Walking down the sixth grade hallway of my school, I scanned the class lists posted outside the classrooms. But I knew where my name was listed. I could feel it in my gut – deep inside of me where the things I prayed would never happen but felt certain were going to happen liked to sit and churn, making me queasy and forcing me to spend copious amounts of time on the toilet.
I was right. My name came into focus on the list as my heart sank within me.
I was in Mrs. Sneed’s class. The teacher everyone in the school feared.
Mrs. Sneed was a tall, stern woman, with perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly pressed dresses, and perfectly polished shoes; with a pair of pink satin slippers she kept in her desk drawer and unabashedly pulled out to wear in the classroom whenever her feet needed a rest. A shocking routine I never could get used to.
And she was scary. I knew she had very high expectations in the classroom, the cafeteria, the gym, the hallways and on the playground. It was clear that her eyes were going to be on us at all times. This was an unsettling prospect to the kid who spent her days roaming the neighborhood freely with little-to-no adult supervision. It’s not that I was out tearing up the town, mind you. But I had grown accustomed to a great deal of independence. I was trusted, given a lot of responsibility, and shouldered it well… at least on the outside. I wasn’t interested in giving up that autonomy.
The year was 1980, but the town and the school were still tethered to the ideals of previous decades where classism and racism determined your place both in the workplace and on the playground. The school was guided by principles of strict discipline enforced both with a sharp tongue and a swift paddle, and the teachers were white women working in a difficult environment with what I’m sure was a piddling salary.
So a soft side to any teacher’s personality was a rare bonus. I was quite sure Mrs. Sneed didn’t have one. As the days of the school year turned into weeks, however, I began to see that there was more to Mrs. Sneed than her severe exterior.
There was a girl in my class, a bit of a loner, named Susie. She started her period one day in school – while wearing white pants.
This poor girl was in the hallway with Mrs. Sneed when I was summoned there to join them. The compassion in our teacher’s eyes directed me as to how to respond to my classmate in her moment of shame – one I was still unfamiliar with since my menstruation cycle had yet to begin.
Mrs. Sneed looked at me and said, “Kaysie, take Susie to the nurse, but make sure that you walk right behind her the entire time. Susie, here,” she said as she handed Susie the attendance book. “You carry this book behind you. And try to look natural.”
I’m pretty sure we did not look natural. But Susie wasn’t alone, and I could tell that meant something to her.
As the school year progressed with Mrs. Sneed securely at the helm in the classroom, my family floundered at home with no one securely at the helm. Being in the house was rarely a welcome prospect, so I tried to be just about anywhere but there, and that was most often on my bike. One day, though, the chain snapped in half, leaving me completely stranded and worse, without the means to fix it. We couldn’t afford to buy a new chain.
My mom forbade me to ride my bike until we could replace the chain, since without the chain it was also brakeless. This was devastating.
And an impossible ask.
So I rode it anyway.
I took my bike up the biggest hills in the neighborhood, hopped on the seat and coasted down, allowing the bike to glide to a stop on its own. This worked great.
Until it didn’t.
One night, I took it across the street to the neighbor’s driveway where I began to use the momentum I gained going down to ride back up again, doing this same motion over and over again until I was riding the circle with some force. It felt great, and I was really letting off some steam. The situation turned on me, though, when my instinct kicked in as the urge to brake hit me when my bike’s speed became too difficult to manage in the tight circle I was navigating on that driveway.
And without a chain, remember, I was without brakes. This, in and of itself, wouldn’t have been that big of a deal except that (1) my pedals spun out under me, (2) my pedals were steel spiked, and (3) I was barefoot.
The left pedal carved a two-and-a-half inch long gash into my heel that probably should have been stitched up, but guess what I didn’t do?
First of all, I wasn’t supposed to be on the bike. Second, we had no money. Like, NONE. Like, my parents were sleeping on a mattress on the floor because they had to sell all the bedroom furniture so we could eat and keep the lights on (and buy dad’s booze). There was zero chance I was making myself the reason my parents were going to be that much more stressed about cash. So, I hobbled across the street, parked my bike in the carport and cleaned the wound with water as best I could before putting on a sock to cover it up.
I did a good job of keeping the foot hidden for a few days, but for some reason, my attempt at first aid was inept. Go figure. By the fourth day or so, wearing a shoe at school was horrible. I couldn’t bear the pressure against my heel so a limp was really hard to hide.
Mrs. Sneed, with her excellent skills of observation, noticed. She called me to her desk and asked me why I was limping. I tried to come up with an answer that I thought would satisfy her curiosity, but as I hemmed and hawed over the possibilities (damning myself for slowness of creativity in the moment), she ordered me to take off my shoe and sock so she could see things for herself.
Humiliated, with the eyes of all my classmates on me, I did so.
It took some effort to peel the sock away because it had adhered itself to my foot, but as I did, Mrs. Sneed gasped with horror when she saw the small river of infection running down my heel. Green pus oozed inside the gash and a smell wafted from the wound that turned even my stomach. She quickly put her handkerchief over her face, then grabbed me by the arm and led me, hobbling at her side, down the hall straight to the front office.
Fear gripped my heart as I knew now my secret would be out. My mom would know I’d been on my chainless bike, directly disobeying her. That fear turned to the familiar feeling of shame as I realized that medical costs were now unavoidable.
Shame swallowed me up every time my need cost something of my parents. Having a need caused our roles to switch, and it was uncomfortable when need moved me from care-giver to care-needer.
I think for more than just me.
Not that my mom wasn’t loving and tender when I was hurt. She was. But when there was money involved, she was so distracted by the enormous stress and the resulting anger from my father, she struggled to remember that she was the grownup.
And I struggled to remember that she was the grownup, too.
Inevitably, though, I landed in the pediatrician’s office with an infected foot.
“It should have been stitched,” my doctor sighed, “but the best we can do now is bandage it up and give her a shot of penicillin.” I took my shot like a big girl, thinking I’d gotten off pretty easy in the end. Of course, I didn’t have to write the check.
When I returned to my classroom the next day, Mrs. Sneed took one look at me hobbling in and said, “No ma’am. You come here right now.” I approached her desk with dread, having a vague sense that she cared maybe a little too much about my wellbeing and was about to do something that would scar me forever.
I wasn’t wrong.
She sat me down in front of God and the whole class, ordered me to take off my shoe, pulled her SHINY PINK SLIPPERS out of the desk drawer and forced the left one into my hand.
I looked at that slipper. Then I looked up at her.
My mouth gaped open.
“No,” I finally managed to get out.
“Oh, yes,” she firmly replied. Then she took the slipper out of my hand and slipped it gently onto my foot. She stood up, placed her hands firmly, but kindly on my shoulders and nudged me towards my desk.
“Kaysie will be wearing my slipper every day in school until her foot has healed. NO ONE will say one word to her about this. NOT ONE WORD. Do I make myself clear?”
She did. Crystal clear.
I wore that blasted pink slipper for almost two weeks. It was awful. There were a few kids in the school who routinely tormented me anyway, so this was a delightful scenario for them. But in the midst of this somewhat tortuous affair was the presence of the previously dreaded teacher who saw me in my pain and shame and, even though she was clear on imposing appropriate (although severe, to my eleven-year old thinking) consequences, she met me there with compassion and kindness.
She saw me and made sure I wasn’t alone… even though I thought I wanted to be.
I’m glad my prayer wasn’t answered that year.
I think God knew I was going to really need a grownup in sixth grade, so He gave me someone who was quite confident in her ability to be one.