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Childhood Games
by Kathleen Kersch Simandl



This morning I received the invitation to the reunion.  It was unusual: rarely does retrospection of Jr. High School mean much to its alumni.  Yet, as I ran my finger under the seal, all of the guilty memories and images of Mary came surging back.  I feel certain that the reunion was conceived as an attempt to absolve ourselves of her.  Yet, there are certain things impossible to forgive...so painful to remember, that all we can do is hope to forget. 


Mary Brunson was the most unpopular girl in Franklin Junior High School.  She was average-looking, with dark brown hair and a heavy build.  She always wore unstylish, hand-me-down clothes and did things that had been peer-pressure-cooked out of the rest of us 7th graders by the time she transferred into our class. 


Image:  Mary half hanging off her seat in Mr. Miller's Advanced Math class:  She's waving her hand so vigorously that she's a caricature.  "Mr.Miller!  Mr.Miller!  The answer is 134!"  We see her unshaven armpits with her hand upraised like that.  (All of us girls have been shaving since the previous summer.)  Mary is correct with her answer of 134.  (Always. We resent her for that).  "Mr.Miller!  Give me a hard one," she demands while pushing her glasses up on her nose. (People roll  their eyes.) And because Mary sort of picks her nose while awaiting the next question, there's a instantaneous chorus, "E-e-ew!"  (Mary doesn't seem to notice.)


On the day that we "herded" Mary, there was no plan to do so.  We still had recess back then, and the various sections of the 7th grade classes were out on the playground - about sixty of us, all together.


It was an ugly, gray, low-skied day.  Chill, because we were in Illinois and it was late March.  There were puddles of melted snow scattered across the blacktop and the mud.  A few still had a thin glazing of ice around their edges - mostly the ones in the shade of our 1947 red-brick school building.  A couple of icicles tenaciously hung under the roof of the janitors' tool shed.  The sparse grass that perservered in the school yard was half-dead and matted down with all the standing water. But it was a big fenced-in area.  Probably four buildings, identical in size to the school placed in one corner of this expanse, could have been fit in there.  Plenty of room for six or eight groups and their games.


I was with about twelve other 7th graders, standing in a Dodge Ball circle with my best friend JoAnn on one side and the cutest boy in our class - Jeff  M. - on the other. Jeff caught the dirty ball and heaved it as hard as he could at the boy who was in the middle of the circle dancing and shuffling from side to side to avoid getting hit.  Then, just as I caught, and was ready to throw the ball,  Jeff noticed Mary approaching our group.  "Keep her away!"  he shouted.  "Don't let Mary get in!"  I immediately dropped the ball.  And, like the obedient sheep we were, all twelve closed ranks and joined hands.  No one would let Mary into the circle.  Then, taking his cue from our mean-spirited exclusivity,  the class clown Ted turned malicious in his humor.  "C'mon guys, let's see how good Mary is at Dodge Ball."  He stooped to make and throw a loose ball of mud in her direction.  "Ha!  Ted laughed, wiping his hands on his pants.  The rest of us joined in the mocking laughter as we watched Mary turn and flee toward a group of students playing volleyball.


"Hey Guys," shouted Ted to the volleyball players.  "Dodge Mary!  Mary Coming!  Don't let her get near you!"  The kids immediately stopped their game, and like a school of piranha, turned en masse to rush toward the girl, yipping and making throwing motions - pushing Mary to run the other way.


They herded Mary toward another group of Jr. High students who immediately followed the lead of their friends.  They rebuffed her, and turned her toward the next taunting group.   By this time there was a pattern: Mary repelled from group after group as if she were a same-poled magnet.  Everyone in the school yard was aware of what was happening.  Even me.


Image:  Mary, huffing and puffing, her thin wind-breaker flapping around her:  She looks wildly from one face to the next - seeking refuge.  (No one returns her unspoken plea.)  Mary splashes through a puddle, spattering cold, dark mud on her legs.  Her shoes are soaked, useless at protecting.  She stumbles along, no one allowing her to stop.  (We snigger amongst ourselves at her plight.)


It was then that Mr. Miller came lunging out the back fire-doors,  running toward Mary.  All of the students on the playground froze.  I could hear the last of the icicles drip.


He reached the girl just as she reached her limit.  Seeing help at hand, Mary allowed herself to collapse - slouching to the cold, bare ground, dirtying her skirt,  breathing hard - sucking in the air... sobbing it out.  Tears ran down her face.


"Shame on you kids.  Shame. On. You. All."  Mr, Miller shouted in a loud, clear voice.  He stooped to wrap his arm around Mary's heaving shoulders, then pulled her to her feet, and kept her just behind him as he faced the group of us closest to the building.  We hung our heads in silence, all of us knowing that we had been part of something very, very wrong,  Mr. Miller grabbed Ted by the shoulders, looked him straight in the eyes and asked,  "Could you possibly know what you've done?" He then stared at Jeff, for a long time - obvious contempt in his eyes.  But he didn't say a word.  Finally, he backed up, put his arm around Mary's shoulders, surveyed the dozen shame-faced children before him and spat out, "What kind of people are you, anyway."  He turned on his heels, and led Mary back into the school.


 I felt I'd been given the most stringent and damning lecture in my life. 


The anemic sun tucked itself under a thin gray blanket and the day turned even more raw than before.  Every student outside suddenly dropped what he or she had been doing, and  silently filed back into the building.  It was the only time we ever went in from recess before the bell.


I hope to forget Mary, and how easily I went along with the obscenity of shunning her. Yet for the compassion I learned on that cold spring day - pray I never will.  I plan to attend the reunion,  but know I can't so easily absolve myself for joining in that thoughtless, chilling game:


Hurling and dodging a scrap of human instead of a ball.   Shame.





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