I was about as red-faced as a 9-year-old could get as my teacher spilt out the disheveled contents of my school desk onto the ground for all my classmates to see. What made it even worse was that she had done the same thing, countless times, to only one other student: Ernie – the class retard.
Ernie was tall, lanky, awkward, and always in trouble over some troublesome behavior. He had special needs, but we never really knew what his disability was. He had pasty white skin, dark mole-freckles on his face and neck, and a terrible bowl haircut for his dark-as-coal greasy hair. Ernie was poor, and if you couldn’t tell he was a misfit by his physical appearance, then his ill-fitting shirts, high-water pants, and hand-me-down shoes were the dead give-away. I never considered how Ernie was able to go to this private school I attended; in retrospect it must have been some type of pro bono charity.
Ernie was paddled on a fairly consistent basis in front of the class for his wrong doings. Part of being in this private school included parents signing away rights for the school officials and staff to apply corporal punishment to its wayward students. Ernie was always on Mrs Reese hit list. I think on most days she didn’t like him. He could do no right, and sometimes I felt sorry for him. We all did. Some days us kids made fun of him, but when his antics infringed on our recess time or privileges, we would rally together taking turns to help him finish a homework assignment, remind him to not each his lunch during class, tell him to get his hands out of his pants or nose, reorganize his messy desk, or help him be a wallflower when Mrs Reese was having a particularly bad day.
I wanted to be like my teacher. Mrs Reese was a beautiful woman, long and waify, with silky cocoa hair styled just like Toni Tennille or Kate Jackson during her Angel years. I longed for her style of high-waisted polyester pants with a perfectly ironed front crease, and breezy tops ranging from the fine floral prints and lace of Gunne Sax to airy chiffon butterfly winged ponchos. I always figured she was a bit of a hippie like my favorite aunt, but she left her hippie free-love and drug-ways for Jesus, the love of her life. Mrs Reese prayed and sang with her hands in the air, she went to the church across town that did those types of things, and I always wanted to go but my family went to churches where charismatic worshipers were looked down on as freaks; no one raised hands in my church and we rarely clapped during hymnal songs.
Most days I loved my teacher. But not today as I watched my desk be pushed over with vengeful force. I had taken too long to find a paper in my messy desk; I was always a bit of a messy child. And Mrs. Reese caught me sorting through several crumpled papers on my lap, trying to find the right one to place on my desk for our assignment. She slapped my desk with a yardstick and yelled, “Sherry, you are as bad as Ernie. You clean up this mess right now or else I will spank you with the paddle. Is that what you want? Sherry, is that what you want – to be as dumb as Ernie?” I looked over at Ernie as my eyes rimmed with tears. He said nothing and looked down at the ground, not daring to look up at our teacher or me. Then my beloved teacher told me to lift the cover of my desk so she could see inside, and I filled with fear. I knew she wouldn’t be happy – and I didn’t want my hands to meet that yardstick like Ernie’s had. And I sat frozen in fear. That’s when she lifted the lid of my desk and exclaimed her disgust and pushed over my desk like Ernie’s had been so many times before.
I had been a pretty privileged kid for many years, and now I stood in Ernie’s shoes and knew what it felt like to be publicly humiliated in the stocks. My papers, pencils, pens, Chinese jump rope and sticker collection lay on the floor and I started to cry, which seemed to anger Mrs Reese. She grabbed my arm and escorted me to the front of the classroom. As I stood by her desk, she pulled open the drawer that contained the paddle and a trickle of pee went down my leg. She must have noticed because she stopped her next impending action and asked one of my friends to take me to the restroom to wash my face and get a drink of water. Robin and I left the classroom together as I thankfully saw Laurie and Teresa in the process of cleaning up my gutted desk.
When I returned, the classroom was calm and serene; my desk was immaculate with my assignment and a freshly sharpened pencil lying on top. It was as if the whole terrible ordeal had never happened as Mrs Reese sat at her desk cool and collected looking down at her open Bible. Sitting at my desk, I was still a bit shaken. I nervously looked over at Ernie, who sat right next to me. He stared at his desk with an odd smile on his face. He must have sensed my gaze when he turned to look at me. I sheepishly smiled, not understanding the moment as he opened his desk with the most cautious of moves – preventing the desk lid from squeaking, and pulled out a plastic bag of NutterButter cookies. With his dirty fingers he pulled a cookie out and brought the treat to his lips and then paused. Lowering the cookie, he looked over at me and whispered, “you want one?” I darted my gaze to Mrs Reese and back at Ernie, knowing this move would result in a paddling if we were caught, and Ernie had been told time-and-time-again to not keep food in nor eat at his desk. Mrs Reese was still in deep contemplation with her Bible, surely reading about sparing the rod spoils the child.
I looked back at Ernie who was already handing me the cookie. I took it quickly and shoved it in my dress pocket. Embarrassed that I was taking a cookie from Ernie, the poor retard and has dirty hands, breaking a rule, and the realization that in some way I was just like Ernie; imprefect and in need of a friend. I broke little bits of the cookie off inside my pocket and secretly nibbled at the crumbs and frosting that brought me comfort during the rest of the day.
Late afternoon, and out of our teacher’s earshot, my classmates and I talked about what happened while we waited in the carpool pickup area. I was still embarrassed about the situation and vowed to myself to keep a clean desk. The next day I brought Ernie lots of pink gum which made him very happy. And I don’t know why, but after that day Ernie was never paddled again. A grace had fallen over us. Maybe it was because we all made a concerted effort to do everything we could to protect Ernie from himself. Maybe a parent heard of the events and reversed the corporal punishment consent. Maybe Mrs Reese saw something fragile in me as I stood at her desk in fear with a trimmering bladder or something in that Bible of hers softened an impatient edge.
As the school year starts for many kids, I was reminded of how some lessons are learned in the hardest of ways when one is young – and even, especially, as we get older. And how Grace arrives in strange and odd ways, even in NutterButter cookies.