Friday, November 16, 2012

The Petunia Incident

Okay, this: I have decided to see a therapist. And when I say “see,” I mean look all “around the room and not at him,” because his unblinking stare unnerves me to the point that I worry that if our eyes lock, he’ll peer into my all-of-me and learn my secrets. That’s not to say that the guy can’t help me realize a few brilliant, brutal truths about myself. Failing that, there’s something to be said for sitting in a room and forcing yourself to talk though the hilarious, hand-whirling banana peel slides that have led you to a given point in your life. As a result of this weekly, hour-long extracurricular class in which I study myself, I now sort through formative memories like some loaded old bag sorts through her jewelry collection — each piece comes with a story, and she can’t part with a single one of them, even if she wants to.

Here is one of them, and I can say with certainty that it’s responsible for most of what’s wrong in my life.

In second grade, a new girl joined my class. Let’s call her Petunia. She was instantly unpopular, and while I can’t be sure exactly what had made a group of seven- and eight-year-olds tacitly decide that Petunia was beneath us, it was obvious to our teacher. One day, our teacher asked Petunia to deliver a note to the principal’s office. This was not uncommon, exactly, though I’d never been asked to perform this job, and you’ll understand why I can be so sure about this in a moment. As soon as Petunia left, our teacher addressed us and shamed us for ganging up on Petunia. She told us that we hadn’t been fair, and we owed it to Petunia and to ourselves to do something to make her feel welcome.

This incident had three immediate effects. For one, everyone did act nicer to Petunia — at first just because we’d been told to, but I guess we just kept doing it until we forgot that we’d been given strict orders. I think I played with her in the sandbox, though I should point out that this was no great humanitarian act, for I was barely above Petunia on the totem pole that was the second-grade social hierarchy.

Secondly, I become consumed with the need to know what it said on the note our teacher gave Petunia. I would like to think it was as simple as “Hey, give this poor unfortunate soul something to keep her busy for five minutes while I tell her asshole classmates that they’re assholes. I’m going to teach them fractions wrong, these little assholes. Ha ha ha.” I mean, that’s what I would have wrote, were I teacher charged with educated the horrible children who imposed a classroom caste system upon themselves.

You may be able to guess the third and final result, depending on how well you know me or how familiar you are with the paranoid mind. Yes, I became terrified that the moment I left the classroom, the teacher would ask my classmates to take pity on me for being a socially awkward crybaby who refused to play football at recess. In the week following the Petunia Incident, I remember needing to use the bathroom and just holding it until I could exit the classroom at a safer time. Eventually, others left the classroom without the teacher plotting benevolence against them, and I eased up, but then the day came that she asked me to deliver some paperwork to the principal’s office. Me. Not Petunia. Not the kid who peed on the slide. Not the kid who ate worms because we dared him to. Me.

Shaken, I accepted the manila envelope in which our teacher enclosed all her private communiques. I left the classroom, wondering what I could have done to merit an intervention by my teacher. Halfway down the hall, however, the dread of a Petunia talk lost out to the curiosity about the note itself. This was my chance, after all, to find out what code my teacher used to let the principal’s office staff in on her scheme. I did a 180 and bolted into the boys’ bathroom, hopped into a stall and pried together the prongs of the envelope enclosure. Alas, the note was unreadable. It was in a foreign language: cursive. At this point in my young life, I hadn’t realized that cursive was just a loopier version of the regular English I had already learned. I honestly thought those scrawls and flourishes constituted a whole different language, like Spanish or Pig Latin. With no adults I could trust to translate — clearly, they were all sneaky — I was defeated. I slipped the note back into the envelope and delivered it to the principal’s secretary, not technically having violated the instructions I’d been given. As the secretary read it, I studied her face for a reaction. Nothing. “You can sit down. It will be a minute.” While I may not have been hip to cursive, I could count to sixty at this point in my life. I knew what a minute felt like, and she kept me waiting for multiple minutes — maybe even five minutes, which was about the time it took for our teacher to give us the lecture about Petunia. I probably fidgeted a lot. When the secretary finally handed me the envelope back, I grabbed it and raced back to the bathroom, hoping that I’d be able to get some info from the response.

It was blank.

It’s a cliche to say that your mind reels, and it seems ridiculous to project that kind of horrified bafflement onto a seven-year-old, but that phrase comes pretty close to what I felt at that moment. Had the secretary made a mistake? Why would she reply with nothing? What did it mean?

At this point, my two non-sanctioned bathroom stops had made my errand run long, and I knew I had to get back to the class. I did. The teacher didn’t even look at the note; she just asked me to put it on her desk, unopened. I was sure she knew that it said nothing. Discreetly, I whisper-asked the kid next me what happened while I was gone. “Nothing.” At recess, I asked classmates I deemed trustworthy. They said the same thing, “nothing,” but that didn’t calm my suspicions. After all, that’s what that evil piece of paper had said: nothing.

In the paper’s defense — and also the teacher’s, I guess — I never did hear about any classroom discussion of my foibles or overall sanity. I apparently hadn’t been Petuniaed. However, I also wonder if any of us ever told Petunia what the teacher had said about her and about how we should act around her. She never exhibited any awareness of this fact, and she ended up staying on a few more years before switching schools. (In fact, she left before seventh grade, along with an exodus of many other kids who either wanted to go to middle school without uniforms or were just fed up with my class’s judgmental bullshit.) But could Petunia really not know, even today? It’s possible, in the way I still don’t know today.

However, unless she happened to be out during my office trip, Petunia probably been part of the audience that heard the teacher’s “Be nicer to poor, poor Drew” lecture, and she could have suspected that she received the same treatment. I wonder if she too cannot help herself from wondering whether she becomes the subject of conversation the moment she leaves the room and whether unexpected acts of kindness are motived more by pity than by altruism.

Because then we could talk about that, I guess, rather than having absolutely nothing to talk about, me and Petunia.

In closing, a confession: It was actually me alone who dared that one kid to eat the worms.

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