Helen C. Peirce Elementary School, with it’s prison like architecture and marble stairs, worn by the tens of thousands of adolescent feet that trudged up the second and third floors, was a citadel of learning, a last bastion of society’s strength of will to hold out against the hordes of violence of the roughnecks and hoodlums taking over the inner city neighborhood.
How could Harold have known what he was in for, transferring from the outer suburbs with swimming pools and locker rooms and younger teachers? The older Mrs. Barnes to whose class he was assigned, bound her legs in some sort of non-see through, flesh colored tights, which Harold would only understand years later were worn for some problem with circulation in her legs.
Mrs. Barnes was the original person from whom the word “formidable” was made. Perhaps it was her maiden name or something. She stood tall and unwavering. She pretended not to notice Harold’s constant talking and goofing around until at the end of the day, when the children were leaving, she said, “It was nice to meet you Harold, you certainly talked a lot today.”
It was such an odd comment. It was so…without a punishment or even sarcasm. It was puzzling to Harold and bothered him in a way that the constant barrage of criticism, sarcasm and punishments the disrupting child was used to from other teachers didn’t.
The next day at school it began. A huge boy named Juan, the facial hair, the dark chest chairs curling above his t-shirt, the short sleeves of which were folded several times, all telling the story of how many years behind he was in school, approached Harold and poked him hard in the chest. “You think you’re pretty cool, don’t you?” he asked.
Harold just looked up at him in amazement. To make his social debut even worse Harold showed up with a penny in each of his brand new penny loafers. It was discovered in line after recess and the public outcry was mortifying. He quietly removed them later in the bathroom.
The year went from better to worse when Harold’s mother sent Harold’s older brother to talk to the kids who were picking on him. It was like pouring water on a grease fire on the kitchen stove.
One day, Ms. Barnes had a harder times settling the kids down after recess. She was tired and the kids were particular wound up. She looked over at Harold, sitting as self-consciously as he usually did, and she noticed how both his arms were dirty.
“When’s the last time you bathed?” she spat out in an underpaid, unmarried, leg’s-hurting her tone of voice. Get out of here and wash yourself up; that’s disgusting!
Harold looked at her blankly, like one who was finally being spoken to like he had been used to; rose silently and washed himself in the hallway sink. Tears ran in dirty trails silently down his check. Harold finished washing his arms and face without ever looking up at the unbreakable metal mirror above the sink.
Mrs. Barnes noticed how Harold avoided her eyes when he re-entered the room.
Every recess after that Mrs. Barnes thought of little chores that Harold could do in the classroom, chores he was glad to do. She never asked him anything about his home life. She never asked what had caused all the raucous several times in the play yard, or how his winter coat had gotten thrown out the third-story window when she had been called to the office. She just kept finding little reasons to spend time with him.
Discovering Harold’s fascination with her old Smith-Corona typewriter, she let him play with it after the blackboards were washed. Soon she noticed that he had an uncanny knack of being able to diagram sentences. She would wait until the class would be stumped and then call Harold up to diagram it correctly in front of the class.
While other teachers of Harold’s in previous years, and in many succeeding years, had teacher’s pets, favorites who had been gifted by their genetic or social inheritance with cuteness and charm, Mrs. Barnes surrounded herself with the weak and the unfortunate Harolds.
Harold grew up and supported himself through college by typing legal documents for a law firm and became an English teacher. He wrote his first novel when he was eighteen. He seeks out the lonely and the lost too.
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