After dinner Friday night, we began telling stories on each other. Like the time our fourth grade teacher tied Madd Maxx to his chair with a jump rope because Maxx wouldn't stay in his seat. Or the time several of the boys got a spanking all at the same time. Or how about when L. was bragging about her monkey bar skills and E. and I laughed our butts off when she fell face forward in the sand and was knocked out cold..and then we thought she was dead and we'd get in trouble for laughing. Story after story rolled around the crowd, causing us to laugh uncontrollably (okay, some of us were in control. Not me.), hold our aching sides and wipe tears from our eyes. Eventually, we got around to asking where is SHE now or whatever happened to HIM, the folks who were a little odd, the folks who were on the lowest rung of the grade school social ladder, which in backwoods middle America was pretty low AND pretty ridiculous. While our group was unique in that we were so close, we weren't without a class system, and we didn't escape the urge to pick on the weakest members. I've always considered it to be normal teasing and probably pretty harmless. I mean, we all got ribbed or picked on about something every now and then, right? It just made us tougher, helped to shape us into stronger people who know the world isn't always fair. Right? But in the middle of all the ha ha ho ho hee heeing and giggling about the time F. stabbed me in the chest with a pencil and how weird F. always was, M. looked at me and said, "Do you remember what we called her?"
And suddenly I didn't feel like laughing because I remembered. Yes, we called her "flea bag", and for the first time ever I let myself think about how awful that must have been for her. Awful, because that's such a horrible thing to call someone. Awful, because in the immediate years after grade school I learned about her mother's suicidal tendencies, her poverty and her father's sexually abusive treatment of her. It's what made her behave so oddly when we were kids. It's why her clothes were often the wrong size or downright ratty. It's why she told scary stories in the restroom about whippings with belts that left marks. It's why she tried too hard to fit in. Somehow I had forgotten the nickname the class pinned on her. Hmm. Forgotten or suppressed? Did wiping out the memory of calling her "flea bag" make it easier for me to live with the knowledge of the abuse in her family and how badly I and three dozen other children treated her all those years ago?
Another funny story jarred me out of my somber moment Friday night, and I went on laughing at the next tale. I left the restaurant reminded of many old memories, but one in particular that I can't quite shake, the memory of F. No one seemed to know where she is now or what happened to her. The last thing I heard many years ago was that she was living in a nearby college town, prostituting herself. I don't know if that was true. I hope not. I hope somewhere along the way she found hope and peace and friends who treat her well. And wherever you are F. I'm sorry, really sorry for the way we all behaved. I'm sorry I ever called you..gulp..."flea bag". Very. Very. Sorry. And F. I won't let myself forget that again.
Oh, and while I'm at it, I'm sorry L. for laughing when you fell off the monkey bars. And I'm especially sorry for laughing and pulling that bandanna off your head that morning on the school bus when you overslept and were trying to hide the fact that your hair was all matted up. Really, I am.
Hey, maybe we're not EXACTLY the same as we used to be.