The Facewash

walking with worry in the wintertime

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

I was in the second grade, and my walk home from school was often fraught with peril. Not real peril, but scary peril all the same. When I think about my current mental health, and when I take a good, hard look at my life’s troubles – the mountains of anxiety dumped onto my path – none of it seems to matter when I remember walking the four blocks home from school, especially in the winter.

Let me be clear: I’m totally exaggerating. But exaggeration is the language I spoke most fluently back in grade school. It was my culture. It was my religion. Everything was a big deal.

I was a kid. It’s what you do.

I went to a small school, and when we let out each day (if you didn’t ride the bus), the teachers released us onto the playground to wait for a ride, grab our bikes, or start our treks home. We were basically tossed into an unstructured free-for-all with kids of all ages, many of whom I didn’t know very well. It was maddening. I mean, I’m sure it was an important builder of social skills, a time to practice communication and empathy, but to a sheltered second-grader is was more like a prison riot.

Older kids were a complete mystery. They played games I’d never played. They spoke of things I’d never imagined. They were ... tall. I feared them. But we learned from them.

Whatever they were concerned with, we were concerned with. Even if we didn’t understand it. We all told stories about what the older kids were doing. The more stories you told, the closer you were to them and the older you felt. Their exploits became legend. We became fixated on their actions.

For example: The Facewash. And thus we return to the four-block walk home after school in the wintertime.

Now, as I know the phrase, a facewash is when someone shoves you into the snow – at the sledding hill, on the walk home from school, during a December wedding reception, etc. – and then they push your face into the snow. Kind of like a much colder – though much less disgusting – swirly.

Walking home in the winter, when the snowbanks were high, was like walking through a frosty maze. There were openings to the street at every driveway and at the corners. Unless you took your chances walking across the top of the snow, you were confined to a concrete hallway and the linear path ahead.

On most days, I walked home with friends, playing atop the snowbanks and throwing snowballs. But not always. There were two older boys, brothers, who walked home along the same route. They weren’t all that nice. We tried to make sure they were well ahead or behind us, especially in the winter when escape routes were scarce.

And what we feared most was the “facewash.” We’d heard about how they liked to give other kids (and each other) facewashes. So we steered as clear as possible.

Now, as I know the phrase, a facewash is when someone shoves you into the snow – at the sledding hill, on the walk home from school, during a December wedding reception, etc. – and then they push your face into the snow. Kind of like a much colder – though much less disgusting – swirly.

I understand that, for many people, a facewash is simply picking up a handful of snow and rubbing it onto someone’s face. But I like my definition better. It’s so much more dramatic.

I’m not sure why it seemed so horrible. There are definitely worse wintertime worries. Ice balls, for example, and their associated menace have been well-documented. Getting smacked in the ear by a high-speed sphere of rock-hard frozen water makes a facewash look downright enjoyable.

But the older kids never talked about ice balls. The facewash was their ultimate winter weapon.

So here we are, walking home through confined spaces, surrounded by cold and ice, trying to keep our distance from a couple of possible bullies who might shove our faces into a snowbank. Like I said – ultimate peril. Barrels of perils. A shiny peril necklace.

If you’re looking for a climax here, there isn’t one. I have never received a facewash in my entire life. I’m not even sure I’ve ever witnessed one. I just used to think about them all the time. The facewash is one of those things kids whisper about and exaggerate until it becomes a looming shadow over everything. It makes you worry. It dictates your actions. It drives you crazy. But in reality, it’s a minor problem with a low probability of ever happening in the first place. It’s practically nothing.

I’m so glad we eventually grow out of this line of thought.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.