This letter was written as an assignment for a writing class through Wesleyan University. It’s part of a collection of letters, including this one to my father, written in midlife to different people at different times of my life.
May 1, 1968
Dear Mrs. Clark,
I’m writing to tell you that you are a terrible third-grade teacher. A horrible, very bad person. I’ve sometimes wished you were dead, but then I take it back because I know I’ll get in trouble for even thinking that. But do you know how much you have ruined my life? I am only 8 years old but I sometimes wish I were dead, and that’s ALL YOUR FAULT.
Why didn’t you let me go to the bathroom when I BEGGED you for permission? I’m a good girl. A good, obedient student. I’m not bad or lazy. I don’t ever break the rules. I REALLY had to go use the bathroom. But you wouldn’t let me. And then you made me stand in front of the whole class to lead the Pledge of Allegiance! I REALLY HAD TO GO TO THE BATHROOM, MRS. CLARK! But you know that now. Because I couldn’t hold it one second longer and I peed myself standing right there in front of the whole class, holding the flag I wished could make me disappear. Wanting to wrap myself up in it and hide.
Right in front of Eron Monroe and Barbara Kelly and Adam Brooks, sitting in the front row with John Russell and all his weird minuteman drawings that he shouldn’t have been doing.
Girls can’t wear pants to school, so the warm pee just ran down my bare thighs from under my homemade orange plaid corduroy pleated skirt, over my white scratchy knee socks, and into my brown saddle oxfords that I hated anyway. If it had been a different day, I might’ve been wearing thick tights to hide the marks on my legs from the buckle end of a belt. Maybe the tights would’ve soaked up more of my shame than my socks did. Instead, my pee made a bigger and bigger puddle that turned the light oak floorboards dark around my too-big 8-year-old feet. I tried very hard to keep holding the flag up and not let it drop down and drag in any of my pee on the floor as I just stood there, frozen. Now, when I think back about this in my head, I imagine me mopping up all my pee off the floor with the flag. Then throwing the pee-soaked flag right on top of your head as you just sit at your big wooden desk by the window, not rescuing me at all.
Of course, everyone howled. I was already not popular, with my long skinny brown legs, big feet, overbite, and thick pearlized pink cat-eye glasses I picked out to look glamorous – but that just make my eyes look 10 times too big. And so now that I’ve also peed on myself while leading the Pledge of Allegiance standing in front of the whole class, well, my life is ruined. More ruined.
I am bullied and teased every day still. No one will play with me at recess. The girls all hold their noses and giggle on the playground when I come near. The boys throw pebbles and broken twigs at me while I sit by myself on the bench behind the rusty monkey bars. I try to ignore them all, pretending to count the chips of paint, patches of rust, or missing bolts on the monkey bars. Even Barbara Kelly, who was my friend, stays away from me and teases me with the others now. A group of them followed me home once, throwing rocks at me and laughing and calling me Pee Pee Pants. This is ALL YOUR FAULT.
Third grade shouldn’t be this miserable. I kept telling you what was happening to me – what is still happening to me – but you never did ANYTHING. I told my mother too, but she didn’t do ANYTHING EITHER. She’s been too riled up about everything going on right now with Negroes and our simple rights to care even one tiny bit that her own Negro daughter’s simple rights are being trashed on every day of her life. She’s from Alabama, but we’re in Cleveland now so she ought to be paying attention to what’s happening to ME. Where’s MY simple rights movement?
I hate her too sometimes. Just like I hate you. There is NOBODY on my side. There is NOBODY protecting me. When I saw Mommy sobbing her eyes out last month after Martin Luther King got shot in that motel down south and died, I thought, “Good. I’m glad she’s crying. I’m glad she’s sad. Now she knows what it feels like to feel hopeless. Heartbroken.” She was all folded over on the living room floor, kind of on her knees but not, with little flecks of the beige carpeting stuck to her black stretch pants that show how bony her knees are. She was just kinda rocking back and forth there on the floor in front of the black-and-white TV on the stand. I was going to tell her she was sitting too close to the TV, like she always tells me and my younger brother and sister, but I thought better of it right then.
Martin Luther King got assassinated (that means getting killed by someone who doesn’t like what you are doing) on my sister’s birthday. She turned four the day he died. Good thing Mommy had already made her birthday cake before it happened. My sister is too little to know about Martin Luther King or the other simple rights people they keep showing on TV and in the Life magazines we get. But I know. I didn’t hug Mommy when she was crying. 1968 is a bad year for ALL of us. It’s the worst year of my life.
I wish you’d get assassinated Mrs. Clark. And I’m not taking it back this time.
I TAKE IT BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I’m never sending this letter.
When I became a teacher in my second career, I taught third grade. My class always took frequent bathroom breaks, and I never refused a child's request to go to the bathroom. I remembered the importance of paying close attention to the emotional health of young children.
Do you ever look back from where you are now in midlife, and wonder how things might have been different if you’d paid attention to what you already knew about yourself when you were young? Just last month, when I was packing up my house after selling it, I found this “book” I’d written at 11. I was struck by my prescient self-awareness in fifth grade.
I wrote here about what I would now tell my younger self. But this is what I’m wondering now: What would you want your younger self to tell you now in midlife? Let me know in the comments.
All images are my own, except for the featured cover photo from Pexels Free Media Library.
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