The Green Mile
Today's UPI column
So There I was...
Walking the green mile.
OK, it wasn’t a mile, it just seemed like it. But the long hall down the empty corridor was a sort of turquoise green. I wasn’t actually condemned to death, though for a second grader I might as well have been. Dead little girl walking, and worse, I had to do it every Tuesday afternoon for all of second grade.
The call came at 2 p.m. every Tuesday, just before all the other kids went to recess. My teacher, Miss Cartier tried to be as subtle as possible, sidling up to my desk and whispering, “Peggy, its time.” But it didn’t matter because all the kids knew where I was going. They snickered behind their hands, and giggled as I got up from my seat and left the room. I was nervous and often managed to kick something or bump into something on the way out. Kids would stick their foot out and try to trip me if the teacher took her eyes off me. Miss Cartier didn’t let them get away with any words, but it didn’t matter, because there was after school, and before school, and other recesses to get the taunts in. I was labeled for the rest of grade school.
I was walking down to what the kids at school called the “retard room.” Even in 1965 nobody was allowed to call it that in from of teachers or staff, it was officially the classroom for the “handicapped” children. But on the playground that is what they called it, and they called me a “retard.”
I actually got to know the kids in that classroom. Some of them spent their whole days there. Some kids assigned to that class spent part of their days in a regular classroom. It was a pretty progressive school district. Some of them had physical difficulties, some had developmental difficulties, and some of them didn’t seem all that different from the kids in the regular classes.
I was pigeon-toed. Really seriously pigeon-toed. I tripped over my own feet all the time. I scuffed my Mary Janes all to death. They tried making me wear those special stiff high shoes, but they didn’t help. So I got sent to Miss Belknapp the physical rehab teacher.
Here’s what the other kids didn’t know. The long walk down the green hall was hell, but heaven was just on the other side of the door to Miss Belknapp’s room. The room was full of giant toys and gymnastics equipment. She wore sneakers and shorts while all the other teachers were in heels and dresses. She was kinda loud, and funny, and she was pretty masculine for a lady. She called me “Girly.” I didn’t know anybody else like her. But she liked me. I think she liked all her kids. When I walked in the door she welcomed me, like a beloved lost lamb. As if she were surprised to see me. As if I was the best part of her day. She was the best part of my week.
She taught me how to walk. How to turn my hips so that my toes would go straight. How to tuck in my tiny little butt so that my hips would open out. We practiced many walks, we walked like ducks, we walked like cowboys. She would have me put my hands behind my back as if they were tied and I would pretend to walk the plank – with plenty of pirate talk to go with it. We laughed a lot. Wednesday mornings during second grade I was always a little sore. I remember one day in the spring when she was pretty pleased with me and she said, “Well, we could quit now, Girly, but as long as we’ve taught you to walk straight, we might as well teach you how to walk pretty.” I did not object. Then I spent a few weeks walking like Miss America with a crown on my head. If they would have let me stay with Miss Belknapp for the three R’s I would have stayed. Miss Belknapp was my secret treasure.
There is a stanza in the Serenity prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that goes
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
As the pathway to peace.
I learned the truth of that every Tuesday in second grade. After the mocking there was grace. After the loneliness there was kind attention. After the pain came fun. I could have let the humiliation ruin the joy, but I didn’t. And in my memory the grace is huge and lively and the persecution is ghostly and pale.
Perspective is a choice.
So there I was ten years later, 1975, in the grocery on an errand for my mother. I whizzed around a corner in my three-inch platform sandals and mini skirt. I heard a loud voice from the back of the store yell, “Stop right there! – is that you Peggy? Peggy Senger? I executed a perfect pivot turn and faced Miss Belknapp, now a retired teacher. I grinned. She whistled a loud wolf whistle as all the patrons of the store turned and looked. “Look at that walk! Look at that pretty, humdinger of a walk! Give me a bit more, Girly!” So I gave her my best strut and then a hug, and we laughed. And she said “Well, Girly, when you walk that plank they are gonna remember the last thing they see! Go get ‘em.”
So I did.