“Hey teacher? Leave those kids alone.”
In 1960 my second-grade teacher was an older woman named Mrs. Peterson. Sometimes she’d stand over me as I worked at my desk and pat my shoulder like I was her best student.
One morning she stood in front of the class and said, “Now children, some of you will not be going out to recess because you failed to do your homework.”
Some of us turned out to be two of us: me and this other kid.
“Diana, I am very disappointed you didn’t do your work,” Mrs. Peterson reprimanded me. “I hope this isn’t going to be a trend.”
“But Mrs. Peterson,” I pleaded, “I did turn in my . . . .” She shut me up with a wave of her hand.
“I don’t want to hear any excuses! You’ll stay in class this morning and do the work you were assigned yesterday while your classmates go to recess. That should be a lesson to you,” she said looking at me like I was the lowest life form found on our planet.
How could she accuse me? I distinctly remember writing the answers on my worksheet with my #2 pencil, trying not to go below the blue, mimeographed line. What happened to my paper?
The kids in my class lined up single file to go out to the playground. Mrs. Peterson left the room too, probably to get a cup of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. In an instant I was up foraging through the garbage can at the front of the room looking for my worksheet. I didn’t find anything, so I went over to the stack of graded papers sitting on the side shelves underneath the big plate glass windows. Then I saw it. It was my paper, all right, the one with the big, loopy lettering. I’d always had poor penmanship. But my name wasn’t on the paper. Danny, this kid in my class, had erased my name and wrote his own instead.
“How could you do this, Danny?” I whispered, tightly gripping my worksheet so no one stole it from me again. But I guess I knew how. Danny was flunking school and he just wanted to pass second grade. I didn’t blame him, but I also didn’t want Mrs. Peterson to start thinking I was a goof-off either.
After recess Mrs. Peterson sat at her desk gathering her lesson plans. I was so nervous, I didn’t know if I could explain to her what happened. Before I could make Mrs. Peterson understand, she might send me to the principal’s office, the office with the wooden paddle hanging by the door, waiting to spank kids that caused trouble.
“Mrs. Peterson,” I stood at her elbow staring at her gray-streaked head. She was bent over her desk writing something.
“Hmmm? Yes, what is it?”
“I . . . um . . . wanted to show you that I really did do my homework yesterday,” I said.
I laid my paper on the desk in front of her. “Here’s my worksheet from yesterday . . . .
She glanced at it and looked up at me annoyed, “That’s Danny’s paper! Sit down now before I put your name on the board to stay in at afternoon recess.”
“But Mrs. Peterson,” I pleaded with her, “Look closer at Danny’s name. Look! Don’t you see my name under Danny’s? It’s really faded because my name’s been erased.”
There was a box of tissue on Mrs. Peterson’s desk. She took one out and wiped her eye glasses so she could see better. Then she held my paper so close to her face it was almost touching her nose.
“Daniel! Daniel, come up here immediately!”
I saw Danny’s head jerk up from his desk and then watched him walk down the aisle. He looked straight at me standing next to Mrs. Peterson’s desk, and I knew, he knew. He sauntered slowly, his turned-up blue jean cuffs scraping together with every step.
“This is not your homework is it Daniel?” Mrs. Peterson was really mad. Danny just stood there in front of her desk with his head down, his skinny shoulders drooping like he might melt into the ground at any moment, like the bad witch on The Wizard of Oz.
He barely shook his head no.
“You erased Diana’s name and printed your own name over hers instead of doing your homework yourself, didn’t you?” she spit out the words.
Danny still didn’t say anything or look up. He just nodded a little yes, and for a minute I thought he was going to cry. “Don’t start bawling Danny!” I thought.
Mrs. Peterson abruptly stood up from her desk chair and grabbed both of us by our elbows pushing us in front of the classroom.
“Class! Class!” Kids looked up from their library books wondering what was going on.
“I have an announcement to make,” Mrs. Peterson began. “Daniel was the one that didn’t do his assignment for today, not Diana. She has been wrongly accused. Daniel erased Diana’s name on her paper and wrote his name instead.”
Mrs. Peterson stared angrily down at Danny. “Daniel,” she said, “you will now apologize to Diana. You heard me. Say you’re sorry.”
Danny whispered, “Sorry.”
“I’m not sure that’s good enough Daniel. After what you did, I think you need to get on your knees and beg Diana for her forgiveness.”
Things couldn’t get any worse. I mean, in a way it felt good to get off Mrs. Peterson’s bad kid list, but in another way, I felt sorry for Danny. The whole thing was embarrassing and Mrs. Peterson was being so mean to Danny.
Danny dropped to his knees like a prison convict with chains on his legs begging for mercy. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and said once again, with his voice breaking, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond to Danny. I kept looking at the floor and then finally I managed, “That’s okay.”
The rest of the school year Danny and I avoided each other and I kept clear of Mrs. Peterson too. Sometimes she’d still stop at my desk and pat my shoulder, but I’d freeze up. I wanted her to leave me alone. A year after my brother died I went into eighth grade and found out what it felt like to be a Danny, somebody who failed at school.