The stiff lace of my dress caused my neck to itch. The classroom buzzed with conversation as children unpacked new pencils and notebooks. Five second graders gathered around my desk.
“What’s that bandage for?"
"Can you take it off . . . I want to see!”
I had never had so much attention. My face was aglow as I tried to answer.
This was my third year in school. My mother worked full time so I attended Faith Presbyterian Kindergarten. The first grade was tough. Being a plump redhead did not make life easy -- the name-calling was relentless. My older sister saw through the façade as I tried to laugh at myself. Children began to fear for their lives as they learned to keep their ridicule to themselves knowing my sister’s right hook could quickly black an eye.
So here I was starting the second grade, receiving all this attention from the same children who several months before were singing, “Fatty, Fatty, Two-by-four . . .” My excitement temporarily wiped away the bad memories of the previous two months.
“I found a fireworks . . . I lit it . . I tried to throw it . . .”
The questions were coming faster than I could answer.
Suddenly we heard the door close. The oldest woman I had ever seen stood at the front of the room. Wearing black-rimmed glasses she scanned the room for disallowed behavior. Her body seemed unusually large for the frail legs bearing the load. I knew she was older than my grandmother because her hair was white as cotton. In her hand was a ruler. She tapped her palm as her face contorted into a scowl. The Wicked Witch of the West had replaced my sweet first-grade teacher. I began to imagine green skin, nose warts and a pointed hat.
“I WANT MY MOTHER,” my mind cried out. I wanted to return home to my Pebbles doll, my tinker toys, my Barbie! This world had suddenly turned black and I needed to go home.
Moving behind her desk, she turned to face the blackboard. The chalk squeaked as she meticulously printed her name. She read out loud, “Mrs. Horne,” while pointing with a powdered index finger. “Now, we shall go around the room and you will stand and state your first and last names.” My knees began to shake. I felt sick at my stomach.
Each child took his turn. Gradually the numbers narrowed until I knew I had to speak.
I couldn’t think.
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t remember my name.
“Stand up, young lady. What is your name?” It was like being faced by a fire-breathing dragon. I pulled myself to my feet, hanging on to the desktop.
“Umh . . umh . . .umh,” I stammered.
“Well, girl. What . . is . . your . . name?”
She was speaking loudly and voicing each word distinctly.
My mind was in a fog. I began to melt back into my seat, unable to speak a comprehensible word. I don’t know how long the silence loomed or how long the other children stared at me. Time stood still. The excitement I felt earlier was replaced by a desperate need to disappear.
That afternoon on the playground, the questions resumed. I shared about the cherry bomb and how I lit it, only to toss it away too late. Exploding just inches away from my right hand, the M-80 had left bursting flesh. The doctor said it was a miracle my hand was intact.
The children had new ammunition. The fat redheaded girl could not remember her name and had almost blown her hand off. There were several new black eyes through the succeeding few weeks -- simple reminders of my sister’s retaliation.
My mother dragged me kicking and screaming every morning to school. She tried everything . . . bribery, threats, spankings. Nothing worked. Finally, the principal agreed to place my desk in the secretary’s office. I completed my work quietly and only joined my classmates at lunchtime and for recess. I cannot recall the final transition back to the classroom. Perhaps I simply mellowed as time passed. I do remember, however, Ms. Horne’s image never faltered in my mind. She never smiled and she stays at the top of my list of least favorite teachers.
The first day of the second grade looms in my mind after all these years.
The day I forgot my name will go down in infamy.