There we were, an entire fifth grade class crammed into the largest window of Miss Gandy's room, gawking at the limp body of a boy lying atop a six-foot-high mound of snow. He'd been out there for nearly three hours, and with the way the wind cuts through one's clothes in a midwestern winter he had to be approaching the point of losing fingers and toes. He was a new kid and had only been here for two weeks or so, but it was ten school days of torrential events.
As we giggled and muttered and tried to slip notes to one another, Miss Gandy entered the scene. She had thrown on her jacket, a cotton hat and mittens and her tall leather snow boots, the ones with the fur at the top, and trudged out to the site of the downed boy. We couldn't hear her, but we knew what she was saying.
"Blake Jennings, get up right now," she commanded as most of us had heard before. "If you don't get up this second I will contact your parents and haul you down to the principal's office. How would you like that?"
Blake didn't move. So, Miss Gandy, with hands on the hips of her fetching three-quarters-length red wool coat, tapped her boot as if counting down to lift-off. He still didn't move. His arms and legs were sprawled across the thick, wet snow, and his hat had been pulled down over his face.
"Is he breathing?" Lisa asked.
"I think he's dead," Aaron chuckled.
"No, he's not," I said.
And then Miss Gandy lurched over him and grabbed his right hand. With a yank of his arm, she tried to pull him to his feet. It didn't work. She only managed to drag his body to the bottom of the snow pile. She was fed up now. She let go of his hand and returned to her commands.
"Get up, Blake," she said, "This is not funny anymore."
And it really wasn't. It was when we left him there. It was even funny when we sat in the classroom and Miss Gandy asked us where he was. We giggled and motioned to the window.
"Is he still outside?" she asked. We giggled some more as she walked to the window. Her mouth agape, she couldn't believe what she was seeing. Was he hurt? Was he sick? "That is not funny," she said chastising us, and she immediately stormed from the room.
And now, Miss Gandy was resolved to drag the apparently lifeless body of Blake Jennings across the playground to the far doors near the end of the parking lot. He didn't move, and now it was beginning to disturb the class, in both malevolent and awkward ways. There was something wrong with Blake, maybe not physically, but his little stunt revealed more to his emotional side than most of us had known. Sadly though, some of us lost the spirit of the season, the ideal Miss Gandy and parents and teachers before her had taught us so that we who have much joy can share it with those who have little. That's how we were rewarded with gifts. If you had a pure heart you were blessed with presents, and those with malicious and ignorant hearts were given hard lessons. And now, with three days until Christmas vacation and ten days remaining before the holiday, it was suddenly difficult to distinguish the good little boys and girls from the bad ones.
Thirty minutes had passed, and most of us returned to our seats. We didn't know why, but we felt obligated to wait silently. Neither Miss Gandy nor Blake Jennings had come back to the room, and we were beginning to worry.
"I told you he was dead," Aaron whispered.
"He's not dead," I whispered back. And a flood of whispers overtook the class like waves sweeping the shores of the Great Lakes.
That's when the door smacked open with an angry reverberation of wood against concrete. She simmered. She tramped to the front of the class and dropped what weight she had on the edge of her desk. But worst of all, she didn't say a word. She merely glared at each and every one of us, with the rough and tumble nasal breaths like a bull facing a matador.
"Does anyone care to tell me what happened out there?" she finally said. No one spoke up. No one wanted to tell her about the snowballs, about how we ganged up on him and drove his face into the snow or how we turned him over and shoveled dirty ice into his screaming mouth to shut him up.No one wanted to tell her that he pushed Lisa off the slide or that he stole our football and threw it into the river the day before. No one wanted to explain that we were playing King of the Mountain on that snowdrift and we told him specifically that he couldn't play with us. And no one wanted to say how he circled us like a maniacal buzzard screaming obscenities at us and hurling chunks of ice at us. No one wanted to admit that we devised a plan to let him play when only a few seconds remained for recess and when he leaped for the top of the mound we scattered. Everyone one of us ran for the building, leaving him to shout at the top of his lungs, "Where are you going? Come back!" No one wanted to describe the sight of a lone boy proclaiming his hatred for all of us, while twenty students ran their fastest to get away from him. No one wanted to make the statement that he deserved what he got.
"All right," she continued, "if no one wants to tell me then we can forget about our holiday party on Friday." The class erupted in disappointment. "I'm sorry, but there's a sad and hurt little boy in the office that told me he doesn't want to see any of your faces ever again. Do you understand that?"
It was bad enough that we did understand that, but what made it even more horrible is that none of us really cared. I looked at Aaron. He shrugged.
"Blake hates you," she said now in a condescending way, "and he wants to go home and never come back here. That's how mean you were to him, and that is a quality I do not care for in my family and my friends, let alone my students." She almost started to cry, but she caught herself and wiped it away. "You deserve nothing good this year. I'm sorry, but mean little boys and girls deserve nothing. This is not the holiday spirit. This is not joy. This is not respect for your fellow man. This is meanness. Putrid, ugly meanness. And I want you all to go home tonight and think about how you would feel if you were treated like you did Blake today."
And as she turned to her desk to clean up her things, the lot of us sat in contemplation until the three o'clock bell set us free of the wrath filling that classroom.
The next morning, we arrived at school and everything appeared the same. The bus dropped us off at the main entrance, and we sloshed our way to our locker areas. Some of us kept a change of shoes there. Others went shoeless. We crammed our wet clothes and boots into the metal casks and Miss Gandy's room awaited us.
She sat at her desk, with not a word spoken or glance exchanged. Her head was buried into her lesson plans, and we tiptoed to our seats. You couldn't help but notice two things in the room, Blake was gone and the blackboard was excessively clean with one sentence written in the middle pane. Upon closer inspection, it wasn't a sentence but a mandate rather. In cursive, it read "You will write a 200-word essay on what you could do for Blake to deserve forgiveness."
And for the entire morning that's what we did. There was no recess and there was no talking, just thinking and writing. When you were done you were instructed to place the paper on Miss Gandy's desk and return to your seat, and even then you weren't allowed to talk or make any noise whatsoever.
After lunch, Miss Gandy then read everyone's essay aloud, embarrassing us one by one. Even though she didn't reveal the author, we were accustomed to their style of writing and knew exactly who it was. Some were very heartfelt. They wrote how they would give him half of the toys in their closet. One person wrote that they would take him to the movies for a whole year. One kid said he would let him play quarterback on Saturdays in his backyard.
"I have to say that you all have pleased me with your generosity," she said, "because one of the most pleasant gifts you can receive is a lesson in life."
That's when Blake walked in the room. He still had his slushy boots on, but they were the old black father-like galoshes with metal fasteners. They chunk-chunked across the floor leaving small puddles of grimy wetness like a trail to Blake's desk. He had on a worn brown hat and sunglasses. We tried to hold the snickering beneath our breaths, but few of us succeeded.
"Well, good afternoon, Blake," Miss Gandy said. He didn't say a word, smiled and sat down in the front row. "We were just discussing ways to earn your forgiveness for yesterday's prank."
"Good," he said.
"Why don't you take off your hat and glasses and we'll continue."
"I don't think so," he answered.
"Excuse me?" she said.
"I'm not taking any of it off."
"I asked you to remove your hat and glasses and you will remove your hat and glasses."
"You're not my parents. I don't have to do anything."
Now, Miss Gandy was getting angry. This is what we had dealt with for the last two weeks.
"I am your teacher and you are instructed to do as I say in my class. Now I won't repeat it again. Please remove your hat and glasses."
And that's when the boy with the rock-and-roll mirrored sunglasses and crummy brown hat and sopping boots pulled out the final straw. He instructed her, in graphic words, to have sex with herself among other things. We were shocked. We had never heard that kind of speech used in front of her and now it was being spoken to her.
She erupted in scorn, snatching the hat off his head and the glasses from his face. "You will not use that sort of language in my class!"
Then we were shown the reason he donned his mysterious superstar costume. His eye was blackened. His cheek was swollen and cut, and his ear was bloodied and bruised. If his lethal words were a huge shock his injuries were the ultimate mouth gag. Even Miss Gandy's chin dropped.
"Oh my, Blake," she said, attempting to mother him with consolation. But that was gasoline on the fire.
"Don't look at me!" he screamed, and he rocketed from his chair. He pushed over his desk. "Nobody look at me!"
"But Blake," Miss Gandy continued.
"I said don't look at me!" he screamed even louder, and with the strength of ten fifth-graders Blake lifted the chair over his head. "You don't care about me, so don't make me think you do when you don't!"
Miss Gandy took a step closer, calmly reasoning with him, "Put the chair down, Blake." Those of us in the immediate vicinity of him scurried to the outskirts of the room. He lifted up the chair as high as he could and launched it into the blackboard.
He picked up an abandoned chair and sent it crashing through the window. Glass flew everywhere. A couple kids escaped the whirlwind of hatred, but I remained to witness the fiasco.
"Blake, that's enough," Miss Gandy cried.
He leaped onto one of the desks and began stomping up and down. "This is not enough! This is not enough!" he yelled. And the weight of his pounding collapsed the desk beneath him, sending him hurtling to the floor. He smacked flat on his back, jolting laughter from the few of us left in the room.
"It's not funny!" Miss Gandy croaked, and she moved to help him up, but his fury now in a raging blaze told him to shove her away. He did exactly that. She went flying into the desk, and he bounced back to his feet and again atop a desk.
This time he hopscotched from one to the next until he reached the library area of the room. And as he broke into a fit of tossing books, Principal Williams and the janitor stormed into the room. Blake aimed at people. He aimed at heads and in between shots at human targets he threw them at the wall, the lights and the fish tank.
That was enough for Principal Williams. He went in for the attack, aggressively swatting the books away. Blake leaped to the tops of the desks again, but the weight was too strong and he toppled to the floor again. That was the moment Principal Williams and the janitor jumped atop his flailing, screaming body. Blake punched and kicked.
"What's wrong with this kid?" the janitor asked Miss Gandy. And like us, she had no reasonable answer.
Needless to say, school was called early that day.
Friday came, and we did end up having our party, complete with a plastic bag and duct tape across the window and without fish. What was planned to be an itinerary of games, songs and gift exchanging was reduced to simultaneously somber and joyful holiday carols played on a small carton turntable. The silence was so thick you could hear every scratch and blemish on every record.
Principal Williams addressed the class that morning, explaining the situation with Blake Jennings. He told us how he was a foster child and was with his eighth set of foster parents. He told us how he was being abused and has had a history of abuse with previous families. He told us how the state was revoking their guardianship and sending him back to an orphanage. He told us how Blake had exhausted his opportunities to get adopted by a loving family and this was his way of protesting. He told us how he really was a sad and hurt boy, and not just by our doing. And lastly, he told us that we wouldn't be seeing him anymore, that he'll be taught at the orphanage until the age of sixteen.
The egg nog didn't have the festive flavor it used to evoke. The songs didn't warm our bodies with happiness. And it was far from a holiday party. To most of us, it resembled more of a funeral mass.
Break passed. We all received stacks of gifts from our family, even though we may not have deserved it. We plodded into the hallways, removed our galoshes and slipped on our clean, dry tennis shoes. The fifth grade resumed its curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic, but there was one thought on all of our minds.
On Christmas Day, the report of a house fire interrupted holiday dinners of ham and mashed potatoes, and the loss of appetite was connected to the loss of three lives, namely The Jennings. Father tried to keep the papers out of my sight, but gossip ran deep through this town. Jennings wasn't even his official last name, just his latest. Before this, he was known as Blake Mandel, and before that Blake Atkins. Seven names and seven lives in seven years; I was beginning to see why he had such torment in his soul. I would too when I lost my identity every eight months or so.
So, the news reported Blake had intentionally set fire to the house in protest to being sent away again. He started it that night while his guardians slept. No one survived, and all of us in Miss Gandy's class couldn't help but feel somewhat responsible.
In a time for giving, we failed to see how much we were getting at the expense of others. We wanted so much because we expected it. We took for granted what we were given, while there were others merely hoped for morsels of respect and benevolence. Blake was someone who was given nothing but abuse, a new last name to remember and an old last name to forget, along with hundreds of students, teachers, principals, janitors, bus drivers and neighbors. I thought about the class gawking and chuckling at a boy who had given up. He threw himself atop the snow and resolved to quit. How many snowballs had been thrown at him? How many snowdrifts had he tried to climb only to be shoved off continually? In how many towns like this? And it was understandable that he lacked desire for communication with anyone who could aid his matter. By the time he nestled in close with someone he was whisked off to another town with another name and another battle to win friendships. He wasn't a boy that wanted to be an outcast. He just happened to be one.
Out of all of the growing years, that was the year I learned
the most beneficial gift of all, love and kindness. Peace on earth and
good will toward men now has more meaning every time I hear it
spoken; a one-week lesson etched into my soul for eternity. No
better a gift could I have been bestowed that the one I received in
that stark winter of 1977. It was a time for giving, and maybe Miss
Gandy and the rest of the class, including myself, will recognize
those around us who are hurting inside and make more of an effort
to nurse their troubles away, whatever the season. Perhaps with
this experience, we all will look within ourselves and trim off the
inhumane qualities, becoming better people because of it, time
© 2003 D. Robert Tibbits, all rights reserved
appears here by permission