Can I Sit with You?

Karen Morley

I hated Karen Morley in year 8. She had naturally blonde hair so light it was nearly white. Her no-makeup skin revealed the colourless spots beneath to the world. When she laughed her small teeth were yellow against the red of her too-large gums; and she laughed a lot. Her clothes were boring and old fashioned, as if her gran had chosen them. She had no friends. Despite all of that, the boys seemed to love her. They flocked around her like seagulls around fish! And she had a boyfriend called Colin.

But she was so boring! She never said anything. She just laughed. She laughed at their jokes, she laughed when they teased her, she even laughed they asked her questions instead of giving an answer. But still they flocked.

Tania and I often stood frowning, arms folded, watching in disbelief. Now Tania and I – we were interesting, clever and funny. We could joke back, tease them with attitude and hold our own in any debate. We knew about football, politics, psychology and Marc Bolan. We also spent a lot of time on our clothes, hair and makeup. So why were they hanging around with her? She couldn’t even crack a joke and she had yellow teeth for goodness sake!

I can’t recall much about what we did to Karen Morley that year. I do remember Colin kicking Tania really hard in the playground for calling Karen names. I don’t remember the names that we called her but I expect being boring and yellow teeth were mentioned. We were outraged at his reaction. We had just wanted the boys to see what we saw. They were supposed to turn against her, not us.

Three years later Karen Morley and I sat together in the Form room only a couple of months away from leaving school. All animosities had long ceased. We chatted and laughed about teenage girly stuff. Then suddenly she told me that Tania and I had made her life Hell in year 8. She said we had sent her a card on her birthday and when she’d opened it “We all hate you” was written inside. I was devastated. I saw all the pain of that year in her face.

Karen Morley was a nice, pretty, not particularly clever person. She had never done anything to hurt me, but I had really hurt her. I remember that I said I was sorry and did not know what else to say. I wish now that I’d told her what pretty hair she had, how attractive her laugh was, and how destructive and powerful jealousy can be.


The Absolute Clearheadedness of Mrs. Rutland

Louis E. Bourgeois
Fifth Grade

You pass hall after hall on the red tiled floor till you pass the trophy case and enter the math class. You place, very consciously, an extremely yellow pencil in the pencil holder on your desk. As you wait for instructions as to what you are to do, the awareness that everyone in the class is essentially your enemy takes hold, and you wish a hurricane would come through and wipe away the fear. This is life in the fifth grade in a public elementary school, and this experience in the fifth grade in a public elementary school is completely no different from any other person’s experience in your position. It has always been the fifth grade for the sake of being the fifth grade. It’s timeless, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The yellow pencil is gleaming reflected rays of light coming down from the ceiling. Mrs. Rutland tells you to pick the pencil up off the floor. You look down at the floor but there is no pencil and you say to Mrs. Rutland that you didn’t drop a pencil on the floor, forgetting that you should have taken the pencil on your desk in the pencil holder and put it on the floor yourself. But you produce your paltry logic, and this, of course, is what does you in, and will continually do you in.

The logic stands firm for a moment, but Mrs. Rutland simply tells you that you better pick the pencil up and show it to her. This is a second warning and somehow you just don’t get it. For some reason you just can’t bend down and simply do what she is asking. You are a rebel, and a second time you tell Mrs. Rutland that there is no pencil on the floor. You claim to yourself that you are undergoing a serious injustice. You know you’re in the right, you feel you’ll be rewarded, and you start to feel all warm inside, honey warm. You know the Principal will be a logical man as you walk down the hall with Mrs. Rutland’s hand at your shoulder.

She merely pronounces what you did in a few straight lines. Mrs. Rutland has no need to seal your fate; she knows you’ll do it for her. She knows and this is why she asked you to pick up the pencil. Somehow she knew you were one less deserving than the rest. Call it the mark of Cain if you will. But in your case the question of what you did is not in any respect relevant to anything.

The Principal has you in his complete domain. You know the Principal; you’ve seen him around before and never had much of a problem with him. He surely looked friendly enough, although you haven’t actually talked to him. But now he seems different. You notice the Principal’s pock-marked face, you notice how much he seems to like Mrs. Rutland, you notice how sharply his tie is tied, and you notice the bottleneck of whiskey sticking out of the desk drawer. And the paddle, with several holes drilled into it, hanging on the wall, actually fills you with hope and relief. At least Mother might not find out.
You have to sit in a large old cushioned chair, and are told not to leave the room while the Principal goes and takes a leak. After he shuts the door you begin to make little whimpering noises and you absolutely think you will go out of your mind. In the few moments you have alone, you think what your possible choices are, and of course, the only real thing that matters is that you make a deal without Mother knowing. This is about all the bargaining power you have, and you weep, and you smile, and you weep, and you smile, and you weep, and you smile.

But you keep condemning yourself; you’re a revolutionary, an individual, and so forth. You keep defining yourself and making it worse with every remark you say to the Principal. You will not accept the fact that the pencil was lying on the floor. You will not agree to that, and it’s all the Principal wants. You even go so far as to talk about “kid’s rights,” and bringing in witnesses from the class. You nearly have the Principal rolling on the floor hysterically with your inflammatory speeches. He asks, What in the hell is wrong with you? Do you think you’re a superstar? Do you think you’re Alexander the Great? Do you think you’re a god?

You’ve been with the Principal for half an hour and the bargaining is about over. He feels the need to tell you how important it is to listen to your teachers. He tells you how much about life you don’t know. He tells you how important it is not to disappoint your parents. And every time you think you’re off the hook, he says he ought to call your Mother, and you sink back into your unimaginable gloom. You’ve never felt this way before, and you’ve been around, you’re in the fifth grade.

You make the deal and perhaps it has something to do with a call from his wife while you sit in the chair with all of your misfortunes running over. After the phone call his face is severe, and you start slipping, slipping, and slipping. Thinking of the injustice no longer helps; in fact, you think maybe the injustice was all in your head. The Principal knows what you are thinking, and he knows he has you because you want it too bad. So it’s ten licks with the paddle and five days of recess detention, and an apology to Mrs. Rutland, and you count your lucky stars because Mother will not find out and you hardly feel the air-swishing licks across your ass.

Share a Cookie

by Cheryl Caruolo
Seven Years Old at the Time

Because my parents never made much of an effort to create opportunities for me to be with other children, when I entered school I had no idea how to share or play games. Mom was overprotective and never allowed me to participate in after school games or things like girl scouts. She was afraid of everything. And I followed suit.

In 1966, my uncle took us to visit the World’s Fair in New York City –- it was filled with electric cars of the future, street performers from Europe and Latin America, and a roller coaster that careened through the middle of a building. Mom wouldn’t allow me to go inside any of the attractions or on any of the rides. My uncle finally convinced her to go on the skyline so we could see the whole fair from above, but my Mom was so scared I’d fall out she held a tight grip on the collar of my coat. I wasn’t tall enough to see over the edge of the car and I never saw the view of endless possibilities from the sky.

Once my class went on a field trip and I was left behind because my mother didn’t give me permission to go. Anything unfamiliar terrified me and when my teacher told me to go to the classroom next door, I panicked and started to cry. My classmates laughed. I cried more. I told my teacher that I wanted to stay in our classroom.

“You can’t stay here alone.”

“I’m not alone. The angels are here with me.”

They laughed harder.

My teacher warned the class, lined up at the door, to stop and then they left. Thinking I could stay right in my familiar seat until the end of the day, I remember feeling relieved. But a few minutes later another teacher came into the room to get me.

“Come along now to my classroom.”

At seven years old my choices were limited and so with red eyes and runny nose I followed her into her room.

As soon as I arrived at the school yard the next day the snickers of my classmates surprised me like a splash of cold water.

“Cry baby.”

“No one has imaginary friends anymore.”

I dreaded recess. Usually no one would play with me, so I sat in the corner of the school yard rolling stones under the shadow of an oak tree. The tree’s umbrella felt safe. Sometimes I’d look through the little steel windows of the fence and wish I was in the Mustang Convertible or Corvette Stingray speeding down the main road. I’d watch the girls on the asphalt playing hopscotch, a game I was good at, but never had the nerve to join them.

Whenever the class was asked to choose team members, I always ended up assigned to a team as a leftover. If I was lucky enough to be one of the first ones out the door at recess, I’d run to the end swing and stay on it for the entire time. I loved gliding back and forth through the air, looking up at the sky. Pretending to fly. The higher, the freer.

I remember telling my mother that I hated school, but I never explained why. I didn’t want to admit that none of the children liked me. I understand a parent wanting to protect her young, but Mom’s fears stunted me from developing self-confidence -– I struggle with it still today.

In second grade I tried to start anew. I stopped talking about imaginary friends and pretended I liked all the things my classmates liked. But things fell apart fast.

Unable to participate in after school activities and forbidden to invite friends home my life grew more isolated. I pulled deeper into myself like a turtle retreating into its shell. The unresolved feelings that hung in the air resulted in bouts of anger, depression and confusion. Once I picked a fight with a girl simply because I knew I could beat her up. My young life was out of control and I desperately wanted control over something. I derived great satisfaction from that poor girl’s agony.

My life drudged on until I was finally able to convince my parents to let me get a dog — a six-month old Wiemaraner. Because she was German and I was nine, I named her Heidi. I adored that dog and suddenly I had a companion.

Heidi woke me every morning for school and was waiting every afternoon when I returned. Sitting on the porch together, I’d scratch her ears as she rested her head on my lap. Her gray hair felt like short slips of satin sliding through my fingers.

I felt unconditional love and acceptance from Heidi. We were connected in that unspoken spiritual way humans and animals seem to share. Whenever I was crying she’d place her paw on my hand and nuzzle her head along side me. If anyone was visiting our house and she was unsure of them, she would sit in between us until I’d assure her that it was okay.

Because of Heidi, I started to believe the tiniest bit in myself. And I gradually felt more comfortable talking to kids at school — finding things in common, sharing snacks, even joining hopscotch games sometimes.

Then one day a new girl came to class. My classmates pointed at her and called her weird. I said nothing.

But at recess one brilliant blue autumn day, I noticed her swaying on my safe haven swing and, for some unexplainable reason, I walked up to her and offered one of my beloved Oreo cookies.

Summer Before Second Grade

Gerard Sarnat MD
Age 6 at the time

Outside home, digging rich loam coated with city block soot,
I notice a carrot-topped frecklyface
against the inky flaming sunset.

Auburn, fair, and more than a bit stippled myself;
fingernails chock full of dirt;
uncertain why; I leave the boys to move my bones closer.

At first I circle in, pursuing nearer and nearer until I just
plop down beside the new girl.

Never before thusly stirred to thrust my body,
the world mocking me, a bushel of apples
crushing a soft tomato.

Still — eventually gathering steely courage,
not sure what I’m doing –before I know it, I lean over
and at the tender age of six, cannot resist the bliss,
plant my first non-family kiss in our neighborly wading pool.

French Lessons

by Dan Moreau
Age eight at the time

At age eight, my parents enrolled me in the French School. Unlike the American School, which cost more and was farther from our house, the French School embodied my mother’s ideals of sophistication, culture and civility. She herself had been raised by French Catholic nuns and instead of rebelling against them, as so many other girls did, she embraced them.

We had just moved from Miami, Florida to Bangkok, Thailand. In Miami, I had just finished the first grade, but because I was starting at the French School with no preexisting knowledge of French, the principal thought I should repeat the first grade. My parents didn’t object, nor did I.

In early September my parents dropped me off by the front gate to my new school and wished me luck. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to find my classroom. Our teacher’s name was Madame Unarat. She was petite and plump with short dark hair and owlish glasses. That first morning I sat quietly at my desk, pretending to understand everything that my new classmates and teacher said.

At noon, the bell rang for lunch and Madame Unarat let us out into the courtyard. All the other kids had brought packed lunches. Everyone except me. I think my parents had sent me off to school without lunch, assuming—and perhaps rightly so—that the expensive tuition they were paying would at least include meals. It didn’t.

As I sat by myself on a bench, biting my fingernails, my stomach growling, a woman who worked at the school approached me. She was wearing lipstick and perfume and the collar of her blouse was stylishly raised up. She asked me if I had eaten. I didn’t say anything. She repeated herself, this time in English. I shook my head in reply.

She took me to the school cafeteria. They called it a “cafeteria,” but it was more like a French bistro with a chalkboard out front that displayed the day’s specials. It was where the teachers and school staff gathered for lunch, coffee and cigarettes. She bought me a chicken drumstick and took me back to the courtyard where I devoured the drumstick down to the bone.

A boy from my class sat next to me on the bench. He was the biggest kid in our class and looked older than the rest of us with the lip shadow of a prepubescent mustache. He spoke some English and, unlike the other kids who as a rule ignored me, he was friendly to me. Too friendly. But where he was talkative and warm, I was aloof and tightlipped.

Though it was only my first day, and though I didn’t understand a word of French, I instinctively knew where this boy stood in the playground hierarchy and even though I had no friends I wanted nothing to do with him. Without knowing it, I had made a swift and vital decision. I would rather have no friends at all than be associated with this social pariah. In approaching me so early on, he might have befriended me before I caught on to what the other kids were saying about him. And in hindsight, it was the right decision. Slowly but surely, as my French improved, so did my rapport with my classmates. I made new friends; he didn’t. We never talked much after that.

Because of my age and because of the mistaken belief that children pick up languages like head lice, by proximity and by immersion, my parents thought I would come home one day, fully fluent in French. That wasn’t the case. I had to learn French like any adult would, through repetition, rote memorization and trial and error.

Every day after school I met with Madame Unarat for an hour or two. That was when my true instruction began. Her methods were simple yet effective. She would read from a primer, pausing after each word, which I repeated until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. It was painstaking, frustrating and laborious and sometimes she would raise her voice in anger when I couldn’t sound out a word correctly. But it worked. By the end of the year, I spoke enough French to get by on and was admitted to the second grade.

My second grade teacher didn’t have Madame Unarat’s patience and treated me as any other student. Monsieur Stricte was a dark, wiry, morose man. By then, I had quit having afternoon lessons with Madame Unarat. It was assumed that I was fluent. I wasn’t. I spoke a hybrid of playground argot and slang. Yet I went to great lengths to conceal my failings. I copied off of classmates, I cheated on reading comprehensions by looking up the answers in the back of the book and, most of all, I kept a low profile. To my parents and everyone else, I seemed to be doing just fine.

One day, in the middle of the semester, Monsieur Stricte asked me point blank if I spoke French. I had just handed in an assignment on which I had done better than everyone in the class. Like with every other assignment, I had cheated on this one too, but my mistake was to give myself too many correct answers.
Monsieur Stricte stared at me coldly. His eyes said it all. I knew what answer he was looking for. To say yes would be to perpetuate a charade he plainly saw through. It was also a lie. Yet the truth was more complicated. Yes, I spoke conversational French. No, my written French and reading skills were awful. After a few awkward seconds, I shook my head. The following day, I was demoted to the first grade where Madame Unarat welcomed me, literally, with open arms, wrapping me up in a tight bear hug in front of the entire class. I was never so happy to see her.