Across from me in a scarred desk similar to mine, Eddie sat biting his ragged fingernails. I didn’t want to look at him, but this time he seemed worried. He glanced at me and smirked. I knew what was coming. When the teacher began busily shuffling papers, he leaned over and whispered, “I need your help on this test. “
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
Eddie frowned and said, “I’ll see you at recess.”
I looked up. The teacher was heading straight for me. “Are you talking during a test? That means you get an ‘F’.”
Eddie looked up and said sweetly, “I tried to tell him but he wouldn’t listen.”
She glared at Eddie and stalked off, ripping my paper to shreds as she went.
All I could do is sit and wait for the bell to ring. I also had time to think about the last few months.
Three months ago my parents decided to move out of the Kiamichi Mountains down to the flatlands near the Texas border. My brothers and sisters and I did not have the clothes and luxuries that people in town seemed to have. Our clothes were usually made from flour sacks. Each of us would wait eagerly for our own flour sack, which Mom would turn into a shirt or blouse. But everybody knew where our clothes came from.
Since we had arrived we were ridiculed as being “poor hicks” and our country house was pointed at as people walked or drove by. Dad and my older brother had fixed the broken boards in the floor while mom and my sisters wallpapered over the numerous mouse holes in the walls. One small room was added, with boards torn from an old shed. Inside, it was kept neat and tidy, but we never had visitors so no one ever knew the house had changed.
It was late winter and snow was on the ground. I was waiting for spring so I could run barefoot but spring seemed so far away. It was still cold outside so for my twelfth birthday, two days ago, I had received my most cherished possession, a brand new sweater, the first I had ever owned. While the sweater was still on my mind, the bell rang for recess.
“Go outside and get some fresh air,” the teacher commanded. “You can’t stay inside.”
Reluctantly I got up, knowing Eddie was waiting for me.
“Come on, you little runt. How come you didn’t help me? I’m gonna teach you a lesson.” Eddie grabbed my sweater just under my chin.
Suddenly I was brave, infused with anger. “Let go of my sweater, Eddie.”
“What are you gonna do about it, runt?” He stepped back and swung me around, still holding the sweater. R-r-r-r-rip! The sweater separated down the front. Never before had I defied Eddie but now I exploded. There were no thoughts of danger. I began boxing like my brother had taught me. I hit Eddie’s left eye three times in rapid succession. He backed up and then waded in again swinging wildly. I stepped away and began concentrating on Eddie’s right eye. He connected twice, knocking me to the ground. I jumped up quickly, knowing it was dangerous to stay down while I was unprotected. Twice I hit his right eye and he backed away in confusion. His left eye was closed; his right eye was rapidly swelling.
A crowd had gathered and was watching the fight with interest. Eddie was losing and I had the advantage.
“What’s going on out here?” The teacher’s voice rang out loud and clear. She looked at me and smiled. “You look awful,” she said. “You’re too small to be in fights.” Then she noticed Eddie. “What happened to you?” she asked anxiously. “Did you get jumped by the whole group?” She glared at the crowd and waited for a confession.
“Nope. That little kid did it all by himself,” offered a girl standing to the side. The teacher started towards me but Eddie stepped in front of her. “He sucker punched me,” he said quietly. “He got me when I wasn’t looking.”
“You’re going to the principal, young man,” the teacher said as she grabbed my arm. “You should be ashamed of what you did.”
In the principal’s office I received swats with a big wooden paddle. There was no discussion because the principal ruled the school and he had decided my punishment based on the teacher’s account of the fight.
There was no way for anyone to contact my parents so I waited there until they arrived to take me home. The very worst part was the waiting and wondering how mad they would be, not about the fight, but about the sweater. School dismissed before my parents arrived. Rather than hurrying to their buses as they usually did, students filed past the office, waving and whispering.
I rode most of the way home in silence. As we rounded the corner to our street Dad said, “Tomorrow we’re going to Eddie’s house and you’re going to apologize to his parents.”
I was shocked and mortified. Eddie had torn my sweater! I looked at Dad’s face and decided not to object. I could tell he was disappointed in me.
(continued, The Apology)