Janet Sheridan: What was I thinking?
June 8, 2012
Sometimes, remembering offenses I committed in the past, I think, "Why did I do that? Why did I say that?"
Other times, I wonder, "Why didn't I do something?' Why didn't I say something?"
And I have no answers.
As a student teacher, I let my anxieties overwhelm me and offended another. My error was unintentional, and others laugh when I describe it; but they didn't see the look on Mrs. Phillipi's face.
"She's worried about the progress of her daughter, Rose," said Mrs. Miller, my student-teaching mentor. "I'd like you to handle the conference. I'll be here. You're well prepared, it'll be a worthwhile experience."
Standing by a window overlooking the school grounds, I watched a robin attack a worm, and related to the prey.
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"Greet her, identify yourself, encourage her to talk. And, Janet, try not to look at her nose. It's huge. I've known her for years, and she's sensitive about it."
I studied the construction-paper daffodils dancing above the chalkboard and thought, "I'll soon be home, eating left-over Easter candy, with only 10 days of student teaching to go. I can do this."
Rose's mother entered. I stood and stared: "Good afternoon, Mrs. Philippi. I'm Janet Bohart, Mrs. Miller's student teacher. I understand you want to discuss the progress of your daughter, Nose."
She pretended not to hear, but hurt widened her eyes.
Why did I say such a thoughtless thing?
At least I didn't blunder deliberately. I can't say the same about my mutilation of Deena Bradford's 4-H muffins — I disfigured them with malice aforethought.
Splatters of muffin batter oozed down the cupboards, dotted the counters and speckled my flushed face. Muffins I'd viciously ripped apart looking for telltale tunnels from over-mixed batter sprawled here and there, revealing their damning evidence.
I'd bake three different batches, used all Mom's eggs, and failed to produce even one perfect muffin to enter in the fair. Those I hadn't torn apart were lopsided, scorched, or flat: a thoroughly defective lot, undeserving of a blue ribbon.
That afternoon, I slouched into the display hall, carrying a paper plate spotted with grease from my sad muffins, and approached the Nifty Nine 4-H Club table. Relieved that none of my friends were present, I scrunched my pitiful offering behind Deena Bradford's basket filled with plump, moist muffins on a sunshine-yellow napkin.
Did everything about her have to be perfect, even her muffins?
No, they did not.
I smashed my fist into one of her muffins and flattened it to a Frisbee. Chuckling wickedly, I tore a huge chunk out of another, and ate it. I then fled the room, licking crumbs from my lips, my 9-year-old heart pounding victoriously.
The next day when I saw my red ribbon and her blue, I didn't feel relief that justice had been done despite my shameful act. Rather, I was angry at the daft-headed judges who didn't care about maimed muffins.
How could I do such a mean-spirited thing?
At a family reunion, my adult sister, Carolyn, told me she wished her brothers would stop repeating the story of her lopsided victory in a schoolyard fight with Jim Hunter, the playground bully: "I wasn't proud of what I did then, and I'm not now."
I remember learning Carolyn had bloodied Jim Hunter's nose when I walked toward the school after recess with my second-grade friends. We'd been playing kickball in a far corner, unaware of the circle of older students howling encouragement to the combatants.
As raucous fifth- and sixth-graders crowded into the school, sharing graphic descriptions of the battle, I scanned the crowd and saw my sister standing by herself, sheltered by shrubs. She was crying.
I walked by as though I didn't know her.
Why didn't I say or do something to show solidarity with this sister who frequently protected me?
And why can't I forget my failure to do so?