I haven’t asked for critique on my work yet and there is a reason. It’s not that I don’t think I need it nor is it because I don’t want it. I just have a child to put to sleep first. I need to wait until she is quiet because she remembers. She remembers and I am afraid.
Grades. The bane of my teacher’s heart. Each year, three times a year I send them home, words and comments needing honesty and encouragement for the gifts of each child. Each time my child awakes reminding me what I don’t need to be told. How I say what I say matters. The honesty and yet mercy in the way I evaluate my students matter. Yet, with all the grace I use I can never know how my words will affect the person who reads them. She quakes remembering what she will not let me forget.
Mr. Walker must have known something was not right as the little girl buried her booklet in the arm wrapped around it to try to hide it from view. Small letter c, small letter c, small letter c, read a question, small letter c, self-check work, finally the stems are added to make the a’s and the b’s and the d’s, over and over, test by test. The little girl tried but the words flashed across the screen disappeared before she could read them. Yet she couldn’t fail. Her grades were all she had to prove her worth with when she went home at night. Her parents believed her report card. It was the one thing that proved she was good.
Why he didn’t confront her earlier never entered the little girl’s mind when the final grade was given. A large red F glared as her from the top of the page. Only then did she learn that she hadn’t hidden anything at all. All the weeks or days of the speed reading program, Mr. Walker knew what she was doing. The little girl’s tears trembled inside her, defiant rage gripped her. Grades were survival. She was afraid.
You would not have known the fear from the outside. When the punishments begin young enough a child doesn’t know that there is anything wrong with them. A child loves her family, needs her family especially when, in grade 4 she is attending her fourth school in four years and living in the eighth house and town in nine years. Her family is the core of her life. The strangers who enter and spend time for a day to teach her she is special will fade into the distance of miles travelled. Her family will be the only truth that follows her in life.
The truth had been something she had lost long ago. Punishment and fault correlated based on accusation not actuality. Her sisters said it was her fault. She was spanked. Her sister cried about a lost toy that was later found in the little girl’s drawer, the sister gloated behind her father’s back as the little girl was spanked. At five, the little girl laughed as the belt struck her and tears rolled down her face. She had already learned her truth about bad. Bad was what somebody else said you were.
Hitting and teasing were norms in the little girl’s life. It is hard to fight back when no one believes what you say. Her sisters decided she had done something, she was threatened, once even laid up on the table, shirt pulled up with a butcher knife held to her belly. If she didn’t confess that she had taken them, they would cut her open. Her little heart clung to her mother as loving when a phone call from work “saved” her that time. Mom had taken the sunflower seeds to work. She hadn’t eaten them after all. What in adult life the sisters would call simple sibling pranks and teasing would leave the girl unstable in a home where truth and goodness could not be achieved because she was not able to get them to believe the words she said.
Only at school was she safe. At school she was smart and capable. She could read and do math and even out jump the boys in high jump. Her actions, concrete and measurable gave her worth. Having that worth was so important that she would do anything to keep it. The stability had already begun to crumble when childhood rivalry had enlisted the competitive spirit of her classmates into a class row that had separated her from her best friend. Now with one red letter, her one safe place to believe in herself was gone.
The little girl could not hold on to the fear and anger inside. Her clothespins which had been being used to create dolls became missiles of hate as “I hate Mr. Walker” were scrawled across them in Black and Red and left where he could see. The same words were written in soap on the bathroom mirrors. The little girl closed inside defiantly refusing to ask him for anything nor to write anything on any of her papers. She sat at her desk through the days closing herself off from those who had once been her friends. She would not even ask to go to the bathroom. Her patterns of defiance escalated in textbook ways. In the crisis of her life, she had nowhere to turn.
Mr. Walker did what he could and the big red F did not find its way to her report card. Telling her parent’s she needed psychiatric help did make it into her parent-teacher conference that term. She knew because her parent’s anger at him for saying such a thing gave the little girl some relief as they sided with her against him in those moments.
She began to turn in her work at school. Life began having a semblance of calm around the parameters of her life. Life went on in what she had come to know as normal at home. At school, the little girl never found her way back to the child she once had known.
Each time I write a grade, it is with a prayer for the child and the family, knowing that what I say can matter. My little girl inside won’t let me forget. Bad is what they say you are.
Sleep little one, I will treat the children with the loving care I wish I could have given to you. I will tell the truth though. If only the truth had been told then …. But no. You have no real understanding of what truth is. I will just rock you to sleep and pray.