. That’s another difference between the sexes. Girls pay attention when I sing. Boys don’t. It’s always been that way.

Then there were the musical games, which sometimes required my musical talents but often didn’t. Just standing around and keeping the enthusiasm up for such games as London Bridge Is Falling Down, Musical Chairs, and The Farmer in the Dell.

One especially rainy day, when we’d been through all the songs we knew and the kids were too restless for fingerpaint and playdough and wouldn’t sit still for Dr. Seuss, Doreen suggested that we play The Farmer in the Dell. “Everybody get in a great big circle,” she said.

The kids obeyed. They adored Doreen. I did too, for that matter. Researching for this piece, I learned that she died not long ago at the age of eighty-one, after careers as a trailblazing child psychologist, the director of the nursery school, the author of textbooks on children’s activities, and then as an actor on the big and small screens.

She taught them the song, and I accompanied her:

The Farmer in the Dell, the Farmer in the Dell

Hi-Ho the Derry-Oh, the Farmer in the Dell

We rehearsed that until everybody seemed to know the song. The girls learned it quicker, and the boys learned it louder, although some of the girls were pretty loud themselves. Then Doreen taught them the way the game is played, as the Farmer takes the Wife, the Wife takes the Child, the Child takes the Nurse, the Nurse the Cow, the Cow the Dog, the Dog the Cat, the Cat the Rat, the Rat the Cheese. One by one, members of the chorus are chosen by each other to step out of the circle and join the principal players in the center, the Farmer (chosen by lot) chosing the Wife, the Wife choosing the Child, and so on until the Rat chooses the Cheese. Then all the players except the cheese go back out and join the circle, and:

The Cheese Stands Alone, the Cheese Stands Alone,

Hi-Ho the Derry-Oh, the Cheese Stands Alone!

The chances of Milo ending up in the middle, chosen by the Rat, who had been chosen by the Cat, and so on back to the Farmer, who had been chosen by lot, were slim to say the least. My guess is that the Rat was a rat indeed, and a tease (I forget of which gender), who wanted to see poor Milo stranded and terrified in the center of all the other kids, who laughed at him and pointed at him and sang, almost shouted at him,

The Cheese Stands Alone, the Cheese Stands Alone,

Hi-Ho the Derry-Oh, the Cheese Stands Alone!

Little Milo was close to breaking, leaking tears and snot, until Doreen took charge and somehow got all those kids, those former farm personnel and bystanders, clapping for Milo, bowing to Milo, smiling their approval of Milo as they slowly, then faster and faster, circled Milo with what passed for love.

And Milo beamed.

After three final choruses, the game broke up, and Doreen put her hand on the star’s head. I know just how wonderful that hand felt.

I would like to think that Milo also learned something from his turning point in the middle of the circle, in the middle of the Dell. He might have learned that being the center of attention can be a good thing, that it’s okay to stand alone if you’re the Cheese, and that whatever affection you receive can pass for love. Unfortunately for Milo, if he learned those lessons, they were ephemeral, and good for one ride only.

Because the next time it rained too hard to play outside, and Doreen asked the children what game they’d like to play inside, Milo grinned and shouted, “I want to play the Farmer in the Dell, and I get to be the Cheese!”

Doreen said, “Milo, there’s no way of knowing who will be the cheese—”

“Me! I’m going to be the Cheese!”

“How about you be the Farmer this time? The Farmer in the Dell?”

“No! I get to be the Cheese!”

Well, Doreen gave in. A Farmer was chosen, and as the game progressed, The Farmer Took the Wife, and the Wife chose Milo to be the Child.

“No! I get to be the Cheese!”

So another Child was chosen, and the Child chose a Nurse, who chose, guess who?

“No! I get to be the Cheese, I said!”

And so on to the inevitable disappointment that we all must face and learn from: that there is no unfairness greater than the absolute fairness of the Universe, which hands out triumph and failure, joy and pain, creation and destruction, in equal and unpredictable measure. Milo didn’t get to be the cheese, then or ever after.

We can’t always get what we want. Mick Jagger told us that.



5 Responses

  1. What a poignant story. I wonder what’s happened to Milo, now aged 55 or so. Doctor, lawyer, cheese maker, serial killer? Maybe a mystery writer…

  2. Last I heard, Milo had retired to a farm.

  3. If Milo retired to a farm, he probably got to be the cheese whether he wanted to or not. Anyway, this is a delightful story, despite Milo’s downfall–again, something that happens to all of us. It would be fun to see a video of you singing and playing the Farmer in the Dell with the kids..

  4. I agree, Nancy. That would have made a fine little video. Milo’s still waiting for that call from Hollywood.

  5. I bet all the animals and people on Milo’s farm are treated well, no matter their gender or how much cheese they choose. And there’s also lots of music in the air, there on the farm of Milo’s.

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