Again. I couldn’t believe it. She did it again. My face flushed with rage as I stood there in the hall outside my third grade classroom, glaring at my dingy blue winter coat lying on the linoleum. Cheryl Watry had knocked my coat off the first hanger in the line of coats outside Mrs. Halloran’s classroom, as she had done every single time I managed to beat her to the number one spot, and replaced it with her long faux sheepskin parka with the fur-lined hood and cuffs. We’d be outside, freezing in our winter coats in the cold sunshine with bare legs and knee socks; then, the bell would ring and we would all race, cheeks flushed, eyes watering, to line up. I wanted to be first as often as possible because that was the only way to get access to the first coat hanger. It was a status thing. First in line gets the first coat hanger.
I’ll get her next time, I thought, then picked my coat up by its dingy hood, slipped it on, and went outside for recess. I couldn’t even get into the game of kickball, I was so hurt by what Cheryl did to me every day. She was tall, lanky, with shoulder-length blond hair, and she didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. If she wanted something, she would get it any way she could. She would elbow, shove, stomp on your foot, holler, spit, whatever it took. This was new to me. I’d never seen a child, let alone a girl, with so much courage, power, and guts. In contrast, I was small, mousy, fearful, and accepted whatever was given to me without question.
Until that day. That was the last time Cheryl would knock my coat off the first hanger. I had a plan. When we came in from recess, I hung in the back of the line, my hands shoved into my pockets, head down, and just let Miss Bossy have her first hanger. She muscled her way to the front of the line, then charged for the first coat hanger as soon as the doors opened. I sauntered in, waited until everyone had hung up their coats and went into the classroom, chattering and shoving each other.
Then I made my move. I marched up to that first hanger and yanked her stupid faux sheepskin parka down to the linoleum and gave it a kick once it hit the ground — just as Mrs. Halloran popped her head out of the classroom to see what was taking me so long. I stood there frozen, my coat limp in one hand, reaching for the Number One Hanger with the other hand. My mouth dropped open. And the lecture began.
Mrs. Halloran, an Irish widow with a reddish nose, dragged me by the arm over to the corner at the end of the line of coats, away from the window so the other kids couldn’t see, and brought her veined face up to mine. Stray fronds of gray and white hair sprung from her tightly coiled bun as she barked “Do you think you have the right to damage other people’s property? Do you think you are better than other people? What gives you the right to knock Cheryl’s coat to the ground and put yours in its place? Do you think you own that coat hanger? Maybe you should bring your own coat hanger from home from now on.” On and on she went while a few kids got up and peeked through the narrow window in the classroom door.
I was ashamed and furious. I spent the rest of the day in a cloud of dark anger which carried me pretty much through the week. At home, I looked through our coat closets for any kind of hanger that resembled the hangers at school, which were attached to the pole so they couldn’t be removed. I had a new strategy. I would bring my own coat hanger, as Mrs. Halloran had suggested, in a paper bag every day and hang my coat up in front of Cheryl’s. That way I wouldn’t have to knock her coat down, and I could still beat her.
But my mom foiled that plan, seeing me with the hanger in a paper bag. She told me to put it back and stop being ridiculous. I came up with my own way to exact revenge on Cheryl Watry. For the rest of that year, and fourth grade as well, whenever we were in a cluster or group or squiggling line, I would kick, trip, or elbow her as hard as I could, always making sure there were enough people nearby that she wouldn’t know where the blow came from.
I learned something that year, as one of the kids who were bused from a different town. Teachers back then treated us differently because we were not from that town, not one of the elite. I remember Doug Bauman, the butcher’s boy, one of those kids who always had that raw chapped ring around his lips, a boy from a family with some status in that town. He wasn’t a bad kid at all, good student, polite and all, but Mrs. Halloran knew who his family was. We were presenting our math homework for correction one day, and Doug didn’t have his with him. My eyes widened, waiting to see what his punishment would be.
“What do you mean, you don’t have it with you?” Mrs. Halloran asked him, her hands on her hips.
“I did it at home on my chalkboard, and my dad checked my work,” he answered, shakily.
Mrs. Halloran paused, thought, then said “I accept that, Douglas; just make sure next time your write it down and bring it with you the next day.”
What? I thought. WHAT? He “did it at home on the chalkboard?” I stared in disbelief. In what universe did that COUNT as doing your homework? Why don’t we all just “do our math homework on a chalkboard at home?” Doug licked his chapped lips and Mrs. Halloran moved to the next desk, holding her hand out for homework. The injustice! Unbelievable.
Did you have a year like this, where you became aware of injustice?