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)