by Cindy M. Emch
Age 10 at the time
In fifth grade I started public school. My mom was a public school teacher in our small farm town. I marched with her on the picket line when I was in second grade. We didn’t tell the other marchers that I was enrolled in the teeny tiny Catholic School in town. I was precocious to put it kindly. I was super-geeky and couldn’t get my head out of novels heavier than I was — that’s another way to put it. After watching my brother bored, antsy, and getting into trouble in our local public school, my mom decided to give our people, the Catholics, a shot.
I got a good education in books at Catholic school, but not in socializing. It was one of those places where when I arrived somehow everyone was paired off. I paired off with a book and played with my friends after school, fascinated by their stories of what sounded like paradise: The Public School.
After four grades of begging and pleading, my parents gave in for fifth grade. I got to go school shopping for clothes that weren’t uniforms, and started Latson Road Elementary in Mr. Greate’s Fifth Grade Class. I felt so fancy and East Coast in my orange sweaters and brown jeans. I was a tiny fashionista after following my neighbors’ clothes for all those years. I was beside myself with excitement. The only trouble was that I was entering a complicated social structure with no handbook, and all of my public school pals were a couple of years older and so were already moved on to Middle School.
I found some girls that were pretty friendly and nice enough that by 9 AM on the first day of school, we were the Three Musketeers. Total Best Friends. I was always a sucker for charming girls who could hold a conversation. I have always trusted easily. What I didn’t yet know was that I was about to get a first hand education about “Best Friends.”
When lunch came we ran around the yard, climbing and swinging and testing our daring by hanging upside down on the swings as we pushed each other higher and higher. Caroline said she’d be right back and skipped out of sight. Daphne and I didn’t stop our dangerous swinging contest. We tried to see if we could twist the chains of our swings together to make the plastic and metal spin really fast and still flip upside down. It wasn’t really working since we couldn’t stop laughing long enough to wrap our legs around the chains once the swings separated.
Caroline ran back out of breath and upset. “THAT BOY! THAT BOY! THAT BOY IS MEAN! HE JUST PUSHED ME!”
My breath stopped. Someone was being mean to my New Best Friend. This wasn’t OK. This was what I heard about at home, when people talked about how men hurt women. This was sexism in action! This was like those men that were rude to my mom sometimes and talked to her like she was dumb! This was Injustice! This was someone being a Bully to my New Best Friend!
“Which one?” I asked her. I felt like my whole destiny rode on this. No one would pick on my New Best Friend. I liked to play football. My brother was a state champion wrestler. My mom was a gym teacher. No one would challenge or hurt someone under My Protection.
“Over there in the middle of the tire ring,” she said. She looked upset and yet strangely proud. “What are you going to do?” she asked me.
“Tell him that it’s wrong to bully!” I said, and stomped away. I was full of a ten-year-old’s righteous anger. I was going to Fight A Bully. I was going to Protect a Friend.
“Hey!” I yelled at this small fourth grader with sandy brown hair. “Hi!” he said, smiling and waving at me. “You shouldn’t push girls” I said, grabbing his hand. “It’s not right!” I said, louder and full of bluster. I pulled and swung on his arm, tossing him around in a curve. “Hey Stop It! What are you doing? I didn’t. I didn’t push anyone!” he said.
He sounded so confused. I pulled him up and closer to me. “Don’t LIE to me. You pushed my friend. You’re a bully!” I yelled. I started to slap him on the arms and back. Whereever my hands could reach, I was smacking him. He smacked back and tried to push me down. “You’re MEAN!” I shouted, palms still flying. He was crying and I was too mad to think. My head was fuzzy with anger, and cloudy with wondering how this had gotten out of control. I didn’t want to be hurting this kid. And why did he look familiar? There were about twenty kids gathered around at this point as we pushed each other, him falling down and getting back up. Both of us holding our ground.
“Stop it you kids! And on the first day of school!” Mrs. Elliot barked as she pulled us apart. There wasn’t enough bad in either of us to fight a teacher.
A few minutes later we were sitting outside of Principal Park’s office. “Why did you start picking on me?” Jason asked me. I recognized him now that I wasn’t Caroline’s avenging angel. He was the kid brother of my brother’s best friend. We had run farm fields together. Gotten in hay bale fights and fed pigs together, laughing at their eagerness. He always let me brush the black horse because he knew it was my favorite chore. I felt so dumb. So shamed.
“You pushed Caroline. The girl with the pink headband. You hurt her. I thought you were being a bully.” I told him.
“But I didn’t — she came over and kicked my ball away. I just chased after it.”
I was so confused. The fight was over. I could tell he wasn’t lying. Had I been completely duped by my new best friend? Had she just lied to see what would happen?
Principal Park called us in. He knew both of our families. I had known him as Greg ever since I could talk. He was always hanging out with my folks and saying hi when we were in town. “Cindy, you just started school here. I know you weren’t a problem at St. Joseph’s. Why did you beat up Jason?”
My superhero ego deflated. I couldn’t explain to him how I was fighting for the good of the downtrodden, standing up to the bully hierarchy of the schoolyard, defending the rights of all poor little girls everywhere who got hurt, trying to prove that girls weren’t weak and made to be pushed around. It all rang so false now. I had been played. Manipulated. Tested. I was duped into self righteous superhero for the amusement of a charming liar with a pink ribbon. “I thought he had bullied my friend. I was wrong. I am sorry.”
Principal Park asked me about the bullying and I told him what Caroline had told me. Knowing it wasn’t true, and saying that I knew now Jason hadn’t done it. He still lectured Jason about bullying. He lectured us both about fighting. I defended Jason. Jason defended me. If I hadn’t been crying so hard it wouldn’ve been really funny. He called our parents, who were as confused as we were at that point as to why two friends who played so well out of school had just gotten in a legendary fight in the schoolyard.
When I walked back into class and took my seat in between Daphne and Caroline, I looked at Caroline accusingly. “Wow, I didn’t think you’d start a fight. Why’d you do that?” she whispered. Her eyes sparked at me, daring me to get upset. To call her on it in the middle of class and interrupt Mr. Greate and just get in more trouble. I swallowed something bitter. “I thought he was a bully.” My words sat there on the desk. I looked to the front of the room to hear the teacher. It was going to be a very different sort of school year.
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