What should I call you? Mrs. Stone, Wendy, or Dear Mom of the Classmate Who Needed Saving?
First weeks of school, I saw your daughter as simply the new kid, who in both English and Geometry sat to my immediate right. Chunky, dark-curled, always wearing drab long-sleeved blouses even in humid classrooms. Nobody remarkable, I’m sorry to say.
My specialty was teacher-impressions: that year, Mr. Darrow’s head-scratch and Freakster Fernster’s hand-tremble. Soon as my prey faced the whiteboard, I’d start in. My daily goal was one giggle, minimum, from every classmate. The stifled giggles were the best, so long as my target grew unnerved. Darrow or Fernster or whoever would whirl around, frantic to ID the provoker, but always –always—I stopped my mimicry just in time. And, equally always, nobody told on me.
Your daughter alone was never amused by my antics. Not once. Through September, into a still-warm October … she yielded no smile, no nothing, not even an eye roll.
Well, every class clown likes a challenge. Your daughter, the new kid, became mine.
I’m no stalker, Mrs. Stone. Wendy. Just an observer, like any good comic, one who’d seen Harriet blush every time she was called on. Seen her accept check-minuses rather than tackle equations on Fernster’s whiteboard, exposed to her peers. Seen her hang back, silent, in gym class during sides-picking for squads.
Gym class. The rope-climb. How much did she tell you?
She was following Coach Hahn’s instructions: Keep both hands on the rope, don’t look down or at the rafters. But Billy Munk and Nate Lofton—my best friends since forever—soon as Coach strutted to the far window, they pounced. As your daughter climbed nearer and nearer to the ceiling, my idiot pals dragged the landing mat from beneath her.
Some kid or other, sensing the danger, screamed “Put that back!” Your daughter glanced down, her grip faltered, and she fell, hit the floor like a cantaloupe going splat. From across the gym, Coach ran toward the sound. Wide-eyed, he knelt by her, yelled at us all to stay back.
She’d landed on her arm, but despite winces and groans, she did not yowl. Billy kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Nate, being Nate, only stared.
“Harriet, you all right?”
I realized I was the one asking. Kneeling beside her, opposite Coach, despite Coach’s order not to.
“Dude!” Behind me, Nate cackled. “You like this chick?”
I didn’t, not the way he meant. I swear, Mrs. Stone, all I craved from your daughter was a laugh. I would say “just a laugh,” but a class clown lives for laughter, thirsts for it just as a mosquito thirsts for blood. And from the very first week of first grade, way back when, each and every one of the eighty-seven classmates I’d had—yes, I tallied them—had many times laughed, chortled, roared at my impressions. And here was this new kid, your daughter, never once even grinning. She jeopardized my perfect record.
And now my two idiot-buddies had jeopardized her health.
“Can you sit, honey?” This from Coach Hahn, as he tugged at her sleeve. “Here, let’s—”
“No!” Reassuring, the strength in her voice. Or so I thought. “I’m fine!” She staggered upright, hand across her sweatered chest.
A sweater, in our eternally warm gym.
As Coach phoned the nurse, and again when the nurse came, your daughter refused to be checked. Scorned the very idea of a sling. If her arm hurt in the weeks that followed, she hid it well. Just as she hid any amusement at my clowning. While the latter frustrated me, the former barely registered—till the November morning when the school’s furnace went hyper. Heat whooshing nonstop into our classroom, everybody removing extra layers. Everybody except for your daughter, clad that day in a powder-blue sweater. Even as she grew drenched from that heat, Harriet kept her sweater on, and she kept it rolled down.
That’s when I stopped, Mrs. Stone, simply craving her laugh.
You and your husband and Harriet … you’d moved into town, what, the summer before? Despite our empty storefronts, the graffiti and the drugs and the no jobs. All the reasons most smart families move away.