The kickballs they used in gym class were always slightly deflated. This was done on purpose so when they made impact with. a kid’s chest, butt or face the ball wouldn’t cause more than a humiliating sting. The deflation also made it much easier for a 6th grader to pick up and hurl one handed.
When Paul launched the ball at Jean it ricocheted off him and landed in front of Samantha. She bent over to pick it up when Carlos barreled into her knocking her to the sidewalk. On her side on the pavement in her catholic school uniform she felt immediately ridiculous and furious. Carlos grabbed the ball and ran to join the boys. He didn’t see Samantha charging from behind. He glanced back just in time to catch her shoulder in his chest and go hurtling to the ground. He got up and went to push her when the gym teacher yelled “HEY!”
Carlos stopped himself. “You’re so weird.” He hissed. Samantha glared.
These were all words that Samantha would hear nearly daily. Her mother enrolled her in catholic school because she didn’t want Samantha to go to the public school she was zoned for. Samantha barely saw her mother. As a floor nurse, she worked a regular shift at the hospital and then did per diem work at a nursing home. Her weekly working hours were usually in the seventies so she could pay the bills, including tuition for the private school.
The words Samantha (Sam to most) heard at school weren’t accurate. She wasn’t fat. In fact, she was taller than most of the girls in her class and just as tall as most of the boys. She was more mature for certain, but fat wasn’t even close. She wasn’t stupid either. Her grandmother made sure her homework and reading were done, often at the expense of what would have been her budding social life. Weird and Gross? No weirder or grosser than any other 6th grader — it’s a tough age for all involved.
Ugly. This was the code word. By any objective measure, Sam was a very pretty girl. Her eyes were hazel brown with downturned corners, her cheek bones were high, you could tell even if they were covered by the extra flesh a 6th grader carries. Her cheeks pulled high over those bones when she smiled casting a beam as she revealed perfectly white and straight teeth behind broad feminine lips. Her hair was dark and thick and in those days still parted down the middle and braided even though she complained it made her look “like a baby.”
Ugly wasn’t used for accuracy or even sheer meanness. Ugly was the code word for black. Samantha was the only black girl in her little private school’s sixth grade class and in her entire nine years there no one had ever called her black. She was always made to feel like the alien in the land of the normal kids. Samantha was made an outsider by the constant parade of insults she endured daily from the other kids in school, by the cooing and elevated praise she got for doing the same work as the other kids, in the surprised tone her teachers took with her every time she spoke well in class. It was in the air whenever there was an event where parents would be present, in the hushed whispers they’d share as they glanced in her direction. Of course, they weren’t so direct as to talk about her race. No they talked about how it was such a shame that her mother had to do it all alone. How it was so sad her mom couldn’t be at all the events. In wondering how could her mother be working so much. All of these offenses these infinitely small transgressions added up bit by bit to create something that was truly ugly inside of Samantha. It was an anger seeded in things she knew to be real, but couldn’t identify. It was a rage that felt like tumbling gravel in the cement mixer of her gut. She carried the stones with her every morning to school, all it took was one insult, one jab at her pride, one perceived grievance to flip the switch and start the mixer turning again.
Incidents like the one with Carlos were getting more frequent. She was yelling at other kids. She smacked a girl for calling her stupid. In a school as small as St. Martin’s these things got noticed. The rocks were turning and smashing in the carrier of her belly. Eventually, Samantha’s mother listened to a voicemail from the principle asking for a meeting.
The evolution of the private catholic school in the outer boroughs of New York City could be it’s own course of study. In their heyday (from the 1920’s through the 1970’s) the classes were enormous, the schools funded largely by church donations. Big Irish and Italian immigrant families would scrape together tuition for their first child, then the rest went for free. Kids weren’t known by their own names as much as their family’s. You were one of the Flynns, the O’Reillys, the Lupos. You were a “mick” or a “ginny.” There were 75–100 kids to a class. You were enrolled because your parents wanted you to be indoctrinated in the catholic faith, to get your sacraments, and hopefully get a decent education. For the large working class families of the boroughs of NYC, these parish schools were a haven. Kids could hang around someplace safe while their fathers did the work of the city and their mothers looked after the homes overrun with little ones, cooking, cleaning and the busy-making of urban home life.
By the time Samantha had arrived, these institutions became havens for helicopter parenting. As church donations dwindled, tuition became the main form of revenue for the school to operate with. Now tuition owed for every child. Catholic school had gone from a working class comfort to privileged haven from public schools. They had uniforms, small class sizes and more than anything encouraged involvement.
Mothers were expected to bake, to attend Christmas fundraisers, to do fun runs, to volunteer at church, to make artwork for the classrooms, to have sports nights. Involvement was a badge that you cared about your kids. This culture subsisted was populated by families where the father made more than a middle-manager’s salary. Enough to make sure his wife could be home with the two kids and have enough time to run herself ragged at the parish — to be involved.
This made Samantha’s mother an outsider. She wasn’t at the bake sales or the Christmas fairs. She wasn’t at the softball games or the fun runs. She spent Sundays in her crisp hospital whites taking care of other people. While mother’s nodded along to sermons, she was washing the ass of an elderly man whom no one was coming to visit. While priests talked about facing death, she held the hand of a family’s matriarch as she passed. She was just too busy.
When Teresa walked into the school she needed a second to orient herself to find the principal’s office. After the perfunctory waiting period she was asked inside. The room was very bright. Big illuminated panels in the ceiling burned cold white light into the room. If you didn’t know the principle’s name going in, you’d surely know it coming out. Her desk was adorned with a huge silver metal name plate. PRINCIPAL MEGAN STIFFERS. Her walls were adorned with just a few too many accolades for a private school principal, each of these something akin to the adult educator’s version of a participation trophy. Everything about this room told you Principal Stiffer was in charge.
Teresa came in and the principal stood up and greeted her. “Hello, Teresa! I’m Principal Stiffers, but please call me Megan,” she coo’d in a voice reminiscent of one used to train dogs.
“Thank you for having me Principal Stiffers.” Teresa replied through a forced, but believable smile.
“Well take a seat, and let’s talk about Samantha.” The principal said.
They settled in and eyed each other. Like two boxers in the first round they were silently assessing one another. The principal broke the silence quickly, “I’m really glad you could make it in today.” Teresa nodded, waiting for the report.
“Samantha seems to be having a tough time. Her teacher tells me that she’s been fighting, acting out. It’s not unusual for kids of this age to have some trouble socializing. Have you noticed anything at home?”
“Well, as I think you’re aware, I work quite a bit. Sam’s grandmother does a lot of the day-to-day…”
“Well, let’s stop right there. That might be part of the problem,” The principal interrupted. “We see a lot of kids who struggle when they come from single parent households. It’s just a fact. Without that, countervailing, discipling force of a father, kids tend to lash out at this age.”
Teresa felt herself stiffen. The principal continued.
“It’s perfectly normal for kids who feel — off balance — to channel their feelings of frustration into violent acts. It’s usually a matter of making sure the child feels…”
“Special?” Teresa jumped in.
“Yes! Exactly! I’m so glad you understand. It’s so important that parents take on the primary responsibility for their children. Do you think Samantha is happy at home? ” Megan replied.
The tightness is Teresa’s chest set in she took a short breath, she didn’t want the situation to escalate. “I think Sam is OK. She has me and my mother, and I think…”
“She’s clearly not OK, if this is how she’s acting out. Have you considered that the lack of a presence of a father figure might have something to do with…”
This was the last insult Teresa would bear. She leaned forward. Her face hardened and her eyes grew narrow. She spoke slowly and deliberately.
“My mother and I are raising Sam together.” She began, her tone told the principal that interrupting again would not be a good idea, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“Please, call me Megan.”
“My mother raised me and my brothers and all three of us work.”
“Please I wasn’t attacking…”
“Ms. Stiffers, I hate that my little girl doesn’t have a father.”
“I didn’t mean to imply…”
“But we don’t all have the good fortune of marriages that last. Sometimes our partners die. Now I understand that this is a catholic institution, but if your suggestions only involve a man rising from the grave, then this meeting is pretty pointless.”
Principal Stiffers sat back in her chair. Teresa continued, “Sam gets good grades, she works hard, this is the first trouble she’s had and I want to nip it in the bud. Now can you please tell me what has been happening?”
Samantha was not happy to hear the front door close. The normal cadence of her mother coming home was hurried, more direct. Usually the door opened with a grunt, then shut with a thud, then the keys hit the table. Then the shuffle of the coat coming off. As she slid off her shoes, Teresa would always say, “I’m home baby!” Today, there was a long pause between the grunt and the thud. The keys didn’t make their usual jingle-bang. There was no happy greeting.
Teresa walked into the living room. “I had to burn a sick day to go in and do this, you know that?” Samantha’s mother said in the elevated tone of a pissed off working mother. “I only get five of those a year, you know that?” She continued.
“The principle told me you hit a girl? That you were fighting with boys? I didn’t raise you like that!” Samantha sat on the couch her eyes forward. Tears were welling up. She didn’t want to cry, but her mother’s disappointment crushed her.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” Why would you act like that?
Teresa watched as tears ran down Sam’s cheeks. Trudy, Sam’s grandmother walked into the room. Teresa felt the tightness in her chest begin to dissipate. She started to feel her hard-ass stance might not be the right tactic to take. She sat across from her daughter on an ottoman.
“So?” Teresa questioned.
That last utterance was all it took. It was Samantha’s turn to speak but no words would come. She started to cry, it was the kind of crying that consumes your whole body. It grew in her chest, it hurt as she fought it. Her throat was tight, like being choked from the inside. She was blinded by the tears. Her face was tense. She leaned forward and back and forward and back again, she couldn’t get comfortable. Her body was revolting. It hurt. She tried to speak through the pain. Through the tension she tried to force her chest to release her lungs, force her jaw to loosen so she could form words.
“Th, they, they, they…” She started to utter.
“They what? What is it baby?”
Finally the dam broke.
“They call me ugly. Everyday. They call me fat and stupid. I…I…”
It was more than Trudy could withstand, “Oh, my baby.” She said wrapping her arms around Samantha’s shoulders.
The water was pouring over the floodgates now.
“They…they…they never stop. Everyday it’s something new. It’s that I’m fat or stupid or weird or ugly.” Sam’s words barely intelligible between her sobs.
Teresa asked, “Who says this stuff to you?”
“They all do, they gang up on me. It’s everybody except Penny.”
“Do you say anything to your teachers?”
“I used to, but Mrs. DiMarco always says stuff like ‘ignore them’ but how?”
“It’s all the kids?”
Teresa and Trudy shared a look. How could they explain to her? How could they explain that there was nothing wrong with her, that it was the world that was broken?