It was my first day as newcomer to Miss Hargrove’s seventh grade. Past “newcomer” experiences had been difficult, so I was very anxious to fit in. After being introduced to the class, I bravely put on a smile and took my seat, expecting to be shunned.
Lunchtime was a pleasant surprise when the girls all crowded around my table. Their chatter was friendly, so I began to relax. My new classmates filled me in on the school, the teachers and the other kids. It wasn’t long before the class nerd was pointed out to me: Mary Lou English. Actually she called herself Mary Louise. A prim, prissy young girl with a stern visage and old-fashioned clothes, she wasn’t ugly -- not even funny looking. I thought she was quite pretty, but I had sense enough not to say so. Dark-eyed and olive-skinned, she had long, silky black hair, but -- she had pipe curls! Practical shoes, long wool skirt and a starched, frilly blouse completed the image of a complete dork. The girls’ whispers and giggles got louder and louder. Mary Lou made eye contact with no one as she strode past our table, chin held high with iron determination. She ate alone.
After school, the girls invited me to join them in front of the school. I was thrilled to be a member of the club, however tentative. We waited. For what, I didn’t yet know. Oh, how I wish I had gone home, but I had a lesson to learn.
Arms wrapped around her backpack, Mary Lou came down the school steps. The taunting began - rude, biting comments and jeering from the girls. I paused, then joined right in. My momentum began to pick up as I approached her. Nasty, mean remarks fell unabated from my lips. No one could tell I’d never done this before. The other girls stepped back and became my cheerleaders. Emboldened, I yanked the strap of her backpack and then pushed her. The strap broke, Mary Lou fell and I backed off. Everyone was laughing and patting me. I fit in. I was a leader.
I was not proud. Something inside me hurt. If you’ve ever picked a wing off a butterfly, you know how I felt.
Mary Lou got up, gathered her books and -- without a tear shed or retort given -- off she went. She held her head high as a small trickle of blood ran down from her bruised knee. I watched her limp away down the street.
I turned to leave with my laughing friends and noticed a man standing beside his car. His olive skin, dark hair and handsome features told me this was her father. Respectful of Mary Lou’s proud spirit, he remained still and watched the lonely girl walk toward him. Only his eyes -- shining with both grief and pride -- followed. As I passed, he looked at me in silence with burning tears that spoke to my shame and scalded my heart. He didn’t speak a word.
No scolding from a teacher or preaching from a parent could linger as much as that hurt in my heart from the day a father’s eyes taught me kindness and strength and dignity. I never again joined the cruel herds. I never again hurt someone for my own gain.