Once, when I was in first, maybe second, grade this boy was going to beat me up. He ran at me in the school yard and to everyone’s surprise—especially my own—I swung first, landing a pretty solid right to the jaw. It was the only time I ever had any pushback for someone who hadn’t hit me first–at least once. Anyway, I really didn’t have a choice, there was nowhere for me to run and, as it turned out, I didn’t have to. He grabbed his jaw with both hands, looked horrified and ran inside the school. I don’t know if it actually bled, but he certainly acted like it did.
Later, I remember Mrs. O’Hare talking with Mrs. Callahan (Cockeyed Callahan), wringing her hands and shaking her head while lamenting what a burden I put on them, “daydreamer, obstinate, uncooperative, unproductive and immature.” Then, as they both stood looking down at me, shaking their heads so vigorously that their turkey necks swung violently from side to side, she said “and today he hit one of my best boys.”
The Best Boys. With their scrubbed faces, fresh haircuts and new sneakers, smacked baseballs with firm and even swings, never missed class, could dutifully recite their timetables and, on Sundays, the Apostles Creed. The Best Boys were only cruel when no one was looking and, if you really were a Best Boy, no one ever was. It was as if they had some sort of arrangement with those in authority: a childhood version of don’t ask don’t tell.
I had no arrangement with anyone in authority. That was the problem or, at least, one of them. Mrs. O’Hare, Mrs. Callahan, Mrs. Jeffries, Miss DeVoe and all the other ladies in flowered dresses liked classifications and arrangements and such. They appreciated a simple order of things and who could blame them. Life with more answers and less questions is so much easier to manage: I would have done it the same way if I’d only known how.
They did what made most sense. They simply took stock of their charges and invested where the return looked most promising. Separating the wheat from chaff you might say, they designated best boys, good boys and hopeless boys.
Best boys, good boys, hopeless boys…how any of us got that way is still a question for ages. That was the stuff of long forgotten thesis papers and scholarly journals left unread and yellowing in a teacher’s lounge. It is truly without sarcasm that I suggest that those questions were probably too much to ask of people who signed up to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. They had homes to get to, dinners to cook and little time for anything out of order.
I didn’t expect them to do more than they were asked or to look for what they didn’t really want to see. I don’t hold teachers responsible for clearing the paths or healing the wounds of children randomly thrust into their care. But, I did expect them not to be among those who inflict the damage. I expected, still expect, them to have the wherewithal—let’s call it the intellectual courage–to know when they’re the problem and when they’re the solution.
I expect that now more than I ever did and I still don’t think it’s too much to ask.