This story is by Jodi Elderton and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
STICKS AND STONES
Children can be cruel. Hell, they learn it from adults. I know this from childhood trauma and from teaching grade school. What we say to kids sticks in their heads and becomes aching memories years later.
My kindergarten teacher was a cruel woman. She taped my mouth shut for talking and another time made me stay in from recess just because I couldn’t cut paper hearts to her standards. I don’t recall her exact words. I do remember the shame and humiliation they scarred me with. It’s a miracle I didn’t hate school. My first-grade teacher saved me. She was an angel. Her compassion melted the cruelty away. Words matter. Just how much, I was yet to discover.
I’m a popular 6th grade teacher. It doesn’t pay well, but the kids are great. Based on my experience, I remind them to say nice words. I don’t buy the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ crap. I never have, especially now.
On my way to work yesterday, I noticed a group of kids arguing on the playground before school. When I saw the ringleader, I quickened my pace up the sidewalk. It was Kevin, the school trouble maker, yelling at a girl I didn’t recognize. He towered over her shorter, pudgy form, his taunts growing louder. Several onlookers cheered him on. The others stood in silent assent.
“Do you want to lose 10 pounds of ugly fat? Cut off your head!” Kevin barraged her with insults like an aggressive boxer. It hadn’t become physical, but his fists were clenched.
Tears rolled down the girl’s freckled face. She screamed, “You’re so hateful. I wish you were dead!”
The bully’s grin quickly faded and everyone waited for the rest of his tirade. He crumpled to the ground motionless. As he did, I saw a dark winged animal fly from him and perch on the fence. I sped over to his side and shook him. “Kevin. Wake up.” This is taking things too far!” Kevin didn’t move and I became terrified. “Kevin!” I felt for a pulse. Nothing. “Call 911!” Another teacher raced out of the building and frantically dialed, while I started CPR.
The inky creature remained on the fence. I sensed its beady black eyes staring at me. The medics loaded Kevin up on the stretcher. They were doing CPR as the ambulance rolled away. I hoped it would be gone when I looked up. Nope, still there with its piercing stare. It had the face of a raven, with the wings of a bat, about the size of an eagle. I wondered why the kids stood so close. Couldn’t they see it? I wanted to bolt, but froze. Later, I learned Kevin never made it to the hospital alive. Rumors about a possible congenital heart defect. I know better.
My classroom was as quiet as death. Poor choice of words, huh? The little girl who hurled those words at Kevin was in my classroom. She was new. The other kids went out of their way to avoid her. “Hey, John would you please sit next to Sarah? We only have so many desks.” John hesitated, then nodded “yes.”
“Hi. I’m John.” He appeared to move in slow motion. The desk creaked a warning, as he sat down next to her. John was not well liked, either, but at least he was kind.
“Hey,” Sara whispered. Her tear-stained face was calmer now. The bird thing settled on her shoulder and groomed itself. This time it was smaller and grayer. Sara seemed oblivious to the cooing sounds it made close to her ear. They sure didn’t cover this in crisis intervention training. Hopefully, that meant it was happy and no one was in immediate danger of dropping dead.
My voice was shaky and I tried to put on my best game face. I could feel the moisture on my forehead and attempted to take a deep breath. Maybe, reading a story would help us feel right side up again. “Please turn to page…”
A loud thud interrupted my instructions, as a stack of Sarah’s books slid onto the floor, assisted by the girl behind her. Camille had a snarky expression on her face. She added, “Freak,” as she scowled at Sarah. The bird creature turned raven black and rapidly grew in size. Sarah started wailing. She rocked back and forth in her chair in a vain attempt to calm herself. I silently prayed she wouldn’t say anything.
“I’m tired of people being mean to me. I wish you’d go away Cammy!”
I blinked and no Camille. The other children gasped in unison. The winged beast disappeared for a moment and returned with bat wings in full extension, fiercely glaring at me like I should have intervened to prevent this.
I was not aware I was biting my lip until I tasted the blood. I had no earthly idea of what to do next. Do I call for help? I sure as hell wasn’t going to reprimand Sarah. I quickly abandoned the illusion I was in control of the classroom. I wanted to survive and save as many of the others as I could.
Other students joined the sobbing Sarah, and the room became a chorus of crying. The demon bird decreased in stature, but remained black. It stood guard on Sarah’s desk. John leaned over and put his hand on Sarah’s shoulder. I held my breath. His gray eyes met her baby blues. “Sarah, I’m sorry we hurt you. Please don’t be sad anymore.”
Murmurs of agreement and added apologies filled the air. Sarah stopped weeping. The angry bird dissolved into a gray dove. An astonished Camille rematerialized back in her chair. I exhaled.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Never have believed it and never will. Now you know why.