(A short story, by Sha’Tara)
I was starting my third grade year when I got to know a scrawny first grade little kid with large beautiful brown eyes everyone called “Gimp” or “Gimpy.” I just want to quickly write up how it was we actually met, I mean to talk to each other.
It was lunch time and most of the kids who didn’t go home for lunch gathered in one large room of multi-purpose usage. There were tables and benches and the odd older desk too for those who liked to sit alone and perhaps read, or draw. Remember that was a while ago, even transistor radios didn’t exist then!
I had picked one of the old desks because I wanted to continue reading a book I’d just got my hands on: Treasure Island. It promised well right from the beginning and I was eager to find out if Jim would get to go sailing.
I had opened my lunch kit and was inspecting my food when there was a bit of a commotion. A scrawny kid was being called names and laughed at. One of those at the ‘bully’ table called the kid over, dangled a chocolate bar in a wrapper in front of him, then threw it down the aisle. The kid raced after it, got it, tore open the wrapper to find that it had been stuffed with dirt.
Amidst the jeers and laughter, I looked at that kid’s sad, confused and disappointed face. He saw me looking at him and realized I wasn’t of those making fun of him. He carefully put the chocolate wrapper still filled with dirt into the garbage can and limped over to my desk. He stood there and I saw his eyes grow even bigger as he eyed my lunch.
I may have been only eight years old but I came from a large family and I knew a hungry look on a kid’s face when I saw one. I asked him to come over and sit beside me, then I offered him half of everything I had packed for myself. The kid ate every crumb and I realized that he was starving. So I gave him more and kept less. I felt, I dunno, something warm and good and powerful rising inside me as I watched him devour my lunch. I didn’t even feel hungry anymore.
We became friends, and I think he sort of adopted me as a big sister. So I decided to help him with his school work as well. He was, from my point of view, terribly slow. Obviously he’d never been shown how to read, write or even do simple arithmetic at home before coming to school. In fact, when I asked him his age, he reluctantly admitted he was also eight years old. He looked no more than five.
“How come you didn’t come to school when you were six like the rest of us then?”
“My mom said it was too much bother and she couldn’t afford to buy me new clothes, that school was useless anyway. So I stayed home and on the street until a lady called a social worker came to see my mom and after she got some clothes for me, I came to school. Is school really useless, Deena?”
“No it isn’t, Gimpy. School is like being on a holiday where you get to practice your imagination, you get to learn things only adults would normally know, and when you know how to read, oh boy, all those books, all those amazing stories you can make your own, like you can accompany those people in the stories, become one of them, play along, have endless adventures.”
“Why doesn’t my mom know this?”
I had no answer but to admit I didn’t know. My own parents loved reading all sorts of stuff and they made sure we would not be kept in the dark. I had learned about measurements from reading labels on cans and bottles. I had already tried some recipes printed on the back of cereal boxes. I knew how to tell the difference between several ‘medicines’ stored in the bathroom medicine cabinet, as well as those stored in the milk house to be used for the cows, pigs or chickens.
A couple of weeks after I had gotten to know Gimpy I had to miss a day of school. After school Gimpy came to my house crying, his jacket torn and with a terrible black eye and split lip. My heart raced when I saw that. Even more so when he told me that the bullies had assaulted him at afternoon recess and beaten him severely.
“What about Sister Blanche? Didn’t she see what was going on, or heard anything?”
“I dunno. She watched, didn’t do nothin’.”
“Did nothing… Oh, never mind, let me fix you up as best we can and we’ll deal with this tomorrow.”
As I remember that day, so many years ago now, it wasn’t one of my best days. I wanted to be a truly good person. I never wanted to get into any kind of trouble and certainly did not want to get involved in a fight with other kids, particularly bullies. But I knew I still had to confront them. After all they had assaulted my ‘little brother’ and this was a blood thing from my point of view.
I kind of started it wrong the next morning when I waylaid the chief trouble maker who had assaulted Gimpy with, “Hey chicken shit, are you so scared to take on someone your own size you gotta beat up a little kid?” And I walked right up to him, sticking my face practically in his. “That’s unfinished business you left yesterday and I’m here to make sure it is finished so you’ll know not to mess with us.”
That was the trigger. He threw down his books and came at me. Now I may have been a girl but my dad had taught me a few fighting tricks of his own, some of which he had warned me never to talk about or brag about. He taught me about men’s particular weakness down there between their legs and I saw my chance to test that particular move. Needless to say it worked like a charm. When the others saw their leader down on the ground moaning and crying, they not only backed off, they ran.
I suppose that would have been that except a sister of those bullies went to tattle to Sister Blanche who immediately stepped over to us, grabbed me by the arm, pinching as hard as she could and made me stand by the blackboard in front of the whole class. When all were settled she ordered me to bend over her desk and she certainly didn’t hold back on the strap. When I yelled that “they” had started it, I got more, so much I couldn’t sit straight the rest of that day.
I didn’t cry and swore I’d get even, not on the bullies, I knew they’d stay away from me and Gimpy from now on, oh no, my aim was Sister Blanche. Whatever was her problem I’d make her pay. And I did, though not in any way I had thought possible if quite impractical. What I needed was something practical, and that’s what I got, from a very practical source: my mother.
After school (and after I managed to give the evil eye to Sister Blanche) I took Gimpy home so I could do a bit of sewing on his clothes, and put more salve on his shiner – that left eye was almost shut by then. It happened that mom had come in from the fields and of course wanted to know the story behind the black eye. So I told her, and Gimpy haltingly told his own version, without embellishments, including my punishment at school.
I should tell you, my mom has a fiery temper. She doesn’t “take any shit” as dad would often, and proudly say and she’d tell him to “shush George.” She didn’t say anything but I knew that she was brewing something up; I heard her and dad talking later that night.
Chores done, lunches made and time to head for school and here’s mom, in her Sunday best outfit, holding the door open, then walking with me to school.
“What’s going on, mom?” I asked and got the predictable answer,
“You’ll see.” And that was it. She went in with me and stood at the back of the room until the kids were settled at their desks then walked up to Sister Blanche and stated, loudly and clearly, “I want to have a talk with you, Sister. Now, and no excuses. Either right here in front of your class, or find us an office to talk in. Just know that I’m in no mood for games, savvy?”
I liked that “savvy” the way she said it. It was like reading a novel. I was so proud of her at that moment I swore to myself that I would become just like that some day. Anyway, Sister gave the class a reading assignment, put an older girl in charge and she and my mom left the room.
Sister Blanche came back a while later and let me tell you that if looks could kill, I’d have been six feet under and Sister Blanche in prison for life! I didn’t feel uncomfortable though. I gave her the same look right back, you know the kind when you feel that palpitation in your eyelids? The danger look full of hate and anger? It was at that moment that I realized Sister Blanche was just as much of a bully as those who had beaten up Gimpy. I grew up a lot that day!
That had been a Thursday and when Saturday morning was well engaged mom told me to get dressed, that we were going to see Gimpy’s mom. I was surprised but not terribly. Mom did things like that. If she had her mind on doing something it got done, (case closed as I liked to add for myself). That was mom.
When we got there, we had to bang heavily on the door to get an answer. Gimpy’s mom (who seemed too young to be a mom by my standards) stood there, holding on to the door, bleary eyed and her hair a total mess. She didn’t smell clean either.
“Where’s Gimpy?” asked mom.
“I dunno. It’s Saturday, innit? He’s probably roaming the streets looking for stuff.”
“You mean looking for something to eat, don’t you Violet?”
“I feed him. I got food here.”
“Yeah? Let’s see what you have that your kid could eat and live off of then.”
“Not today, I just cleaned out the fridge yesterday. I was going to go shopping today.”
“But you spent the money on booze, didn’t you, Violet? Look Vi, it’s none of my business what you do with your own life, OK? But the whole village is talking – not that those hypocrites are any better – but you’re going to lose your boy sooner than later. My daughter here has been seeing to getting Gimpy food at school, but that’s not enough. We could do more, but where would be your responsibility? By the way, I need to know your kid’s real name, Vi. What is it?”
“It’s Vidal. Don’t say I told you, and please, oh please, don’t call him that, he just hates it.”
“I don’t blame him. OK, at least I know. Now is not the time but later this afternoon I want you to come over to our house for tea, and I want for you and me to have a very, very serious talk, OK? You were a good girl not so long ago Vi. You babysat my kids and did a great job. It’s never too late to get back on track. If you don’t, Gimpy will be taken away from you and there won’t be anything any of us can do. Deena and Gimpy are very good friends and I’d hate to see them separated. Promise you’ll come?”
“I promise I’ll come Mrs. Bennett, I promise.”
“Good. I have a few dollars here for you to buy some decent groceries. Do something good for your boy, it’s high time to make him proud of you just as my kids are proud of me, if that makes any sense. Go shopping, hold your head high and ignore the snotty noses. Right now you have one thing in your favour as far as I’m concerned: you’re not a pew warming hypocrite. Not much but it’s something to go on. See you later.”
We walked home together, mom and I, and I held her hand as if she’d been royalty and I’d just been adopted. That kind of pride. And she taught me a new word. She said, “there’s a name for people like Sister Blanche and that’s a bigot. She thinks Gimpy’s mom is a bad sinner because she doesn’t go to church and she ‘entertains’ on her own. That’s why she didn’t help Gimp. You don’t ever want to be like that Sister Blanche.”
That was my mom. That was the shining light of humanity I swore to myself I would learn from, and I did. My mom didn’t actually die, she just moved inside me where I had left a big part of my heart for her to live in. She is there still.
I need to finish this, so here goes. Violet, that is, Mrs. Atkinson did choose to become responsible and raised her boy properly from there on. Gimpy became Doctor Vidal Atkinson, now retired. Sister Blanche was transferred halfway through that school year – she was not regretted by anyone, and isn’t it sad to not realize when one’s character is faulty and needs changing? The ‘bullies’ grew up and did change their characters… I even dated a couple of them and we had some pretty wild times. When my dad was dying, his last words were, “Don’t take any shit, Jane” as mom sat by his bedside crying and saying, “It’s so hard all of a sudden Todd. You were my life, my whole life. What will I do now?” But he passed on without an answer for her, or me.
And me? Well I’m still Deena Bennett and I’ve been sort of a writer of stories and tales and of the stuff that any observing person can see. Some of us just know how to put it in words so that others can also remember. Have I been successful? That depends. I was there for Gimpy and how many lives did he save as a good doctor? I grew a heart big enough to accommodate my mom and I and quite a few Violet type strays over the years. I never had to beg for anything.