Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A forgotten friend

"The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl..."
from  Jane Kenyon's poem
 Who didn't get in trouble for asking a classmate for help? We all crossed the demand of silence to ask for a hint, a lead, a word that would trigger our memory so we could understand. 

Such it was in 9th grade. I sat beside Martha, a girl like me. She wasn't a cheerleader, she wasn't fashionable. Whereas our classmate Teresa suddenly became Terri (and the i was dotted with a little daisy, please), Martha didn't become "Marty". Martha wore her hair long and shabby;  she didn't flash any beauty at the boys. She was just plain Martha, a "sturdy, bright cheeked girl". In fact, she looked a lot like a very young (and a very alive) Janis Joplin...
Martha had one leg shorter than the other.  She walked with a considerable limp. No one ever mentioned it, but the handicap meant she never was picked for anyone's relay team in P.E. For some odd reason, I never was picked either - so Martha and I would wander to the side of track and look for interesting trash or worms for hungry birds. Our P.E. teacher would scream our names, demanding we return to the nest of our classmates. In anger, the teacher would assign us to opposing teams, hence resolving the 'never picked' scenario for everyone. 
Martha's dad worked in the next county for the Buster Brown shoe factory. He was a blue collar laborer who carried his lunch in a black lunch box. Martha's mom was an alcoholic. She never left her house, much less her tattered and smelly housecoat. Being an alcoholic in our town was a real feat, as we lived in a 'dry county'. But Martha's dad would transport the bourbon and scotch home each night, and Martha's mom stayed content. 
Martha and I existed amicably. We were safe with each other. So one day, when we were to silently work on answering questions on a worksheet, I leaned over and asked her to explain. 

WHAM! Miss Futrell, the teacher, slammed a book down on her desk and made us all jump. 

"You two - out of my classroom. NOW!"
Everyone looked around. Who??? 
Miss Futrell obviously meant that Martha and I were excused, excommunicated to the hallway to stand for the rest of the period.  I shook. I nearly peed my pants. 

"Out of here!"

Very meekly, Martha and I left our pencils on our desks and walked out the classroom door. Now, standard practice was that Martha and I were to stand in the hall - 2 class doors away from each other - until the principal walked by. He would be carrying a wood paddle. He would command us to bend over, to grab our ankles, and he would paddle us. As many times as he wanted. He was free to hit you once and let you go, or paddle until he was exhausted of hitting. Just the fact that you were standing in the hall meant you were his prize. 

Martha had been here before. I never had. Before moving down the hall to her appointed spot, she told me to hide behind the classroom door. "He won't see you there."

I stood behind an opened classroom door, as directed. I didn't peak around, I didn't breath. I just stood flat against the wall. Soon I heard the principal's footsteps, followed by the command "Bend over."

Martha got it hard, over and over. 

He never saw me, he never touched me. But I still cried.  I sobbed in Martha's arms, apologizing, slobbering and begging her to forgive me.  She laughed the beating off, as if it were routine and expected. 

Last week, I heard Martha's husband died. The paddling incident flooded my memories and my heart broken open once again. Once again I screamed "Damn, she didn't deserve this."


Pat Tillett said...

What a great and sad story.
She could have hidden behind the door and left you out in the hall to be paddled. But she didn't!
What a nice friend...

Ashley said...

What a sad story. Hopefully you haven't been living with too much guilt. What year was this in? I thought paddling was from a century ago!

Naturedigital said...

Very touching story Brenda.

giantspeckledchihuahua said...

You are a wonderful story teller, Brenda! This one brought back a few memories for me. Thanks, I think :) ...

Tash said...

I'm crying again... I do hope that Martha's life in between the horrible principal and loss of her husband has been very happy. In fact, it must have been.

The Retired One said...

How awful! A school that allowed child abuse by a Principal...gheesh. that lone is worth years of therapy.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Believe it or not, corporal punishment by teachers and/or administrators of schools is still legal in 20 states!!

BANJO52 said...

Add me to the list of those who are surprised at such arbitrary and severe paddling in a (public?) school. And not that long ago, if I've guessed at all accurately about your age. Disturbing. Every time I get worked up about frivolous law suits, I hear a story like this where somebody SHOULD have been sued (and fired).

Ditto also on how well told the story is--it could easily have been over-emotional, but you exercise good restraint.

Are you two still in touch, and if not, are you free to tell how you heard the news about her husband? And how her life had gone before that?

Elaine said...

You told this story very well. Martha was a good friend to have, much better than any of the popular kids would have been. It sounds like the adversity of her life made her very strong. Hopefully that strength will see her through the difficult loss of her husband.

Thérèse said...

What a friend to have and cherish! Friendship is such a treasure in good time and in bad.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjomyn, no, not 'that' long ago. It was accepted discipline and it kept the teachers from having to discipline. I do imagine now more parents are forbidding their children to be disciplined this way, by school administrators... but in some places it is still the norm.

I caught up with Martha via a friend on Facebook. She is a high school art teacher in Memphis - and no, she does not send students out to the hall to be paddled!

Diane AZ said...

Phew, what a story! Martha was a good friend to let you stand behind the door. When I was in school, only boys were paddled. I'm surprised it's still legal in 20 states.