Congratulations! We survived the Holidays with our sanity intact…or rather what passes for it, I should say.
Honestly, I can’t complain about Christmas this year. At least I got to spend the morning with my man and the afternoon binge watching every Christmas movie I owned or cared to watch off Netflix or Amazon. I found it a little disturbing and profound that I identified with George Bailey up to the point where he never escaped Bedford Falls. Reminded me of my high school years, constantly dreaming and yearning for the day when I could cut loose and escape the smallness of my hometown.
At the end of eighth grade, my family and I were essentially kicked out of a small private school. The official reasons dished out by the school board bore little resemblance to the real reasons reflected in the condescending looks and arrogant remarks cast by some of the teachers and more than a few students. The board said they wanted to respect our religion and allow me and my siblings to express it as we saw fit. But after seven years of daily harassment, I know I have not possessed anything passing for faith since. What the board said, in not so many words was, “We don’t want your kind sullying our school with your religious beliefs.”
And maybe more existed behind the scenes. I just know that “friends” of mine all too often enjoyed when I was singled out by teachers. One friend of mine ceased to talk to me after his dad threatened to kill him for being my friend. He told me that after several days of bugging and made me promise not to tell anyone. That was a real blow since he was one of my best friends, but I knew then his dad had a severe temper, and I still hold few doubts he was abusive. Still, the underlying message remained, “Thou art damned to hell for what thou dost profess and you will not drag me and mine down with you.”
By the tail end of May 1999, word leaked out that our family wasn’t welcome back, and the kids pulled the plug on all association with us. The Junior High and High School students always took a road trip to St. Cloud, MN to visit Wilson Park. When no one let me join in with volleyball or basketball as they had the year before, I strapped on my backpack and headed out to the trails, flushed with anger and in bad need of some alone time.
The high school science teacher saw me headed out alone. She caught up to me, an impressive feat in high heels and dress skirt which were a Southern fashion holdover from the 1960s. She was a transplant, but the only thing I liked about her was her accent. She was my “Best Friend’s” mom, and she had walked straight out of Hilley’s groupies in the pages of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, only with a 1990s twist to her style.
“Where are you going?” she asked me.
“Hiking,” I told her flatly, hoping her high heels might deter her from joining me.
“Wouldn’t you rather play volleyball with the other students?”
“They don’t want me playing with them.”
She gave me a start. “I doubt that,” she retorted. “You just didn’t try to get on a team.”
“And the fact none of them have hardly spoken to me in the last two weeks has nothing to do with it?”
She dismissed my comment with a scoff, and I turned away, heading down the trail, completely done with the conversation, her and the whole crowd.
“I better go with you,” she said, hurrying to catch up.
“I don’t want you around,” I told her, letting the words carry their own impact. “I want to be left alone.”
“This isn’t a safe place for a girl alone.”
“I can handle myself.”
Truth was, I couldn’t, not really, but anyone willing to mess with me in that mood would have a hard time abducting me unless they pulled a weapon of some kind. Anger sustained me for the first several years of my life and remains a large part of my personality. If anger isn’t available, good old-fashioned anxiety takes over and keeps me moving. A moving target is always harder to hit.
“I still think I’ll go with you.”
That insistence lasted about two hundred feet. The paved trail dropped down from the roadside to a shoulder of land just above a row of trees which veiled the Mississippi River from view. We just passed the dog-leg when three of my male classmates appeared on the sidewalk above. One had a football which he tossed to his cohort intercepting one of the younger kids, the son of one of the school’s regular preachers. The little kid served as a regular target for harassment not because of his status as a “PK” but because he was an arrogant shit. I’d stuck up for him once, and he’d returned the favor by passing down the judgement that my ass was damned to hell for all eternity, no pass go, and don’t even think about collecting no 200 graces. That stood as a consensus in that school, but coming from a preacher’s kid gave it a whole new credibility for some people. Needless to say, I had no pity for the kid.
Missus S saw the happenings and decided to intervene.
“Stay here,” she told me.
“Yeah right,” I muttered once she was halfway up the hill. I waited two more seconds to pass for her to fully engage the three boys and commit all her attention to them. Then I backed the couple steps toward the trees and slipped into the thick darkness of shrubbery. I didn’t know what lay beyond it, other than the river, and I didn’t care. One blessing of Minnesota is most bushes don’t have thorns.
I found the equivalent of a little game trail and cut back toward the bridge where a narrow opening in the hedges allowed me to drop down to the rip rap at the water’s edge. Once on the stones and broken concrete, I headed down river toward the gardens. Years later as a freshman in college across the water from that same spot, I wondered at how a city could grow up on the banks of such a great artery of travel and recreation and fundamentally hide itself from it.
A few yards downstream, I heard Missus S calling for me to come back. I crouched behind a thick spot in the bushes and stayed there, listening to the clop clop of her shoes against pavement, stark against the other sounds of the city. Maybe she wasn’t a bad person, but I had no compassion for those who failed to stick up for me. She hung me out to dry more than once in order to make her own daughter look good. She even harassed me because, when it came down to it, her daughter lacked all scientific aptitude, even when given the test answers. Most kids were taught to trust the teachers. Things like that taught me that I never could.
Eventually, Missus S gave up and left. I sat with my back to the hedge, watching the current flow pass on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The water passing me at that moment, if it possessed consciousness, could it have known the journey it faced over a couple thousand miles? And if it did, was it afraid? I knew I wasn’t. I’d be home schooled in the fall, and probably the year after that. That ground doesn’t get much more familiar. Where would life take me after that? I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. I just knew I wanted to leave that school and those people behind.
Unfortunately, I would never be completely rid of them. The memories are still there both conscious and unconscious. My experiences there cultivated a perpetual distrust and dislike for everything and everyone popular. Escaping there taught me that I could land on my feet no matter how far I fell. I also learned that the grass is always greener elsewhere when you are standing on what you see as barren land. While dreaming of the places to travel, George Bailey missed the far reaching roll he played in Bedford Falls.
Never think you’re insignificant, or that what you do means nothing. To someone somewhere in your life, it makes a difference.