We all know that as we age, short term memory becomes more difficult, but long term memory often surprisingly clear. What I was never warned of – among several other things about growing older—was that the long term memories might turn up unfinished business, regrets, sometimes even shame as well of memories of joyful occasions, and people we love.
The recent death of my sister has snagged me back to childhood, to the joys and sorrows of family, memories I recognize as soon as they land. But it has also taken me back to school days, although I suspect some of those memories have floated up as detritus left over from research I did in the writing of The Boy, which centres on a grim story from 1959, the same year that I would have known Guenther. (We’ll call him that)
Until The Boy, I wrote only fiction. And like other fiction writers, when I hear a bit of a true story that captures my imagination, it will often lodge in my brain and refuse to leave until I’ve turned it inside out and sideways asking the question: what if? What if the people involved had made different choices? What if someone had intervened?
Guenther is not a character of fiction. He was a real boy, and I hope that today is a strong man who has forgotten the incident that is haunting me and likely many other similar humiliations.
Grade four, or possibly five, but no later than that because I remember still being a “new girl” at school. I was painfully timid at that age, and yet accepted and included and made to feel part of that schoolyard gaggle of children. I think, although I depend on memory in telling this story, that Guenther was also new to the school that year. Guenther, too, was shy, barely lifted his eyes from his desk, and was not granted the same easy acceptance. Or perhaps he was, on the playground, in the company of other boys, but the incident I remember tells me this not likely.
Guenther was a large boy – no, obese is a better description. I know he was a farm boy, and I wonder how he came to attend school in our small city rather than at a country school. He wore men’s overalls that looked hard-worn, shortened significantly to accommodate the height of a boy, and always a flannel shirt. He had thick black hair, home-cut I’m sure, and red cheeks whether from chronic embarrassment or the work of the wind and sun. I think, (although again I am pulling from memory and may only feel this detail completes the picture) that he often smelled faintly of barns, manure. Why do I remember so clearly this boy who was gone by the next school year when I doubt that I paid more than passing attention to him while he sat two rows away from me in grade four? Or five.
Around Valentine’s Day, our teacher of that year decided that would have a “special” kind of party. We could give Valentine cards to our friends outside of the classroom if we wished, but our party would be a box social. None of us had ever heard of such an event, but apparently it required the young ladies to prepare a lunch for two, wrap it in a fancy package and bring it to school. Now, this was not exactly traditional, teacher told us, because in the days of such events, young men bid on the boxes, and the highest bidder had the pleasure of the company of the young woman who had packed the box and the sharing of the food therein.
Perhaps anticipating how painful it would be for those whose boxes were not bid upon – it was well-known by the time they were spread out on the long counter below the windows, to whom each belonged—our teacher elected instead of put all of the boys’ names in a hat, and he would invite the teacher from the next classroom to pull out the name of the lucky recipient of each box. And there would be no trading.
I’m quite sure the good-looking popular boy who was paired with me and the lunch my mother had painstakingly put together — when I told her about the event she had proclaimed it “stupid” but had too much pride to put aside her competitiveness when it came to cooking and food—would far rather have traded for the company of a vivacious girl.
The girl (we’ll call her Karen) whose box was presented to Guenther, broke into tears, put her head on her desk, and several of her friends – as girls that age are prone to do— rushed to comfort her. As for Guenther, I can only imagine that his head dropped even lower and he ignored the offering on his desk. That his cheeks burned, and in that moment he would have wished himself anywhere but that school.
The rest of the class? I don’t remember anyone else’s reaction, I don’t remember our teacher’s reaction, how he dealt with the weeping girl or Guenther and whether or not he put the two of them to the same desk to carry out his plan without any bending of the rules. But I do remember the feeling of shame that is as strong in my heart as I write this as it was at the time.
What did I do? Nothing. If I were writing this as fiction, what would the character portraying Betty Jane have done? She would have startled the entire classroom, walked to the desk of the crying girl with her own lunch box in her hands, and said, “Here Karen, I know you’re friends with Philip and he’d probably eat with you anyway, so why don’t we trade. I’ll eat with Guenther.” When I went home after school and my mother asked who had eaten “our” lunch, I mentioned “poor Karen” who had to eat with Guenther. My mother’s eyes blazed. “Shame on her! And shame on you for feeling sorry for her!”
If I could find Guenther, I would ask his forgiveness, although I hope that the humiliation of that box social is long gone from his memory. I’ve prayed many a prayer asking God’s forgiveness for all those I’ve wronged, and my faith rests on the belief that it is graciously given. But the one person I can’t forgive? The one I believe it is always most the difficult to forgive—myself.
I haven’t tried to find Guenther, nor asked anyone from those school years if they remember him, remember the Valentine’s Day party, know what became of that boy. But wherever he is, I ask his forgiveness.