” If you judge people, you have no time to love them. “
Mistakes. We all make them. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, an eraser will do the trick, and we can rub it across the page, wipe away the dust, and all that’s left of our careless mess is a hardly noticeable smudge. But some mistakes can’t be erased. No matter how old or young we are. I was in ninth grade the first time i really thought about all this. That year, I learned to diagram sentences on the blackboard, got my learner’s permit, wore my first strapless bra, wrote poetry i never read to my parents – but by far, the toughest lesson i learned was that life doesn’t come with erasers. I couldn’t make something that had happened, not happen. Even imagination is powerless. There are no erasers. I was 14, and i wished then, and i wish now, that i could erase or imagine away what i did, what we all did, to Betty Ann.
She came to our school from Cleveland, Ohio, and to out ninth-grade class in Richmond, Virginia, Cleveland was on another planet.
“Oh, hi! Ohhoooo….” whispered Margie under her breath, as Mrs. Johnson introduced Betty Ann in homeroom that first day. Margie could be real snooty sometimes. Nobody took her too seriously when she got into her rich-kid, old-money mood. She’d entertain us with cruise stories and New York gossip every afternoon as we sat on the front steps after lunch, licking the icing off Oeros and begging quarters for a Dr. Pepper from the drink machine in the gym. Margie would try to impress us, in her high-pitched, bragging voice, with the Vogue models she knew and how they shampooed their hair with beer, that people who ate their whole dinner with their salad fork were not the kind of people her family wanted her to marry into.
Actually, Margie was as insecure and as homely as the rest of us, and her life was about as exciting as the metric systerm, but we all knew Margie. We all knew everybody. Except Betty Ann. Most of us had been in the same class sine kindergarten.
Then came Betty Ann of Cleveland, in her peasant blouses, rolled-down socks, and strange ideas.
If it had been just Margie who dug into Betty Ann, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did; she probably could have handled that. But we all were in on it.
I guess what started us off was when Betty Ann wrote a better English composition than Susan Henderson. Susan was the writer of the class, and we were very proud of her. Her weekly story was always so good, Miss Moon usually chose it to read aloud to the class every Friday. Susan would sit back in her desk, a pencil stuck behind her ear, looking to all of us just like a promising young literary genius we could say we once knew.
The Friday after Betty Ann arrived on the scene, Susan twirled her pencil, leaned back in her desk, and waited for the best composition of the week to be read. Hers, of course.
Only it wasn’t. It was Betty Ann’s, and it was about a black poet named Langston Hughes and how he had become a spokesman for his people. Susan’s stories were always about horse shows or opening nights.
We’d never heard of Langston Hughes. Besides, this was an all-white private school. Martin Luther King was being nailed by most of the adults we knew. All in all, it was a real bomb to have Betty Ann go on about Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity” and his description of the “maple-sugar child” and how he thought Carl Sandburg’s poems fall on the page like blood clots of song from the wounds of humanity.
In Susan’s stories, the “telephone jangled” and “the rainbow painted the sky”. Stuff like that. Betty Ann was writing about the civil war in Spain and the black ghettos of Harlem. Langston Hughes was from Cleveland. We might have guessed.
Mrs. Johnson came to the part in Betty Ann’s composition where Langston Hughes writes a poem about how he likes watermelon so much that if he should meet the queen of England, he’d be proud to offer her a piece. That was when Agnes Matherson’s eyes caught mine (or was it the other way around?) and we started imitating the queen of England eating a piece of watermelon. The whole class burst out laughing. The rest of the story was never read, and everybody but Betty Ann had to say after school and clean blackboards. The next day at lunch, Betty Ann found anote under her lettuce saying we were sorry, but the cafeteria was sh’ nuf out of watermelon.
After that, she became the class joke. What she wore, what she said, what she ate somehow always gave one of us an idea for a wisecrack. There was a kind of oneupmanship about getting Betty Ann that had less to do with Betty Ann than with our own jungle mentality. I know that now, but i didn’t think about it then. She became a pawn.
She started getting sick a lot. There’d be whole weeks when she’d miss school, but the Betty Anns stories went on even without her. She came to our school from another planet. She was our little moron, our Polack, our village idiot.
Then one day, Betty Ann and i were assigned a project together. Everyone had selected a partner, and i was out of town at a school swimming meet the day the assignment was given, so i got stuck with Betty Ann. Everyone kidded me, and i laughed with them. The day before the project was due, i had to go over to her house after school to work on it with her. Her mother fixed a plate of cookies and kept coming into the room to see if i wanted more Coke or anything. She said i was the only one of Betty Ann’s friends who had come over after school, and she was glad to meet me.
The phone rang while i was there, and it was for me. Betty Ann’s mother was in the kitchen when i heard Margie giggling at the other end of the line: “have you eaten any maple sugar candy or watermelon, kiddo?”
She waited for me to snicker an undercover laugh.
I saw Betty Ann’s mother just standing in the kitchen with her back to me, pretending not to be listening. It was as if she had heard everything. I hung up. I think it was at that moment when i began to see what we had been doing.
“Why don’t you girls like Betty Ann? She likes you…”
Nobody had ever asked me a question before or since that made me feel so stupid.
If kindness could kill, Betty Ann would have been dead in a week. But it was too late. Her parents moved her to another school, then we heard later that she’d had a nervous breakdown.
Once, years later when i was home from college, i saw Betty Ann in the doctor’s office. She didn’t even recognize me.
Sticks and stone only break bones. Words can shatter the sould. A little, quiet, picked-on 10-year-old runs away because the kids on the bus laugh at him. A sensitive ninth-grader flips out because a group of self-rising girls decide to throw her to the wolves. We tell ourselves it takes more than that to send someone over the edge. Maybe so, maybe not.
But there are no erasers.