By 9 am tomorrow it will, hopefully, all be over. At least my part of it. My daughter has been attending the same one/two room school house since she was four years old. She’s now 10 and it’s mid-year.
She likes the afterschool program with the long hike they do up China Grade where she used to feel safe and familiar but also the danger of a country forest dirt road. She used to tell me she knew everything about dealing with a mountain lion or a bear. Her teacher taught her all about that. She can identify every mountain plant and every animal. Taking a walk with her is an education. “You can use that leaf for toilet paper, mom. It’s soft.” “That over there is miner’s lettuce. It kept people alive in the Gold Rush.” “Did you know Manzanita makes an excellent tea?” I didn’t know any of those things until she started going to school there.
So midyear, I took Paloma out of the state one and stuck her in the private one where her brother was already in kindergarten. Private school. My choice.
The Ashleys and the Chloes of course , never stop.
I was afraid my son would never learn to read no matter whose classroom he was in with six students like that needing so much attention. He would be a face in the crowd. I decided to send him to the private hippie school in the neighboring hamlet where there never seemed to be more than 10 kids and while there were mild behavioral issues at times, it was never that bad. My son thrived. He was there from age 5-11. Six years in a one-room schoolhouse. Technically he could have gone to sixth there too, but then Rutherford happened.
My son learned so much from his teacher, from the other kids. Because of this school he believed in Santa Claus longer, because of this school, his love of learning survived. Because of this school his slightly off-kilter sentence construction never labeled him as slow, just someone learning in his own way. I am forever grateful to his teacher for respecting him and teaching him K-5.
But in his 5th grade year, a slightly younger boy named Rutherford who he had met previously at daycare came to the school. I tried not to feel weird about it, but I did anyway. You see Rutherford had waited once in daycare for my son to fall asleep and then he placed a pillow over his head and sat on his face to see if he could get him to stop breathing. Premeditated. He had waited for the daycare woman to go to the next room to change a baby and laid in wait. At the time my son was six and this boy was four. The parents shrugged it off as harmless. The daycare woman came in a moment later and stopped it. My son though, had nightmares about suffocating for two years.
Rutherford. I first met him when I was a librarian assistant. Librarians and their assistants, truth be told, judge the fuck out of you and your family in the library. That’s right. We mutter as we smile beneath our breath various curses at you. The librarian and I had two families we despised above all others. Rutherford Johnson’s family and the Heart family who near as we could tell, had no hearts at all.
The Hearts were just baseline obnoxious. Their two year old would hit his mother, patrons, other toddlers over the head with books or try to jab them with pencils. The mother would say “He’s so rambunctious!” We wanted to kill her, of course, but it was painfully obvious that his behavior had never been corrected and he was two. It was her fault, really.
But Rutherford was a whole different kettle of fish. He was way more subtle about his behavior than the Hearts’ future serial killer. Rutherford at three years old would grin at you with a cherub looking face and sandy blonde hair and he’d have old ladies cooing at how handsome he was and then quietly he’d slip of to the western fiction section where we had leather bound copies of Louis L’Amour books. He’d take a three year old girl back there by the hand and have her help him pull all the Western books out from the bottom shelf and onto the floor, and when he was done he’d hit her over the head with one. And she’d cry and cry and do that little kid cry walk where they can’t see and bump into things, giant open mouthed and looking for their mothers.
Rutherford’s mother would run over and he’d smile sweetly and one of us would say, “he hit her over the head and he took out all the books,” hoping that some semblance of shame would get her to fix the damage her kid caused. But she would smile and say, “Oh I don’t think it’s that bad. Look! See? She’s already stopped crying.”
And the books would stay there on the floor till I picked them up after they’d gone. A librarian assistant after all, is the equivalent of hired help.
Over the years in a small town we’ve had many chances to watch Rutherford. I personally am waiting to hear that he’s graduated to killing small animals. At least I was. Old people often remark that the Johnson’s think they’ve given birth to Jesus but it might be Satan instead. He is the kid that finds a way to hurt something or someone at every community event. And if he manages to get through an event without violence, he never manages to get through it with manners.
My son at the January mark in his 5th grade year begged me to not make him return in the fall—Rutherford had made attending impossible. He liked my son so much that he couldn’t stop touching him. My son couldn’t concentrate. And when he’d tell the teacher she wouldn’t or couldn’t believe cherub face could possibly have done anything wrong. He harassed my son to no end.
It was just as useless to talk to the parents.
The other parents at the school thought we were nuts to let our kid go to junior high a year early but puberty laden tweens were the far less dangerous choice than Rutherford’s harassment. Behinds our backs we hear that the other parents disapprove of us—artists, brown people, raising children to know about things like art and racism and Harry Potter. “It’s so negative,” my daughter overheard one of them say. My daughter asked that mom what movies her kids could watch; the mother replied anything Disney. I tell my daughter, if it comes up again, tell them brown kids can’t afford the luxury of not knowing about race, art is what saves us, and Harry fucking Potter is the best goddamn series of children books ever in that they teach you to be suspicious of all that is suspect. You know, the difference between “What is right and what is easy.”
But with my son gone, Rutherford turned his attention to my daughter, an excessively studious girl known for speaking her mind.
It has been a difficult year since the get go. With my son gone, my daughter stands out even more than usual. She’s whip smart but small for her age. And she’s the only brown girl at the school. There has always been something about smart fierce brown girls that set the rest of the population on edge. My mother and I sometimes remark that we wish my son and daughters skin tones had been reversed. There’s nothing wrong with a quiet shy brown boy. No one will bother him any more than anyone else. But a fierce brown girl is always something to try and bring down.
Rutherford waits for the teacher to be in the other room. He waits for recess. He waits for after school. There have been pinches. There have been bruises. He calls her stupid. He calls her dumb. He tells her the other kids don’t like her. He once told her she was getting fat.
Every day for an hour I feel like I am deprogramming her. You are beautiful. You are smart. Your body is perfect. You are in gymnastics show team for goodness sake. You are loved by family, by friends. You are better than anything he says.
Every day after school. For an hour I do this while I’m making dinner, while we are running to 4-H meetings, while we are running errands, folding laundry. You are beautiful. You are smart. Your body is perfect. You are in gymnastics show team for goodness sake. You are loved by family, by friends. You are better than anything he says.
How do I make him stop, she asks? That is the question, isn’t it? I know in my heart of hearts that it will never do any good to talk to the parents. I used to watch the father ‘roughhouse’ with his boy at the community center. It was as violent as anything I’ve ever witnessed anywhere. I’ve seen the mom watch him grab food off other people’s plates at community supers and do nothing. Talk. Is. Useless. Sometimes.
I gave my daughter permission to defend herself and last week she hauled off and punched Rutherford square in the nose. He hasn’t touched her since. I considered that mission accomplished. I heard about it. I refused to punish her for it. In fact, I cheered her on.
I don’t know how to account for their teacher’s blindness except that she is a product of the late 60s/early 70s peace, love, and granola and why can’t we all just get a long and I don’t see color or race. She’s been remarkable. She taught my kids all the things that I’d have had no patience to teach them. I owe her that.
At the parent/teacher conference with the smug Johnson’s sitting to my left, my deer in the headlights stunned husband to my right, the teacher looked across the coffeetable and said, “There are no victims at my school. I see everything.” And then she launched into how disrespectful my daughter had been to her lately.
I sat there as her teacher said that my daughter was probably just acting out, testing boundaries, that no violence had ever taken place at the school. I sat there as she said that there were probably problems at home and that perhaps if I spent more time with my daughter this whole drama wouldn’t be happening.
I was crushed. I loved this woman. She taught my kids everything they know.
And then Rutherford’s mother chimed in: “What exactly is your problem with our parenting? Can you give us an example?”
Have you ever felt capable of violence? I suddenly imagined the room Kill Bill style for a moment. I wanted to take those words and shove them forcefully back in the perky little blonde mother’s mouth. I wanted to punch the husband who was starting to say things in a stern voice that I assume he must use with his wife. “We heard about your post on facebook and your blog; now that’s no way to settle a disagreement.” Fuck you.
I got up and I gave my husband that look that says, I can’t deal with the white privilege people; it’s your turn. He usually does it better anyhow. He’s taken their management classes. I didn’t give them the privilege of eye contact. By this point the parents and teacher were attacking my daughter and my husband was trying to come up with nice even things to say. What did they think they’d accomplish here? That I’d suddenly say you know, my daughter is probably just making the last five months of terror up. It must be totally my fault that she’s always crying when I pick her up from school but at no other time of day and in no other place. Geez. Sorry. And hey man, sorry for expressing anonymous truth on my blog, guess you kinda saw yourselves in there. Man, so uncool of me.
I got up and said:
“I’m done. I’ve watched you non-parent for 10 years. I’m done.” And I left the building.
In my absentia, my husband tells me they called me a cyberbully and that they didn’t understand how someone could be so ‘negative’ because I blogged about it using no names, no locations, no anything. Like white polite people everywhere, the husband had my husband exchange phone numbers so they could dialogue. It looked to them like it would all go back to normal. I texted the teacher because the words got stuck in my throat. We’ve been with her seven years. I feel betrayed, I texted.
Even my son, whom arguably everyone in the community adores and adores everyone in the community came down on the side of his sister—and his sister is the one person he usually hates. Do you want me to talk to the teacher? My brave son offered.
I spent the better part of Friday looking for a new school for my daughter and found one. I’m sure it won’t have the great nature after school program of the current one. I’m sure there will be different good parts. There will be something bad too. There’s only 14 kids at this one. Perhaps there’s a potential bully lurking there as well. I have no way to know that far into the future. But Rutherford won’t be there telling a fierce brown girl she’s dumb, stupid, fat, ugly. Rutherford won’t be there with his cherub’s smile and his devil’s grasp.
It will all be new.
My daughter is finally smiling and laughing again. She told jokes this evening. She made cupcakes Saturday morning for the first time in ages. She did art projects. She worked on our zine with me. She is happy. Her teacher remains steadfast that it’s all made up and in her head. I am heartbroken for us to leave this way. But I haven’t seen my beautiful girl so carefree in such a long, long time.
And to the remaining families at the school. I do apologize–for one of your children will surely be next.