Outstanding Debts

John Poole

© Copyright 2009 by John Poole 
  2009 General Nonfiction Winner


Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

 I remember that first day I met Steven so well. Mrs. Smith had Steven stand up in the front of our third grade class and introduce himself. With eyes on the floor, Steven mumbled something unintelligible. As Steven talked, I couldn’t help but notice his appearance. He had enormous horn-rimmed glasses, which were perched on the middle of his nose. His appearance was disheveled; his shoes were old, his pants had holes in the knees, and his shirt was several sizes too big. Instead of the usual tennis shoes that most of us wore, Steven had on Sunday shoes, brown and buckled. No socks. Steven was dirty; his face had dirt streaks and his hair was spiked in places and flat in others. His hands seemed to be covered in a grimy film.

After his mumbled introduction, Mrs. Smith intently gazed around the classroom. This was a ritual with all new students; Mrs. Smith’s search for an open desk. I looked to my right and immediately realized there was only one open desk in the classroom. I prayed that God would intervene. No such luck.

John, Steven will be sitting next to you. Would you please show him where he can put his supplies.”

 “Yes, Mrs. Smith.”

 Steven shuffled back to his desk, eyes never leaving the floor. I showed him where to put his notebook, his pencils. I tried not to make eye contact, or to say anything, pretending that Steven didn’t exist. Steven was in no mood for talk. He quickly took out his notebook and pencil as Mrs. Smith had us copy spelling words from the board.

 I didn’t pay much attention to Steven for the rest of the morning, we were too busy working. When the bell rang for recess, Mrs. Smith motioned for me to come to her desk. When the other kids had left the room, she began to talk.

John, Steven is new to our school. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, but I was hoping that you would be a friend to him. His family is going through a lot right now and he needs someone to be his friend. Can you do that?”

 What could I say? I knew what Mrs. Smith expected.

Yes, Mrs. Smith.”

 I trudged out to recess. I saw Steven immediately; he was alone, sitting on the bench next to our elementary building. No one was near him. At first, I hesitated; befriending Steven was a commitment, one that I didn’t know I wanted to make.

I shuffled over to where he was sitting and said, “Do you like to play basketball?” No response. “Do you like kickball?” Once again, silence. This wouldn’t be too hard. Ask a few questions and walk away, my commitment fulfilled.

 “Where did you move from?” I asked.

 I didn’t see lips moving, so I turned to sprint away from Steven and my commitment.

 “I moved from Oklahoma.”

That was it, the ice was broken. For the rest of recess, I sat there, quiet and irritated. Waiting for the bell seemed an eternity.

 For a week or more, recesses were like this. I would ask Steven some question and he would or would not answer, depending on his mood. Looking at my friends playing, while I sat on the bench made my elementary heart melt with envy. As the weeks wore on, I found out that Steven had moved from Oklahoma because his mother had left her third husband and had moved back where family was close. They had very little money. His mother was working two jobs to make ends meet, while Steven was responsible for taking care of his younger brothers and sister.

Our speaking relationship developed more each day as Steven and I talked during school and recess. Because he refused to leave the bench and join in our games, I was committed to the bench. I felt like a prisoner, condemned to spend the rest of my elementary days confined to the thin, wooden slats of that bench. My resentment began to grow as my friends began to notice that I wasn’t playing with them anymore. Rude comments like, “Gonna sit with the geek again” became fairly commonplace. The longer I was away from my friends, the more of an outcast I felt.

Steven had been a topic of conversation in the classroom and on the playground from the minute he came to our school. His clothing, his appearance, and his quiet demeanor made him an easy and instant target. I felt an obligation to protect Steven; I could see Cliff (our elementary bully) and other students circling, like sharks, patiently waiting for blood in the water. I heard rude comments in the classroom more and more, but they were uttered quietly, never spoken out loud. “Steven smells like pee” or “Four eyes” or “Steven’s got cooties” became commonplace.

As October began I noticed that it was more difficult to see things written on the board. I also had more and more headaches. A visit to the optometrist confirmed my worst fears: I needed glasses. Braces and glasses were huge billboards, announcing to the world your uncoolness. I begged my mom to let me sit closer to the board, begged her to not make me wear glasses. I even developed a plan to wear my glasses during school, but hide them from the rest of my classmates. I could put my hands on the side of my head as I looked at the board. All of these arguments and plans fell apart. I received my new glasses on a cold Friday afternoon in October.

 Monday came as all Mondays do; harried and rushed. My mom always drove me to school, so hiding the fact that I had glasses would be difficult. I couldn’t take the glasses off until I was inside the building. I tried to nonchalantly shuffle through the front doors, with my hands on the side of my face. It was no use. Cliff, our resident bully, came right up to me. “Poole’s got four eyes.” And then the laughter. I tried to move as quickly as I could through the front door, but I felt like I was wading through molasses. The taunts continued with “Look at those bottle pops” and “Can you see how many fingers I am holding up?” These thirty seconds felt like thirty years as I struggled to reach my classroom.

As I made it to my desk, I quickly took my glasses off and put them in my case. As I looked at the board, everything was a blur. I couldn’t focus. I slowly slid the glasses back onto my face and the world cleared. Steven looked over and stated simply, “Nice glasses.”

 No one said anything about my glasses during class that morning and I relaxed just a little. Then, it hit me. Recess was in five minutes. I would have to hide my glasses before I went out. As the bell rang, I quickly slipped my glasses from my face and tried to hide the case in my book bag. Mrs. Smith approached me and said, “John, I like your new glasses. They look very nice.”

 “Yeah” I replied, not wanting to look up.

 She sensed that I did not want to talk, but continued to stand there. Finally, I looked up and she saw me without my glasses.

Why aren’t you wearing your glasses?” she asked.

 I don’t need to wear my glasses at recess; I only have to wear them in the classroom.”

 “You really look nice, you ought to show the other kids” she said as she sauntered away.

 Against my better judgment I pulled my glasses out and quickly slid them onto my nose. I hurried out of the room and out the door. As I arrived on the playground, I looked for Steven, but I couldn’t see him on our bench. As I looked around, I saw a circle of students in the far corner of the pavement. I heard yells and laughter as I approached. I soon realized that Steven was in the middle of the circle. Cliff was shouting “Steven stinks” “Steven stinks” over and over again. The other kids were laughing and holding their noses. Steven huddled in the middle, eyes on the ground.

As I approached the circle, Cliff, perhaps tiring of teasing Steven, turned towards me and yelled, “Here comes four eyes.” I wanted to banish myself, to become invisible as all of the groups’ eyes turned towards me. I could see several students whispering and some even pointed. Silence was my only safety as Cliff approached.

 “Those are nice pop bottles”, he yelled

 Snickers from the surrounding students and more fingers pointed. Tears started forming in my eyes, and I blinked to be able to see clearly.

Hey, look, four-eyes is crying like a baby,” he sneered.

 I couldn’t help it now, the tears flowed freely. Students began to laugh out loud now. I shrunk inside myself, hoping that the bell would ring and this would all be over. But Cliff came closer.

 “Why are you crying, you little baby?”

I shied away from Cliff as he approached,. The tears trickled out of my eyes and I could barely see.

 “Why don’t you go cry to your mommy, you little baby?”

I couldn’t speak. My voice wouldn’t come. The nightmare would not end as Cliff and the other students gathered around, pointing fingers and jeering. As the bell rang, I stood on the playground for a moment to wipe the remaining tears away and salvage anything left of my dignity.

 The rest of the morning was a blur. I tried to pour myself into my work, ignoring everything and everyone. I didn’t want to relive the morning and its pain. As lunch approached, the horror of that the morning returned and I realized it was only a prelude to what would happen at lunch recess. Following his well-established pattern, Cliff would wait at the door, ready to take up where he had left off. Suddenly, I didn’t feel very hungry. I approached Mrs. Smith and asked her if I could stay in the room during lunch, that I wasn’t feeling well.

No, you can’t stay in the room. Being outside will make you feel better,” she calmly stated.

 I was trapped with no escape. I trudged to the lunchroom, the last in line. I slowly ate my lunch, savoring every minute I could avoid my fate. Steven never said a word, but as I looked up once and then twice, his eyes somehow shared the sympathy I knew he felt for me. I still wasn’t ready to talk about recess, so I slowly chewed my food in silence.

 I finished lunch and slowly put my tray away and plodded towards the door; the death row inmate walking to his death. I peered through the slit of the exterior door, hoping that I would be safe. Cliff and a group of boys stood right outside the cafeteria door. I shrunk away, but realized there was no escape. I pushed open the door and meekly walked out.

 “Hey, four eyes, you gonna cry again?” assaulted me.

Angry and hurt, the tears formed again.

You big baby, go home and cry to your mommy!”

I clenched my fists, and my jaw tightened.

 “At least I don’t pee my pants like Steven!” I yelled back.

 Time stood still. I hoped that the words had only been in my mind. Cliff suddenly leered and his staring eyes left me. In one horrible instant, I turned to look. Steven was just emerging from the cafeteria, but his face was ashen white. His look, pain and disbelief, caused my head to drop.

 Cliff yelled, “Steven pees his pants!”

 As the taunts continued, I slowly raised my head. Steven’s eyes met mine. A tear slid down Steven’s dirty face, leaving a white trail and settled under his chin. That look has never left me, that look of sheer and utter helplessness, haunting me in midnight nightmares.

Steven moved away during Christmas of that year and I have never seen him again. As I teach in my classroom every day, I reflect on that experience and realize that teaching is my chance to give retribution. Steven’s face, forever etched in my mind, is my reminder that my life given in teaching is only a small repayment to an enormous debt.

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