Can I Sit with You?


by Pamela Merritt
Kindergarten and First Grade

When I was four years old my parents moved my family to a middle class suburb in St. Louis county. When I looked around our neighborhood I saw a sea of white faces. Our family was one of only two black families in the neighborhood. The ramifications of that didn’t hit me until the first day of kindergarten when I walked into the classroom wearing a brand new pink frilly dress and white patent leather shoes only to find myself greeted by looks of disgust and distress from my fellow students.

By the time that first day was over I had been pushed, spit at, called a monkey, and ignored by my teacher. I went home in tears and announced to my parents that there was no way in hell I was going back to that miserable place. My parents responded by telling me that there are ignorant racist people all over the world and, sadly, they teach their children to be ignorant and mean too. The basic message was that I was going to have to learn how to cope because my parents held the value of a good education over the pain of prejudice.

My parents came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, so they were well aware of the pain of in-your-face racial prejudice. But their generation had risked their lives to get a decent education and both of my parents felt that a few bruises or hurt feelings were par for the course for any person of color trying to get ahead. As far as they were concerned, I was learning a lesson young that I was going to have to learn eventually.

So I suffered and learned how to cope. I sat in the back of class and knew better than to try to make friends. After a particularly vicious beating in the girl’s restroom, I even taught myself to hold my pee until I got home. Yeah, I was coping but I was also miserable and terrified. And I wasn’t learning much other than school survival skills either.

All that changed the next year when Cookie transferred to my school.

Cookie was also black –- a pure dark chocolate brown some people are blessed to be born with. She was solid where I was skinny, fearless where I was cautious, and she became my first friend at school. With Cookie I could conquer the world or at least conquer my phobia about the girls restroom. She talked loud and didn’t take crap off of anyone and I quickly became her fan club of one. I began to laugh and play and ask questions and some of the other students began to hang out with me.

When I looked at Cookie I saw a strong black child and I began to realize that the weeks of racial taunts and physical attacks had taken something very precious from me. I realized that Cookie hadn’t inspired something new in me, but that she had revived a spark that had died such a quiet death that I didn’t even notice its passing.

I recall swinging on the playground next to Cookie one Friday afternoon, thinking that I was having fun and that I couldn’t wait to come back to school. I couldn’t wait to share my weekend news with Cookie over lunch and gossip about the other girls or our older sisters. I remember going to the bathroom without fear of assault, my head held high as I walked past girls who used to haunt my nightmares but who now held no power over me. And I remember hugging Cookie goodbye and getting on the bus, not knowing that everything would change that weekend.

That Sunday after dinner my mother sat me down and told me that Cookie’s mother had called.

Their family was moving because of a work transfer.

Cookie was moving away.

I cried as if someone had died, but my mother said that I should save my tears for a real tragedy. I was well grown before I learned the meaning of that and, at the time, I thought Cookie moving away was the world’s greatest tragedy.

Our parents took us out for burgers and fries but neither one of us ate. We promised to write and call and that we would be friends forever. But then Cookie turned to me, took my hands and leaned forward and whispered in my ear.

“But it’ll be okay if you don’t write or call.”

She pulled back and looked me directly in the eyes.

“You’re going to be okay … you know that, right? Because we made a memory and that’s what’s really forever.”

I nodded but my throat closed up and I couldn’t form the right words.

“Come on, girl.” Cookie said, and stood up with a smile. “Let’s go play!”

And off we went to play together for what was to be the last time.

We quickly lost touch after Cookie moved away, but I thought of her often over the years. I hope she’s happy and as confident as she was when we were young.

The cool thing is that Cookie was right.

She moved away but she left me with a memory and she also left me with an awareness that I am worthy of kindness, friendship, and laughter.

And that is still one of the most precious gifts of my childhood.


An Open Apology to Kirk

By: mom2spiritedboy
Age at the time: 6

Dear Kirk,

I am sorry that I did not stick up for you more in the first grade
I am sorry that I didn’t ask you to come to my house to play
I am sorry that you didn’t get to live with a forever family
I am sorry that the kids at school were so horrible to you
I am sorry that they called you “Kirk the Jerk”
I am sorry that I do not remember your last name

If I could have it all to do over
. . . I would have played with you at recess when no one would, EVERY day, not just sometimes
. . . I wouldn’t have let go of your hand when we were walking home and other kids were coming
. . . I would have shared my Jos Louis with you on the field trip and sat with you on the bus
. . . I would have been your best friend

I am glad that I kicked those boys HARD with my Cougar boots that day they were bullying you after school. I wish that there wouldn’t have been a need for anyone to have to protect you – I wish people could have been nice to you and that grown ups would have made the world a safer place for you.

I think of you often. I feel much shame and sadness for the things that never were and all that should not have been. When I watch my son as he struggles so much to fit in, I often think of you. I will do better by him than what was done for you.

I am sorry and I hope life got better. I hope you found someone to sit with on the bus and who would share their lunch 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.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin-Eater
May 5, 2008, 6:19 pm
Filed under: bully, peer pressure | Tags: , , , , ,

by Sabina Sood
Age 11 at the time

“I dare you to cheat on your math test.” The gentle breeze blows her words away before they reach my ears.

“What?” If my words aren’t enough to portray my puzzlement, my scrunched nose, half-opened mouth, and furrowed eyebrows are. Did she say, “cheat”? How will cheating on my math test make me worthy enough to be accepted into her circle of friends?

“I double dog dare you to write down all the test problems and give them to me,” she taunts. Who does Kristina think she is (besides the leader of the most popular group in fifth grade)? As my flame of hope to join her group is snuffed, I turn around to leave.

“I triple dog dare you. You can’t turn that down!”

My shoes squeak on the dewdrop grass as I pivot to face her. A smile tiptoes across her face as the other girls in her clique laugh.

She knows I know about the unwritten rules that bind every elementary school kid to the social ladder. Every kid keeps this rulebook tucked away in a corner of his mind until the day she outgrows it and passes it on to someone else. One of my friends passed this knowledge on to me when she graduated from elementary school, and during times like these, I wish she hadn’t. This rulebook is the Bible of elementary school and not abiding by it makes losing one’s social life inevitable.

As I ponder her statement, I flip through the pages of the rulebook in my head. Here it is. Page 37, Rule # 182: “If a kid is dared to perform a task, she has the choice to accept or refuse it. If a kid is triple-dog-dared to do something, she must complete the dare or risk public humiliation.”

If I refuse the dare, then word of my sin will spread like wildfire throughout the school, and no one will ever speak to me again. If I accept the dare and cheat on my math test, I will jeopardize my elementary school career … but that will only happen if I’m caught.

The next day, I enter my math classroom, my heart pounding and my mind searching — searching for the courage and reassurance that escapes with every breath. I accepted the dare and there is no turning back. My face tingles as shivers dart up and down my spine. Sweat trickles down my arm as I focus on one sustaining thought: I accepted the dare and there is no turning back.

Mr. Walshe reads the directions of the math test. Time creeps by. Tick…tock … tick…tock. After what seems like an hour, he finishes his speech with, “You have forty minutes to complete the test. You may begin.”

We turn the page. One student taps his pencil on the desk in a rhythmic pattern. Another accompanies him as she hits the desk frantically with her shoe. Tap … tap … bang … tap … bang. As the other students scribble on their scratch paper and fill in the bubbles on their answer sheets, I grab my pen, turn my left hand over, and jot down the first problem on my palm. “If 3x+5=…” The sweat from my hand smears the ink. “If 3x+5=…” My hand quivers, causing even the prettiest handwriting to be illegible.

I cross out my mistake and find a clean part of my palm to begin again. “If 3x+5=20, solve for x.” I glance up to see if anyone notices. Mr. Walshe types on his computer. The other students rustle their test papers and answer sheets. I look at the next problem, but I hear something as I bring the pen to my hand.

“Sabina, what are you doing?” Although he whispers, Mr. Walshe’s deep voice penetrates the classroom. His tone drowns the paper rustling and shatters the pencil-tapping and shoe-banging harmony. As he stands by my desk, his shadow devours me. My heart sprints to catch up with my embarrassment. The blood from the pit of my stomach rushes to my head as my face boils. He grabs my test and tears it in half. My classmates murmur. I can’t swallow and can barely inhale enough oxygen to stay conscious.

“Let’s go talk in the hallway.” I can’t move. My feet are glued to the ground. Guilt desiccates every drop of saliva in my mouth. It chains me to my desk. I struggle and finally break free from the shackles. The water that disappeared from my mouth now crowds my eyes and streams down my face. As Mr. Walshe crosses the classroom, I try to run, but my feet are anchors, maliciously enjoying every student’s glance that pierces my ego and follows me out of the classroom like a shadow.

As soon as the door closes, I ramble, trying to say anything that will save me from the punishment. “ThereisKristinaandtherulebookandshetripledogdaredmeIcouldntsayno.” I hate him. How can he embarrass me like that? It isn’t my fault that I cheated on the math test. It’s Kristina’s fault for daring me. It’s the rulebook inventor’s fault for writing Rule # 182. It’s God’s fault for giving me dreadful cheating skills. Why should Mr. Walshe punish me?

“This is your first and final warning, Sabina. I’ll give you a second chance to take the test, but I will have to call your parents,” Mr. Walshe explains. He returns to the classroom, leaving me alone in the hallway to think about what I have done.

The following day, I walk onto the playground and sit on the tanbark. Kristina and her group spot me near the swings.

“I heard Mr. Walshe caught you cheating,” one of her friends snickers.

“How embarrassing,” says another.

“Even though you failed miserably, having the guts to cheat makes you worthy enough to join my group. You can sit with us during lunch tomorrow,” Kristina scoffs.

I turn around and walk away as her offer hovers in the air, waiting for the wind to blow it away.

Dodging Bullet
April 14, 2008, 8:00 am
Filed under: bully | Tags: , ,

by Laura Eleanor Holloway
Age at the time: somewhere between 6 and 9

Everyone just called her Bullet.

Blond hair cut like a boys –- rumor was she had no mother,
Which seemed to explain the fact that her favorite toy was a hammer.
And not some hollow yellow plastic PlaySkool job that squeaked as you hit plastic pegs. No,
Bullet’s hammer was the real deal,
Straight from Heckinger’s –- “the world’s most unusual lumberyard.”

That day, the six swings were full of hostages:
Twelve legs brown with dirt and sun,
Twelve tender palms freckled with stinging rusty equal signs,
Twelve open-toed shoes dragging despondent trails in the soft dry dust as
Bullet made the rounds:

“Do you like me?”
Her hammer poised menacingly above timid knees,
There was only one way to answer the question.

Occasionally, as she moved down the line,
Someone would make a break for it and
Bullet, hammer-wielding Thor-ling,
Would chase them back to the swing set
And ask again:

“Do you like me?”
“Yes, Bullet.”

I had a lot of time to think
While the other five children were lying to Bullet.
Didn’t her father see from the window what his daughter was doing?
Why didn’t he stop her?
Take away that hammer?

“Do you like me?”
“Yes, Bullet.”

As she got a few children away, I whispered to Kathy:
“The only way we’re gonna get to leave is if someone tells her no.”
Kathy’s eyes grew wide in horror:
“But… she’ll hit you!”
“I know. Shhh.”

“Do you like me?”

Immigrant Kids

by Wynn Putnam
Age seven at the time

When I was almost eight years old, my family emigrated from Holland to Ontario, Canada. We spoke only Dutch, so when we went to school in Ontario, the teacher put my twin sister, me, and my two older sisters all in grade one. Once we learned how to speak English they would reevaluate us to see if my twin and I should really be in Grade three, and my older sisters in Grades four and six.

This was a one-room school house so we felt awkward and big sitting in the grade one row while kids our own size sat on the other side of the room and at the back. When the older, bigger kids would point and snicker at us we did not know what they were saying so we smiled at them. We wanted to learn to speak English, and be able to join in with their fun and sit with them.

This was a country schoolhouse, so everyone brought their lunch. At noon we followed the other Grade Ones, got our lunch bags from the hall, and started to eat. But one day when we went to get our lunch bags, a couple of the bigger kids went in front of us and grabbed them. They looked in our bags, ate what they liked, then tossed the bags into the garbage.

My sister and I went back to the classroom and tried to communicate to the teacher that these kids had taken our lunch. We could not say what had happened, and she thought that we did not have a lunch that day. Apparently a kid at the back said that we had already eaten our lunch and some other kids laughed. We started to point at the kids who had taken our lunch and made gestures with our hands, when the teacher took an apple out of her own bag and started to cut it in half. We shook our heads and started to cry. All of a sudden a few of the younger children came over to our desk and gave us some of their lunch, a cookie, an orange — I can’t remember exactly, but they wanted to share. We stopped crying, smiled, and told each other in Dutch that the foods we were now being given were delicious, even better than what had been in our lunch bag. We communicated our thanks to these kids by smiling and making gestures of what we were trying to say.

For the next while we put our lunch bags in our desks, because it took quite a bit more time before we could speak English well enough to tattle on the few kids who tormented us because we spoke a different language. Most kids in the class tried to help us belong, even when they could see how big we looked in the grade one row, and that we talked in a strange language.

Smiling faces are the same in every language, and it’s easy to communicate with other kids that way and join in their fun. Kids like to sit with you when your face shows a friendly smile — even if you cannot speak their language, they understand.

Sunday Short: Left Out
November 4, 2007, 5:07 pm
Filed under: bully, cruelty, Jesus, popular crowd, religion, self esteem, sunday school, supportive parents

by Victoria Davis
Age 11 at the time

The little girl sat at the edge of the classroom — sensing the excitement but knowing her only form of participation could be observation. Squeals of delight came from the popular corner as white and pink tissue paper flew from the gift boxes wrapped in lots of curly ribbon.

Oh, she would get a gift too. But if she squealed it would be met with ridicule and various mimicking of whatever sound she made.

No, life was better for her if she was invisible. Teachers were oblivious or chose to tune out her peer-enforced solitude.

She loved people. She loved to tell jokes and laugh. But right now in this classroom — she was the only joke. What would she do wrong today? Oh, it would be something.

And she’d see these girls at church again on Sunday with their curls, angelic smiles, and stockings, looking like the apples of their moms’ eyes. Not saying anything, they would steal glances at one another as she spoke up in Sunday School — oh, what fun they’d have tomorrow about this lesson!

And yet, there was one place she could go with complete acceptance. Her mother and father adored her and enveloped her in their respect, love, and care the moment she came home.

And — in her room at night — she’d open her Bible and read of her Saviour. He was a “man of sorrows.” Enemies hung on his every word looking for their next point of contention with him. This man — this Jesus — knew what it felt like to be alone, to be made fun of even in church. To be left out and not fit in. He understands. He knows.

And snuggled under her covers beside a small lamp in the darkness, they met in conversation, talked about their day, and became best friends.