Cruel recess games
I am recalling the fourth grade, and you, the pig farmer’s son, are running around the gym trying to escape recess games. Your saggy socks have slid down so that the toes hang lifeless. You run because some of us are chasing you and trying to step on the flapping socks so that they will come off of your slow feet as you try to get away.
You were a year younger than I and seemed to come from another world where the pull of gravity hadn’t been so intense.
I don’t know why you didn’t pull up your socks or blow your nose until it was too late or keep your belt tighter. Why did you sit silent when the teacher blamed you for the puddle of urine beneath the desk chair when the boy in the class before you had done it?
Orange patent leather
One day your younger sister shuffled past me in the narrow hallway of our Lutheran grade school, wearing my two-sizes-too-large, patent leather orange shoes. They came in the bag of clothes my mother gave to your mother, somehow, although I had never seen them speak. Your sister walked in a way that kept the shoes from falling off but caused her to slide along, adding to her already slumped demeanor.
Those shoes made me sick and sad when I saw them, made me uncomfortable in the shoes that fit me. It made no sense to me then but did much later. Your sister loved those shiny, orange shoes that had only been worn on Sunday with my yellow dress and had walked down the concrete driveway to the car before church and not the gravel farm lane littered with stray clumps of pig manure. The shoes were new to her, and she wouldn’t wait two more grades to wear them. She would not even put on an extra pair of socks, because she was convinced she was the princess and those shoes fit her perfectly.
Grade school lunchroom
Our childhood town has become something of a speck in my memory, except for a moment I carry in my brain like a piece of shrapnel.
I was one of the children filling our small lunchroom that day. We had all been dismissed from the rows of brown tables that our forearms and thermoses stuck to. Until Mr. M, the third and fourth grade teacher halted our exit, ordering everyone to stand frozen while you sat alone in the center of the room. The sandwich you hadn’t eaten was in front of you on an unfolded sheet of waxed paper like a terrible secret exposed.
Mr. M—who would yell at us on the mornings our timid and tired voices wouldn’t sing the hymn “Oh, that I Had a Thousand Voices” loudly enough to prove our love for God—stood over you, taller in his anger. He terrified me as a child, and I wondered years later how his wife lived with him and could still have the heart to make lime Jell-O with pears for every church potluck.
We collectively held our breath so as not to draw attention to ourselves instead of you, our eyes riveted to our teacher’s impromptu object lesson. The fear kept us from allowing our gaze to be diverted to anything else in the lunchroom—the chalkboard where one year Ms. L wrote guttural words in an attempt to teach us German; the brown Coke cooler with the bottles hanging by their necks waiting for our dimes to free them; the large windows cut out of the painted cinder block wall that didn’t invite you to look outside.
You had committed the unconscionable lunchroom sin. You didn’t eat your sandwich; you wasted food. How could you break the rules and make us all suffer that uncomfortable dread we spent much of our day trying to avoid? And how could you just keep sitting there silent? Maybe it was the slow way you moved, or maybe you were weighing the consequences, or maybe you were protesting quietly the fact that—as some of us learned later—it was your sister’s sandwich.
Swallowing the pain
I am sorry for being a witness to cruelty and not knowing that I could speak against it. My mother still asks why I never told her. It still makes her angry…that it happened and she didn’t know to help, that someone made me and my younger brother and our classmates part of the spectacle. But it never occurred to any of us that we had a right to tell. I remember how it felt—your humiliation, my fear, his hate. You took a slow bite and chewed slowly, and slow tears came down your face. We all breathed out in cautious increments, relieved with each bite you took.
I would relive that day if I could, counting the minutes on the big, white clock with the red second-hand until my mother picked me up. I would pour my story out even before my mother asked, “How was school?” She would have listened while she drove home to our subdivision then talked privately with my father. They would have gone to the principal’s office.
But nothing would have happened. My mother would have simply kept packing up our last season’s clothes in bags and giving them to your mother and asking me—now with a different tone in her voice—how my day at school had been.
“Arise, and silence keep no more”
And nothing did happen, except that eventually we all left that place. But that day has never left me, and I have to tell you I’m sorry. I am sorry for your humiliation; I am sorry for that picture of smiling Jesus that hung at the front of our classroom right behind the angry teacher; and I am sorry for having had a timid voice instead of a thousand.
“Oh, that I Had a Thousand Voices” by Johann Mentzer, 1658-1734
1. Oh that I had a thousand voices, To praise my God with thousand tongues! My heart, which in the Lord rejoices, Would then proclaim in grateful songs To all, wherever I might be, What great things God hath done for me.
2. O all ye powers that He implanted, Arise, and silence keep no more; Put forth the strength that He hath granted, Your noblest work is to adore. O soul and body, be ye meet With heartfelt praise your Lord to greet!
Published in catapult magazine, October 2010, “Naked” issue: http://www.catapultmagazine.com/naked/article/an-apology-to-the-pig-farmer-s-son and catapult’s winter journal 2011 (print edition)
5 thoughts on “An Apology to the Pig Farmer’s Son”
Thanks for sharing this. It helps you understand why children keep secrets about abuse.
More memories from 3rd – 4th grade:
I forgot to add a pee story: I recall Mr. M. being very strict about not letting people go to the bathroom. One time, we all heard the sound of someone suddenly peeing, like urine hitting a toilet bowel. Pig farmers sister was so terrified of M. that she sat frozen in her chair and peed a steady stream all over herself. Urine was overflowing the chair and dripping everywhere. I remember M. quietly getting a roll of those institutional paper towels and mopping the puddle off the floor.
I can recall being told to memorize random bible verses without being provided the meaning nor the context. I remember my youngest brother sobbing while tears soaked the pages of the bible he had open at the time. We all dreaded the consequences of not being able to recite the verse perfectly when our time had come to stand next to M.’s desk the following day. We had no clue what we were memorizing, and why we were doing it. Do it! Or else……
I am grateful that we were forced to memorize our multiplication tables before being allowed to go out to recess. In 4th grade, we had to answer all of the math problems displayed on the clunky overhead projector correctly. Remember that?
I also remember going to the school library and reading as many books as I could find by Thornton Burgess. Those books were not the mushy politically correct books so common today. They were turn of the century (20th century) classics. I used to really get lost in my book during quiet afternoon study time. Our 5th-6th grade teacher Mr. A. really knew how to run a school library. It was never the same after he had left. Thanks for encouraging me to read, Mr. A.!
I too, was afraid of Mr. M-. He had nothing but contempt for us. Mr. M- always treated several of us like we were annoying pieces of white trash.
I remember the morning hymn in 3rd and 4th grade. The hymn was the first activity to herald the beginning of the school day. After Mr. M- would finish playing the piano, he used to grumble in disgust: “You guys sing like birds.” No matter if we strained to sing a little louder with our tired voices, it was never good enough. Mr. M- decided that God was not happy with our feeble, half-hearted attempt to please Him.
I also recall watching Mr. M stand in front of the classroom, leaning on one foot, arms crossed, mumbling about a boring Social Studies while playfully picking his beard.
I remember watching pig farmers son take a squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of a crumpled paper bag. The two pieces of wonder bread were not white at all. The sandwich was covered with large brown and fuzzy green blotches of mold. Pig farmers son looked sheepishly at the sandwich, paused for a moment, and then decided to slowly eat the entire thing!
Remember Hi-Q and Bubble-Up? Remember the fun of blowing across the tops the partially-empty bottles. Everyone was making a different sound at the same time. Noisy crickets.
1st grade memories: I remember in 1st grade how Mrs. B. always brought an apple and a pairing knife. I also remember how much fun it was to take a milk carton, fold over one of the sides, and move it around the lunch table like a tank.
Only one person was worse than Mr. M., and that was Mr. B.
The tension in the 7th and 8th grade classroom unbearable. Mr. B. was a walking ball of rage. Each of us tried very hard not to become his next target. It was a lot of work trying very hard not to be noticed. Be careful what you say, and how you say it. It could earn you a slap across the face.
Mr B. dumped over garbage cans when you missed, took away your shoes, your chair, and made you wear degrading signs. He touched inappropriately, slapped, and broke a yard stick over backsides. If he decided that your desk was too messy, he would casually dump the entire contents of your desk on the floor for you to pick up and reorganize, piece by piece. He accused without proof. He enjoyed sneaking up on people and scaring the crap out of them. I can’t tell you how many times kids were ‘clothes-lined’ during Christmas program practice (yeah, right!) and shoved down to his office to be dealt with for whispering. I recall being grabbed by the back of my hair for whispering during chapel. Do you remember the notorious “Spock Lock” after getting caught running down the hallway. I still remember that pain to this day.
Mr. B. was allowed 40 full years (and Mr. M. for almost 20, I think) to torture kids, while the church Board of Elders *and* the School board allowed it to happen. Amazing. Like a visit to a cemetery, that church/school still haunts me whenever I would visit on an occasional Sunday. I live far away now, and I am glad that our new LCMS church/school is not like that at all.
Thank you for sharing your experience. Elementary school is such an important time in children’s lives. It saddens me that this was more so a painful time for many.
I shared this particular experience because of the weight of what I believe to have also been my responsibility in the way I treated others or witnessed them being treated.
We are affected forever by how others treat us, but how we treat others affects us even more deeply whether we realize it or not.
Thank you, again, for sharing your very personal memories.