I do not know if you will see this letter, or if you do, if you will remember me. Part of me earnestly hopes you do neither. I sat one seat to the right and rear of you in Miss Hussein’s third grade class in Ft Pierce, Florida; I moved the following year to Georgia, and you had entered school in March, so our paths crossed only briefly. Nevertheless, I remember you well.
If you have our class photo, I’m in the red bow-tie second from the back, third from the left. I am smiling broadly, which means the picture was taken before the April Ho-Down. Next to me is Darren, my best friend, or rather who had inserted himself into that slot without asking; I was drawn to Grady, the gregarious red-haired hooligan, second from the right in the front row, but once during recess Darren struck up a friendship out of the blue, which I was too polite to rebuff. I knew letting Darren glom onto me ruined any chance for a real friend at Ft Pierce Elementary; because of his body odor that suggested he’d had an accident in his pants, others would naturally assume that either I had a bad smell myself, or – just as unforgivable – that I liked people who did, or – nearly as unforgivable – that I didn’t know the difference.
Please don’t think me callous and shallow for this, just the opposite; I accepted Darren as my sort-of best friend in spite of the social handicap entailed. My vegetarian mother raised me to be unusually sensitive of others; when passing the second graders en route to lunch, we traditionally chanted, “Second grader babies, second grader babies,” to the nasal tune of “Yanner-nanner-nanner.” When returning, fourth graders passed us, who likewise chanted, “Third grader babies, third grader babies.” I saw through the hollowness of this, and while not enlightening my peers about mindless perpetuation of pointless cruelty down the generations, I did not participate in the chanting either, which I think indicates my good character. Moreover, for Valentine’s Day, I deliberately selected my largest and nicest Valentine for Jackie, the fat girl whom everyone picked on. To be strictly truthful, I don’t recall anyone ever actually picking on her, but I believe many had planned on doing it, and I’m sure in the fullness of time, they did. I also admit that Valentine-giving in Ms Hussein’s class was anonymous so Jackie never knew whence the card came, but I’m sure it cheered her to receive what was clearly a very large and nice Valentine. In the spirit of perfect candor, I will go on to say I may have taken part in chanting “Second grader babies” one time, but I stopped after that first occasion, and I think my honesty in coming forward with this now, when I don’t have to, speaks very well for me.
I was too shy to talk to you, and if you had a crush on anyone, it would have been Grady, for which I don’t blame you. He was a swaggering rascal with a sense of rough justice for which he was universally admired. My one fond fantasy was taking your hand at the April Ho-Down and dose-e-doeing you across the gym floor, flanked by clapping third-graders. That was all I wanted or hoped, that I could hold your hand, which I knew would be cool and soft and fit in mine like a small tame bird. All week our class fashioned bandannas and cowboy hats out of construction paper, and festooned the gym with gaudy construction-paper chains. Ms. Hussein put on an album of grade-appropriate Ho-Down music, “Turkey in the Straw” and “Froggy Went a’Courting.” Your first dances, of course, were for Grady, but Grady was a rover, as we all knew, and soon his attention was elsewhere. Darren was dancing with a partner of his own, and I was alone. This was my moment. You were sitting at the sidelines, raising a paper cup of Hawaiian Punch to your pink lips, and I went over. I bowed in facetious formality and offered my hand. I believe you were on the cusp of accepting it, and the record, which had finished “Coming Round the Mountain” fell silent except for a sibilant hiss.
I have mentioned my mother was a vegetarian, these days quite common, but in the late ‘60’s still considered eccentric, one of the drawbacks to a diet of beans and rice being the associated flatulence, especially in young digestive systems already prone to gaseousness, especially at times of anxiety or social pressure.
Vegetarian farts have no smell; this is not just my opinion or wishful thinking, but a generally acknowledged truth. The report however, amplified by my standing slightly bent over and the echoing gym walls as well as the silence between songs, ruined whatever tender memory I might have treasured. For a few beats there was a lull, and then the record broke in with “Oh, Susanna!” which seemed an ironic commentary on what had just occurred, and then the gym burst into gales of laughter as I turned heel and slunk hot-faced to the punchbowl.
The class construed this catastrophe as a daring jest on my part, that I had been “saving up” and waiting for just the right moment to let fly in gallant mockery of all the sham pretense of April Ho-Down, and also in mockery and contempt of you, Vickie Anderson, the prettiest girl in third grade, and I was coward enough to let them do so. For this I am ashamed, not for the fart, which I couldn’t help, but for letting you and the others believe that I was making fun of you. My mother got a job in Georgia, and we moved away that summer, which came as both a relief and an additional burden, that I never got to mend fences with you or explain my actions.
Forgive me now, Vickie. Forgive me now.