Tuesday, May 03, 2005

What I'll regret

Each one of us has stories of things we've done that we'll regret the rest of our lives. Words we've said that we can't take back. Duties we've neglected that we can't make up. Opportunities we've passed by that we will never have again.

Inspired by and in keeping with a couple of other beautifully written, quite melancholy stories I've read in the Bloggernacle lately, here's one of the saddest stories of my life. (The other stories I've linked are not about personal failures, the way I see them, by the way. Mine is.)

I went to McCord Elementary in Ponca City, Oklahoma for fourth grade. My dad was a research and development engineer for Conoco. We lived in a newish house at the end of a respectable residential street, more country than city. Honestly, it was one of the nicest houses I lived in growing up! Though I was not aware of it at the time, some of my classmates didn't have the same economic privilege I did. Many lived in mobile homes. At the time I didn't see that as any kind of disadvantage.

But when Wendy* moved in, I could see the difference between her and me. Maybe because the teachers helped. The day before Wendy arrived, both fourth-grade classes filed into one classroom while Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Thomas told us about her. Wendy's family had lost everything in a trailer fire, maybe a year or so earlier. Wendy had been severely burned. She was just now ready to come back to school. She was really going to need friends, they said.

I was resolved. These kinds of situations had been presented to me hypothetically all my life in Primary and in Family Home Evening. I knew what to do. I would be Wendy's friend. She was even going to be on my bus.

The next day, the bus groaned to a stop at a corner by the railroad tracks, a place we'd never stopped before. I could see, down in a hollow, a dilapidated trailer with sagging awnings and garbage in the front. That's where she lives, I thought. Sure enough, she boarded the bus. I remember her wispy, short blonde hair framing a thin face of tight, striped skin. She didn't have eyelashes or brows. I swallowed my discomfort and invited Wendy to sit by me.

We were friends that day, and maybe part of the next. We played together at recess. We talked. I don't remember what we talked about. I just remember that it was never easy for me, never comfortable. I felt strained.

I think that's natural. Some people seem to have a natural inclination to interact with others who have certain differences. Some people have a gift with the elderly, some with the sick, some with disabled people, some with people of different cultures. Some have a gift with nerds. I think I'm good with that -- look who I married! (Hahaha, Glenny, I love you!)

In fourth grade, and really all my life, I consistently occupied the thin line between cool and pathetic. Too stable and lucky in life (and cute, too, when I was young) to be really pathetic, but too smart and awkward to be really cool. Between that precarious position and my innate discomfort with Wendy, I was vulnerable to bad influences.

The cool girls provided that. When Leelee and Laci (inseparable friends, one black and one white, called "Salt and Pepper" before there was such a pop group as Salt-n-Pepa) decided that Wendy didn't make their cool list, they let me know it. Pointing, laughing, and finally the incredulous, "You're not going to keep sitting with her, are you?"

I wish I'd pulled out a wad of hair. I wish I'd stood up for what I knew I should do, even though I didn't feel like I was doing it well. I wish I'd told Leelee and Laci to get a grip. Instead, I set my backpack and my plastic Snoopy lunchbox on the seat beside me and ignored Wendy when she got on the bus the next day. I kept ignoring her. Before long, she was gone, moved away.

It's one of those things I can never fix. Wendy, if you're out there, I'm so sorry.

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