The girls are mostly grown now, and according to Facebook they’ve become good friends, but I’ll change their names anyway, to protect the innocent. They were children, after all, by some reckonings the very definition of innocence.
By the beginning of May, just about the entire fourth grade had found a reason to let Shannon know that they didn’t like her. The consensus was remarkable. The less couth children groaned whenever they were partnered with her; the more polite kids signaled their displeasure more discreetly. Even the teachers (with varying degrees of tact and good intentions) let Shannon know that she was not, generally speaking, contributing positively to the broader elementary school community.
Because these were modern times, of course, outright rudeness to Shannon was strictly forbidden, no matter how much she had it coming, and so a lot of good kids got themselves in trouble when they finally snapped at her. I remember one especially delightful little girl who refused to apologize after saying something unexpectedly nasty–she turned to her teacher, trembling and teary, and said, “You don’t understand: she’s been in my homeroom since kindergarten!”
But I come not to torment Shannon, who by all accounts has become a lovely young lady and decent human being. Because who knows what was going on in her little mind, what emotional pressures or chemical misfires were driving her pint-sized sociopathy; let us not tar an adult for crimes committed as a child. Let us remind ourselves, indeed, that children are not technically capable of committing crimes.
I do, however, want to describe a single event that took place that particular May, because I’ve been thinking about it lately and am fairly certain that there is a lesson in there worth examining.
By May Shannon had matured a lot. Her teachers had devised a comprehensive strategy of rotating her around constantly so she didn’t have much a chance to get into anybody’s hair, and by the end of the year it was paying off: memories of resentment were able to fade before fresh ones could be made, and so the kids found previously untapped wells of patience for her.
(For her part, Shannon was growing up, too, and genuinely getting better. Though by the end of the fourth grade she could still get a whole lot better without being actually good.)
After recess one day she approached her teacher and told him that she had something she needed to tell him, about something that had happened at the playground. Off to the hallway they went, to allow for a semi-private confession. The teacher listened intently.
“Sophia found a caterpillar in the bush behind the playground and brought it into the classroom with her.”
The bushes are behind the playground, beyond the official boundaries. Which meant Sophia had broken a rule. A very minor and rarely enforced rule, but a rule nonetheless.
And now there was a caterpillar somewhere in the classroom. Probably not a big deal, but probably not a safe place for a squishy bug, either.
But the way her lips curled at the edge as the teacher stood to consider gave pause. The barely-suppressed smile betrayed something. The teacher later told the story in the lounge. “She wanted to see Sophia in trouble.” That was it. Not quite classic Shannon, who was normally more opening vindictive, but still in keeping with her reputation.
It’s worth noting that Sophia was sweet and good to the point of being bland. If she had indeed smuggled a caterpillar into the classroom, it might be something worth applauding.
But none of that was Shannon’s intent. The caterpillar wasn’t harming her, and she didn’t care one bit about its well-being. Shannon, who spent most of her days in some degree of trouble, saw an opening to get someone else in trouble, and took it.
The teacher considered everything from dismissing Shannon without comment to scolding her for some impulsive and petty nastiness. Instead, the teacher turned and called for Sophia, who was sitting at her desk and quietly doing her work, as was her norm.
Poor Sophia. She had never been called out into the hallway. But then she had never broken any rules, either. Now, just moments after her first rule break, here she was, being called up to the teacher. I imagine her eyes, already about half the size of her head, growing somehow wider.
A pause, then sweetly: “Do you have a caterpillar?”
Sheepish, without even the tiniest sound, she reached into the pocket in her jumper and very very very carefully pulled out a fuzzy little caterpillar.
And Shannon couldn’t resist beaming. The two girls traded their expressions a moment later.
“Do you have a container for it?”
Sophia shook her head.
“It might get squished in your pocket. Come with me, both of you.”
The teacher took to the supply closet, where they found a suitable little container. “How about you and Shannon go out and get some grass to put in here while I poke holes in the lid.”
And they went off together. Sophia seemed happy, Shannon less so. The rest of the class was excited about the new pet.
What, if anything, the girls talked about on their way back to the playground is known only to them. Did Sophia thank Shannon for her help? Did she dare Shannon through gritted teeth to cross her again? Did Shannon sulk the whole way there and refuse to help, or did she convince herself that she had actually done a good deed for a noble reason?
The only thing we knew for certain is that they both came back happy, and the caterpillar lived on Sophia’s desk for the rest of the week before it was set free on the same bushes from which it came.
There’s an impulse in us–I assume in all of us, hopefully just in people like me and Shannon. You see somebody with something you don’t have, even as innocuous as a furry worm in a pocket. At your best you are happy for that person; less good, but still okay, you think of how you can get a piece of that, too. But sometimes, you just want to bring them down. Not because you’ve ruled out the other options. You haven’t even considered other options. You just see that person’s smile and you want to break it.
I try to be better. I fail often, but I try.
And I try to remember that we were all children once. Some of us are naturally good. Some need to be shown how. Some of us need to be constantly reminded.
There’s a lesson somewhere there, I think. I’m pretty sure.