I was only in kindergarten when I met Chris. And Chris had a terrible stutter.
Though it would eventually recede, it would stick with him long enough to stop being cute and start being a cold-blooded murderer of his self-esteem. And he certainly didn’t need any help there.
I made buddies with Chris at church first. We were young enough not to realize that our friendship was an odd one. I was tomboyish and bossy. Chris was gentle, agreeable and shy. He took orders well, and so our friendship flourished.
I was a smart girl for my age. I made good grades on my schoolwork and excelled in reading. I got along easily with most of the kids in my kindergarten class, but Chris was my best friend. Even then, however, as a five-year-old, I recognized that life wasn’t quite as easy for Chris.
He bounced and fidgeted in his seat while we worked at our desks. He got on his neighbor’s nerves with his constant questions and repeating syllables. He had no ego and lacked that internal voice that warns the rest of us to stop it! You look stupid!
He would later take medicine for his hyperactivity, and his parents would enroll him in special classes for kids with learning disorders.
But then it was only kindergarten. The kids were still friendly and, for the most part, hadn’t released their inner bullies yet. There was no “popular” crowd to shun him and no report cards yet to dread. Our papers were graded with smiley faces and sad faces; a gentle way to encourage us to work harder or cheer us on in our accomplishments.
Kindergarten was a safe place for Chris. Or so I thought.
Every day during recess, while we tangled ourselves in the jungle gym and spun ourselves sick on the merry-go-round, Artie the Astronaut visited our little classroom. He never stuck around long enough for anyone to see him, but he always left behind evidence of his arrival.
Artie the Astronaut was fastidious about penmanship. The neatness and legibility of our letters was of utmost importance. Artie’s missions to Mars depended upon it. And so we children did our best to help.
Our tiny hands formed the best, shapeliest “A’s” and “a’s” and “Q’s” and “Fffff’s” that we could muster. My letters were practiced, careful and easy. They would be admired, smiley-face and all, and hung up on the refrigerator later.
Chris’ letters were scrawled, mutated. They jagged and jutted where they were supposed to curl. They leaned and looped where tall and straight was the goal. But they were not out of character. They were typical of Chris’ work. Though his skills would never set any standards in academia, he always, always tried.
So I’m not sure what happened that day to make the outcome any different than usual. We wrote our letters to Artie’s specifications. We turned in our papers. The teacher’s red grading pen did its usual work, and the papers were returned to us. I received my smiley face. It was just like always.
Perhaps our teacher was having a bad day. Perhaps her patience had simply worn thin. Perhaps she wasn’t thinking and marked the first thing that came to mind.
But on the top of Chris’ paper, in blaringly perfect print, was a big, red “F.”
“F” for “Failure.”
“F” for “Forget it, Kid. You’ll never succeed.”
“F” for “Friendless.”
I watched Chris cry at his desk that day.
I was only in kindergarten. I didn’t know about self-esteem or child psychology or the scientific data about report cards and grading systems and educational methods. All I knew was that my best friend had just been told that he was failure. At the age of five.
It would not be easy for Chris growing up. He would struggle with friends and school and family troubles. He would never quite reach his potential but would always come up a bit short. And no one would expect any more than that from Chris.
And though I had no powers to tell the future, on that single day, I saw all that coming.
And I was only in kindergarten.
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