I can’t really say why, but sometimes memories confront me. I was once a creature of nostalgia, frittering away many hours thinking about decisions I’ve made, sometimes life itself. Lately though, that once defining characteristic of inner exploration has been absent. Why? Who knows. Truthfully it doesn’t matter. It’s not hours of pointless contemplation I really want - just the truth.
This time, I thought back to my time in Elementary School: fourth grade to be exact. This was when I lived back in Ellensburg Washington, a nondescript little town given a name by the college that took residence there. My Mom’s third husband: Jay, had moved us out there two years earlier, and we didn’t know it yet, but we were about to move again before the school year was out. When we first moved to Ellensburg, we lived near Washington Elementary, a school we didn’t attend even though we lived mere blocks away. Instead, we were enrolled at Lincoln Elementary where we had to take a bus every morning.
By the time I was in fourth grade, we had moved to a house on East Capitol Ave, about two blocks away from Lincoln Elementary. Which of the two schools I went to for fourth grade, I can’t recall. I do know I had few friends, and that I wasn’t particularly accomplished in my school work - that came later. I was a misfit and an outcast, a cheater, a liar, and so isolated in a world of my own design that I’m not sure I even noticed. I made up stories about skills I didn’t have, things I’d never done, and used my Heart Surgery scar to illicit pity, the only attention I seemed capable of receiving. But being oblivious and afraid isn’t a crime.
Our fourth grade teacher, who’s name escapes me, had a system for encouraging friendship and self-esteem, I can not name. The simple mechanics of this activity worked well on paper, but as always, I presented a particular difficulty it wasn’t designed to accommodate. This is how it all worked: a student is picked at the beginning of the year at random. Everyone else in class has to write something good about the selected person, and put it in a box. At the end of the week, the box is emptied, and for a whole day, one kid gets to feel like a million bucks as they read all of the letters. Eventually the child is supposed to decide on one letter that was especially insightful, and pick that person as the recipient for next week. No person can be selected twice, so it’s all nice and fair.
One of the popular kids, Dave picked my letter one week. To this day, I still think he had a level of civility and kindness I’m not sure I’ll ever equal. He’s just one of those genuinely nice guys everyone likes, just ask my first hamster: Dave. So it was my turn, the kid nobody really knew or liked, who played by himself on the playground, who would be getting letters. So they rolled in, day after day the aluminum-decorated box filled until I had to make a decision. Up until then, the worst thing I could remember doing was telling people I knew Karate, or some other story I’d invented to make myself more appealing.
One girl in the class somehow had my measure. I don’t remember even a single iota of what she wrote, but her words easily stood out from the pile of worthless platitudes that comprised the rest. A few others made a token effort, Dave was of course sincere and honest, but her letter was the obvious choice. Maybe it was a little too obvious. All I can remember is the end of the week, I was holding the box and on top was the letter of the next person to get her due. But then something horrible happened: they started chanting her name before I even reached into the box. Everyone knows that sickening song one way or another, the embarrassing accusation a boy loves a girl. I don’t even remember her name, just the rising din of voices as the magic worked its way through the crowd.
“He’s going to pick her! Who else could it be? He loves her!” They jeered. I didn’t know what to do. I was angry that they thought I loved her, when I was just following the rules of the game: pick the best letter. I was scared at what would happen if I confirmed their suspicions, and withered under their taunts. I could say I panicked, but that doesn’t describe how deep my reaction ran. My eyes darted to the inside of the box, I had to get them to Shut UP! I grabbed her letter and held it out.
“No, this is her letter. I didn’t pick hers,” I began, begging them to hear me, to stop belittling me, and her for her kind words.
It might have stopped there, but I think I snapped a little. Maybe I was trying not to cry, it was so long ago, but then I did something I still regret. Little by little, I started tearing up her letter, maybe the final proof that I didn’t care about what she wrote. Thinking about that now makes me feel sick inside; what was I thinking? Eventually everyone saw what I was doing, and a shocked silence descended on the room. So far that year, nobody had done anything like that, even to their worst enemy. The box was a day to pick your best friend, or the best letter - everyone knew that. I’d just committed a grievous error, and nobody could believe what they were seeing.
I’d like to say the whole room was silent, but it wasn’t. I heard a soft whimpering almost immediately, and wished I could have taken it all back, that I could ignore the barbs and just pick her damn letter. I might have tried to take it back once I heard her crying, say I’d actually picked her letter, that I didn’t know what to do in the face of a laughing classroom, but it’s been too long, and I don’t remember that part. But she cried - what fourth grade girl wouldn’t cry after something like that? As low as I may have been regarded before, somehow I’d managed to lower everyone’s estimation of me that day. I’d descended past unpopular to mean. It was probably best that I moved in the middle of the year.
She did get the box the next week, and I may have been punished. The second part of that doesn’t matter. I don’t know if it was some kind of hostile action rule, or that I successfully recanted disfiguring her letter, but she got the attention she deserved, no thanks to me.
Since then, I’ve said a lot of mean-spirited things to people. Sometimes I say these things on purpose, other times out of frustration or impatience. I like to think I’m a good person, that I mean well, but when I look back, I somehow feel I lack a certain kindness most people take for granted. When I think about my years in and out of the hospital, and all of the kind words and support I received until I finally got out for good, I feel I’ve done all of these people a great disservice. How can I repay kindness with bitterness? What has gotten into me over the years that could do such a thing?
I know what it is… was, but that would take much more explaining than this small excerpt. Maybe I should have spent more time thinking about when I was weak and defenseless, confused and scared. Now that I mostly have my act together, have the strength I wish I always had, I forgot the path itself.
I don’t know where any of this comes from, why I’m writing it, or why anyone would care. I think I’m afraid that even though I’m past my frail nature, that maybe I’m just fooling myself. Maybe all of this DDR and exercise isn’t enough to overcome the one genetic weakness that will be my eventual downfall. But I’m tired of looking behind my back for when or if my heart will finally start to falter. For better or worse, I need to start living for now, and just be the person I always wish I was.
I’ve had enough bitterness; it’s time for something different.