Can I Sit with You?

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.


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