Andrew Leheny is a freelance writer in Belle Vernon, Pa.
She was big, dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs that, to my 11-year-old eye, appeared to be purely functional.
She avoided eye contact with other students, always turning her reddish, blotchy face away. Yet nothing about her was as out of place as her knotted nest of red hair, an uncombed thicket upon a child’s head.
She appeared in our fifth-grade class at Washington Elementary School in West Aliquippa, Pa., in late September 1962. She was assigned the seat directly in front of my own.
To her new classmates, this girl was as unreal as a fictional character. If she was aware of the laughter and finger-pointing that her appearance generated, her face didn’t show it.
I found it ironic that she sat in front of me. Until her arrival, my obesity had been the target of classmates’ jokes. But her peculiar appearance trumped even my own; now, students smiled knowingly at me, offering unspoken sympathy that I should sit behind such an otherworldly creature.
Perhaps a week or two later, the new student was called to the front of the classroom.
She rose, unkempt as usual, and walked forward silently, her eyes downward. As she came next to Miss K, our fortyish-year-old teacher turned the girl forward to face the class.
“Now, young lady,” said Miss K, “did someone forget to comb her hair this morning?”
Miss K picked up a comb from her desk and stood behind the girl. She placed her left hand on the student’s left shoulder and, using her right hand, attempted to guide the comb through the girl’s snarled hair. Almost immediately, the comb became stuck.
I watched as the class’s new object of ridicule reacted with discomfort, her eyes closed as Miss K tried to disentangle the comb. Some students giggled softly.
Our teacher worked the comb free and sought a different, perhaps more forgiving, section of hair. Using short strokes, Miss K seemed to be making progress when, suddenly, her grooming effort dislodged a greenish insect that fell to the floor and scampered forward, among our desks.
At the sight of the grasshopper, laughter, including my own, filled the classroom.
Only the girl and Miss K remained silent.
After a moment, Miss K told us to behave and then directed her still-stoical grooming subject to return to her seat.
There was no apology, no word of comfort from Miss K. None of the other fifth-graders considered how much this incident must have hurt our classmate.
Like us, she was just a child, but, as Miss K’s behavior had shown, she was also a strange being who existed beyond our rules and expectations.
The next morning as I was leaving for school, I saw the new girl walking toward our house. As she neared the gate to our yard, I turned and walked back inside.
My mother was waiting just inside the door.
“You wanted to avoid that young girl, didn’t you?” she asked.
I nodded yes while avoiding looking directly at my mother.
“Do your friends make fun of her?” she asked.
I told her yes. Mother watched from our living room window as the girl continued walking toward school.
She looked at me with concern.
“Andy, she reminds me so much of myself at her age,” she said. “We were poor and the other children made fun of me too . . . of what I wore . . . of how I looked.
“Don’t you hurt her, too. Be nice to her.”
In school that day I watched my classmate, who always stared, impassively, straight ahead. Midway through the day, a pencil rolled off her desk. I picked it up and handed it to her.
“You dropped this,” I said and offered a smile. She took the pencil, but if my small gesture meant anything, her face betrayed no emotion.
One day, several weeks later, she did not return to school. No one knew or seemed to care where she had moved.
It’s funny how memories stick with you. How one moment can haunt you.
A teacher and a classroom of children forget that behind grooming issues and ill-fitting clothes is a child, a young girl lost and probably overwhelmed by her circumstances.
Instead of making new friends, celebrating birthdays and sharing valentines with classmates, some are denied the joys of childhood for reasons beyond their control.
Five decades later, I still wish I could apologize to my classmate. Of all her classmates, I should have known better.
I cannot forgive our teacher for publicly humiliating her. I will forgive my classmates when I can forgive myself.
I have hoped for decades that an undelivered valentine would someday reach her. It is a prayer that somehow the pain she endured as a child has been balanced with joy as an adult. That she has loved, married and taught children of her own to judge not with their eyes but with their hearts.
I hope that this year an undelivered sentiment has made its way to its rightful recipient.
My dear classmate, this valentine is for you.