Mary Lou had naturally curly hair. She was the envy of every girl in the fourth grade. Her head was covered with Shirley Temple curls, but of a dark chestnut hew, with highlight of red in summer. She was spoiled rotten by indulgent but very rigid parents who adopted her when she was born. Her mother was actually her aunt. This was done in the Dirty Thirties, when younger sisters ‘got in a bad way’ which was what people said when young girls were pregnant out of wedlock. Mary Lou did not know the circumstances of her birth, although all the other kids in town did. We never breathed a word of it to her. If we had, we would never have been allowed to play in her doll house with all her expensive toys.
I loved to play at her house across the street because she had everything. She was not allowed to play with everything, but she had it. Many of her dolls were collector’s items. Her doll house in the back yard was like a real house in almost every detail. Her dad worked for the utility plant and their house was enclosed behind chain link fences along with the utility plant. There were three strings of barbed wire around the top. It was a high security place and Mary Lou was queen of the domain.
At school it was a highly different atmosphere. Mary Lou acted out to gain attention. She was a mean little twit when she didn’t get her own way. Today, we would say she never learned boundaries. Then ... she was just called an ‘ornery little brat’ behind her face.
There were many complaints being registered at Miss Ferrall’s desk after recess, and they were all about Mary Lou. "Mary Lou hit me." "Mary Lou pulled my hair." "Mary Lou pinched me." The list went on and on.
Miss Ferrall, our fourth grade teacher, kept her after school. I was afraid Mary Lou would miss the school bus and have to walk home, but Miss Ferrall knew she lived way out in the canyon and let her out just in time to run for the bus. Her brown curls were bobbing as she jumped up the steps of the yellow bus. I had saved a seat for her. I was her best friend.
"What did she do to you?" I asked. We had a song we sang about Miss Ferrall at recess when we were out of ear shot. It went "We’ll catch Miss Ferrall and put her in a barrel and then we’ll let her go!"
"She rapped my knuckles with the ruler," she said breathlessly. She still had tears in her beautiful blue eyes.
Being a conforming child myself, I had never had my knuckles rapped by a teacher. I tried it myself once, very lightly, and it hurt bad. I vowed to myself never to do anything that would cause a teacher to do it to me. I knew they could hit hard, they were so much bigger than us.
I looked at her knuckles. They were still red and puffy. My stomach tingled the way it did whenever anybody got hurt.
"Be nice on the playground and she won’t do that again," I advised her.
Mary Lou didn’t say a word. She snuffled a couple of times as the bus lurched forward and we rode out to the canyon. She jumped off at her stop, so I knew she was hurt more than she let on. Usually she rode the length of the canyon with me and got off at my stop in front of our little cafe across the street from her house. I waved out the window to her.
Over the next few weeks, her behavior just worsened instead of getting better, and the complaints kept flooding in.
"Mary Lou," Miss Farrell stopped her as she came back from recess. Her large rawboned hand was at my eye level gripping Mary Lou’s shoulder. Her veins were standing out on the back of her hand, so I new she was holding hard.
The rest of the class sat down at our wooden desks. I opened mine for the notebook for my next class, Penmanship. I pulled out my pen, checked to see that the point was in tight and there was no fuzz on the tip. Then I dipped it in my inkwell. I was ready to practice ovals when Miss Farrell came to her desk. I saw her whisper to Mary Lou and then close the door leaving her in the hallway outside.
"Class," Miss Farrell said in her sternest voice, before we do Penmanship today, we are going to punish Mary Lou for bullying all of you on the playground. She is going to sit at her desk, lay her head down and close her eyes. All of you are to line up in front of the blackboard. When I give you the signal, you will walk by her desk and you may pinch her, pull her curls, punch her shoulder or whatever you want to do. She is going to have to learn that she cannot treat you badly without getting it in return. I am pleased that you don’t fight her on the playground, but her behavior has got to stop. Perhaps this will do it!"
I couldn’t look at Miss Farrell, I looked out the tall wooden casement windows across the room. They were open at the top and the bottom, so it much have been a hot day. The white shades were raised to the very top. I do not remember if it was spring or fall. I just knew this was going to be a memorable day in Mary Lou’s life. Maybe mine too.
While she returned to the hallway to get Mary Lou, the class went out of control.
"Anything?" the boys were yelling and jumping up and down.
"Oh no! What’ll we do to her? the girls were asking each other, squealing and giggling, and wondering if we had played our last in Mary Lou’s doll house.
When Mary Lou came in, she slipped quietly into her desk. Then she leaned across the aisle to me.
"You won’t hit me, will you?" she asked, her eyes wide and beginning to fill with tears.
"No," I whispered back. She laid her head on the desk and closed her yes.
We all got up in unison, marched up to the front blackboard and lined up for the onslaught of Mary Lou.
I felt sorry for her, and I got that old twitchy feeling in my stomach as the other children passed her seat and dealt our their measure of punishment to Mary Lou. By the time I marched past her desk, the mob mentality had set in, and I, too, felt the need to get back at her.
I checked to see if her eyes were still closed when it was my turn to pass. They were.
I pulled her long curls with a stiff jerk as I passed. I heard her muffled snuffle and crying from under her crossed arms, her brown curls shaking in the sunlight that streaked across the desks after lunch time.
Knowing that she was adopted...knowing that her own mother had given her away when she was a baby ... it was almost more than my nine years could handle.
Now I had the added burden of knowing that I had pulled her long dark curls. The worst she had ever done to me was pinch, and it didn’t hurt that much. She was my best friend ... it was more like that’s what you had to put up with if you wanted to play with all her pretty toys. What had gotten into me? I was just like the rest of these tormentors, and I had promised not to be. What kind of a friend was I?
Mary Lou truly had not opened her eyes, so she never knew I pulled her curls. We remained friends until we were adults although I had moved far away. Her parents told her she was adopted when we were both pregnant with our first children. She was so angry that she disowned them and sought out her true family back in the mid-west. I met them once and was not impressed. My last Christmas card to her came back ‘addressee unknown’. A year later I spotted her husband at a concert and I ran down the rows to greet her, but he had his arms around another woman. They had divorced a year before. It was a big social faux pax and I slunk back to my seat, all the time wondering what had happened to Mary Lou.
I wish I could lose track of that early childhood memory of the hazing of Mary Lou. I’ve wondered how that incident effected her later life. I could guess by the way she rejected her parents when she gave birth to her little girl, and her early divorce. Her life was probably pretty screwed up. It must have been hard for her to trust anyone again.
"We’ll catch Miss Ferrall and put her in a barrel and then we’ll let her go."
That little sing song doggerel verse echoes in the cobwebs of my mind. We shouldn’t have let her go. We should have turned her in. But little children keep big secrets. Some of them are way to much to bear.