I started at a new school, the Brookside School, in third grade. I joined a classroom of children who had known each other since kindergarten. I was welcomed with curiosity and some suspicion. There were friendly questions about where I came from, was it true that my mother was a teacher at the school, and where I lived. As weeks past, I began to wonder if there questions were simply artillery to use against me at some later time. My mother did work at the school; this meant I was a “faculty brat.” Strike One. I lived in Verona, N.J., not Montclair. Strike Two. I knew I was at risk for Strike Three but like every other time in my life that I have been really hurt, I was blindsided when Strike Three caught up with me.
Cara was one of the most popular girls in my class. She was pretty, funny, and already wore a bra. These qualities made her irresistible to both boys and girls. Several weeks into school, Mrs. Hulst, our gentle, kind teacher announced we would have Troll Day the next day. This announcement was met with wild enthusiasm. We were strictly forbidden to take our trolls out of our wooden cubbies except at recess and lunch. Troll Day would grant us the privilege of each presenting our favorite troll to the rest of the class. Most of us were choosing which troll to show and tell between the one or another we owned. Cara had at least six of them. We made our presentations before lunch. We relished the opportunity to see the long-haired, bug-eyed doll in all kinds of different outfits, many home-made. I was proud of the haircut I gave mine. At lunch, the troll conversation continued in the cafeteria. When we returned to the Third Grade Classroom, I noticed Cara, all weepy-eyed, whispering to Mrs. Hulst. Instead of asking us to take out our math work, Mrs. Hulst requested that we return to our seats. She announced that one of Cara’s trolls was missing and, that if anyone knew anything about it, to please come forward. So began a new kind of hell for me.
We all looked around at each other, shrugging and whispering, trying to imagine what could have happened. Cara was sniffling and avoided eye contact with me. Mrs. Hulst asked me to come up front. I felt my face burn red with embarrassment. She signaled for me to follow her into the hall. She said, “Cara said she saw you near her cubby at lunchtime, Do you know anything about this?” “No, Mrs. Hulst, I don’t know anything. I didn’t go in her cubby. I was putting my own away. My last name, “E” is near her’s “K” that’s all.” By now, I could do nothing to stem my tears. “I wouldn’t do that.” Just then, I saw my mother coming down the hall. Now I really started crying. As Mrs Hulst apologized for calling my mother out of class, she explained the accusation. My mother remained steadfast. “Dawn is not a liar. If she said she doesn’t know where it is, she doesn’t. Mrs. Hulst regretted the incident as much as I did. We walked back into the classroom together and I could hear all my classmates whispering that I had done something wrong. I tried to ignore them, but I was unable to stop playing the scene over and over in my mind. I was not responsible for her troll, but I felt guilty as accused.
I balled in the car on the ride home. I wailed, “They hate me and I didn’t DO anything wrong.” My mother told me to give it time to work itself out.
Her advice was on the mark. The next day, Cara still avoided me. Kids wouldn’t meet my eyes or say hello. I felt sick to my stomach. My elementary school life was over before it got off the ground. As much as I tried, I couldn’t concentrate all morning. Just before recess, Mrs. Hulst clapped her hands, “Attention, class.” I wanted to make a few announcements. Cara located her missing Troll at home. She was mistaken when she thought she brought it to school.” I was bowled over. Just like that, she could accuse me then, then dismiss her mistake ? Mrs. Hulst continued, ”Cara, do you have anything to add?”
Cara’s bright smile spread across her face, “Sorry, everyone.”
But it was not Everyone who had been accused. It was me.
I didn’t say anything much for the rest of that day.
After school, Cara apologized to me. I kept my hand plunged in my coat pocket while absently smoothing the electric orange hair on my short-haired troll.