Sunday, June 14, 2009

Harriet The Spy

The other weekend when we were at Budge's house for dinner with his parents, I noticed a copy of Harriet The Spy on the bookshelf. I reached for it instinctively as it brought a flood of memories to mind, namely the journal she kept on everything and everybody. It was this kind of journal that brought a stand-off between this introverted sixth grader and a prissy, embittered teacher.
His name was Mr. Bush and he taught sixth grade at Ridgewood Elementary for as long as anybody could remember. I thought he was just a little odd, but he was a popular teacher and most of my classmates liked him. Looking back, I realize he was a flaming closet queen, stuck in a job he no longer enjoyed and ruled over his classes like a cardigan-wearing Napoleon. I was one of the smarter, if not the smartest kids in his class. Only Mary-Jane Campbell, Queen of the Nerds, was smarter than me, but I was a fraction more popular. That only meant I was picked on slightly less than the foreign kid with a limp.
I carried my spiral bound notebook everywhere, making copious notes on who was wearing what, who was saying what and during lunch, who was eating what. I once even made the scandalous observation that: "Tanya's tummy pokes out so much it looks like she's pregnant!" (Understand now, at the age of 11, I knew what pregnant was, but not that it involved...."S"..."E"..."X"! That explanation would come a few years later while sleeping over at my older cousin's house, listening to that "hippy music" late into the night.) Like Harriet, I thought that the journal and the note taking was a way of making me appear mysterious and interesting to others. I wasn't as popular or as handsome or as athletic, but at least I could be unusual and different. And that would make me unique and special.
It was at recess one day when one of the class bullies decided he'd had enough of my notetaking and took it from me. Within minutes, most of the class was gathered around to see what I had written about them as I vainly pleaded to get my notebook back. Suddenly, in a burst of heretofore unknown bravery, I ran at the kid currently holding my notebook and snatched it free. There was a great chase around the playground, with me trying to elude about a half dozen of my classmates. It ended abruptly when Mr. Bush appeared to take us back inside and I ran to him, looking for sanctuary from my pursuers. Surely he would straighten this out and punish these rotten kids for trying to steal something of mine. It didn't happen that way. Instead, he took the notebook from me and we were all ushered inside to our classroom. Once there, the other kids kept arguing, "He's saying bad things about us in that notebook!" I protested, "But it's my private journal! I'm allowed to write what I want! I never said these things to anybody out loud!" Mr. Bush would hear none of it and instead that I would read aloud to the class what I wrote as punishment for my "sneakiness" and "being a busybody". As it was almost time for school to let out for the day, he decided that I would do this next morning before class. It was as if I were to be held in a kiddie stockade in the center of the playground. Not only would this reinforce the dislike by the usual kids, I was now being put on public display as an outcast. I was horrified.
I went home that afternoon worried of my fate and that night I told my mother what happened. My father was often traveling out of town during the week on business, so much of our life's little dramas were handled by my mother. I was afraid she wouldn't understand what was going on and assume it was just typical schoolyard behavior and that I was exaggerating again. But she did something very special. She believed me and she got mad. She got mad at the teacher and the school. "You tell that Mr. Bush tomorrow that I said you don't have to read those things in front of your class and if he has a problem with it, tell him to call me and I'll tell him myself!" I was overjoyed. I was saved from certain humiliation and scorn. I was saved from a petty, bitter man's brand of punishment. And the best part: I could talk back to this teacher in front of the class and my mom would protect me! I would be the ultimate hero to the rest of the class! I could hardly wait to get to school the next morning.
After saying the pledge of allegiance and the morning announcements from the principal's office over the intercom, Mr. Bush addressed the class. "I believe that you have something to share with us Mr. Adair?" He handed me my notebook and took his seat behind his desk. I was almost trembling as I stood, and instead of walking to the front, I turned and faced my teacher. "My mother said that I didn't have to read this if I didn't want and I don't want to", I said with as much bravery as I could muster. His face looked pinched, his eyes widened and he said loudly, "Oh you don't do you? Well then perhaps a visit to the principal's office is in order for you mister!" And that was it. There wasn't a sound from anyone in the class and only after I was told to wait outside for him did I hear any kind of murmur from the rest of the students. He escorted me down to the principal's office himself, making sure to remark how disappointed he was in this behavior from me, "one of his best students". The rest of what happened isn't as clear but I recall sitting outside the principal's office while Mr. Bush went in and talked to him. My mother did say that they called her at work but she wouldn't tell me what was said, however, she must have given them an earful because soon I was back in class, my notebook in hand, the incident forgotten. I eventually stopped keeping the journal mainly because I didn't want any more hassles. And that prick, Mr. Bush, ended up giving me a "C" that semester, even though I was an "A" student.
Later that night, I did tell my mom thanks for backing me up at school, but I don't think I fully realized the significance of what she did that day. It was the first real incident where one of my parents actually had to step in and protect me. I had always felt safe and loved and cared for, but most kids do and ultimately, we take it for granted. This time, I had the courage to stand up to something that I thought was wrong because my mother believed me instead of the so called "responsible adult". That little prop to my self-esteem became important to me as I developed into an adult with my own opinions and ideas. And, thanks to my mom, I've never been afraid to express them since.

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