Following up on my earlier post today, “Teach Your Children Well,” I wanted to share these two scenes from my memoir manuscript. After talking with my daughter and son about how our words can hurt others and have a lasting impression, I shared these stories with them for the first time. It was an emotional afternoon, but also a healing one. I am so grateful for the opportunity to help instill the importance of kindness and empathy.
From A Girl Named Truth (for “Sally” and “Timmy”):
There were some things I could not hide, like the food I brought for lunch in grade school when we were still vegetarians. In the cafeteria I would look around the table and watch my friends with their saran-wrapped sandwiches made with bread that reminded me of clouds, all soft, white and full of air. Between those perfect slices of bleached wheat, circles of pink baloney, or squares of pink ham floated atop squares of orange cheese. How I wanted to sink my teeth into those sandwiches!
Instead, I would open my lunchbox and pull out my waxed-paper bundle. My friends, in turn, would watch while I unwrapped thick slabs of my mother’s homemade bread. Peeking through the edges of the uneven slices, stems of alfa sprouts curled into tiny green fists.
One day, while I sat with my friends at the cafeteria table, one of them pointed at my sandwich, while wrinkling her nose. “What are those?” she asked, her fingers almost touching the sprouts that looked like they were struggling to grow out of a bed of bread.
“Sprouts,” I mumbled.
“Sprouts? What are sprouts?”
With the question, my face grew hot, as though I was suddenly standing, against my will, too close to an open fire.
“I don’t know,” I whispered looking down at my lunch, wishing by some grace of the universe, that it would disappear. “They’re kind-of like lettuce, only smaller.”
“Well they look like grass. What are you, a cow?”
The rest of the table erupted into giggles and a chant began, “Alethea’s a cow, Alethea’s a cow!”
The fire in my face flamed, while my eyes watered to quench it. My stomach, in turn, had closed to the prospect of taking another bite.
I never threw those sandwiches away. Instead I wrapped their nibbled forms back into their waxed paper packages and handed them shamefully to my mother at the end of the day. She, in turn, would shake her head and ask, “Alethea, why didn’t you eat more of your lunch?”
One spring day, when I was in the first grade, I made my first and only trip to the principal’s office. My victim was Timmy, a chubby boy with light blond hair and blue eyes hidden behind thick glasses. Timmy didn’t have any friends, and that day on the playground he sat, as usual, by himself on a bench while the rest of the school played around him.
I began recess on the swing-set with my best friend of the day, Stacy. As we soared over the ground, we giggled and made faces of disgust, pointing our fingers at Timmy, who studied the brown dirt beside his feet.
When we grew bored and hopped off the swings, Stacy whispered into my ear, “I dare you to go over to Timmy and tell him he’s fat.”
I hesitated, “Only if you go with me.”
So, together Stacy and I ran past Timmy, while crying out in nervous giggles, “Timmy, you’re fat! Timmy, why are you so fat?”
Timmy never lifted his gaze from the ground, and although he acted as though he hadn’t heard us, there was no way he could have missed our words. Even the teacher on playground duty, whom we had failed to notice, caught our words as they skipped through the air.
“Alethea and Stacy,” she called after us, “Please come with me to the principal’s office.”
While I sat with Stacy on the bench outside the office, my stomach churred with guilt and fear. Tears spilled from the corners of my eyes as I contemplated the reprimand that awaited us. I had never before been sent to the principal’s office and all pervious reprimands at school had been for talking in class and passing notes. I felt awful for myself, and deep within my belly, I felt bad for Timmy, who was more like me than I wanted to admit.
I never teased Timmy again for being fat, instead I mostly watched, with the mixed pang of relief and guilt, when a child who wasn’t me suffered the ridicule of being different. I couldn’t, though, resist teasing Sally. It seemed no one could.
No one really liked Sally or wanted to be around her. Sally’s hair often looked unwashed and hung in stringy strands down her back. Sally wore glasses, and without them her eyes crossed. Most days, Sally looked like she needed a bath.
When we played tag, Sally was the one with cooties, and my friends and I would run away whenever she came near. If she touched us, we would have to shower under the hemlock tress until we were cleansed of her germs with an invisible cootie-wash. The boys, in turn, loved to chase Sally with their homemade spitball guns, constructed out of lunchroom straws. Their ammunition was saliva soaked wads of paper, which they would shoot with their breath, hoping to land the dripping pulp on the skin, or even better, the glasses of Sally.
“Got her,” the victorious boy would yell. My friends and I giggled nervously, while we peered over at Sally and the goo that covered the glass over her eye in dripping humiliation.
We stared and waited for Sally to wipe away the trail of slime as it slid down the side of her cheek. Sally, though, never cried. Instead, she held tight her emotions like a seasoned soldier. It took me several years, after I had myself become a victim of almost unbearable humiliation, for me to truly regret my part in Sally’s torment. Only then did I seek her friendship, which although was never close, lasted until we graduated high school and went our separate ways.