Childhood social structures can be brutal. Mary (not her real name) entered my 2nd Grade classroom partway through the year. It was clear from that first day that Mary would fall low in the classroom pecking order, mostly due to factors far beyond her control.
We had some kids in the class that were on the heavier side. But Mary was obese. It's hard to keep a growing child dressed in properly fitting clothes. Mary's corpulent frame made the problem worse. Anything she wore looked oafish.
The thin hair on Mary's head was so blonde that it was almost white. It might have looked better if it had been completely straight. But it had an uneven waviness that refuted attempts at taming it, making it seem unkempt even when well styled.
Some girls looked cute wearing the cat eye glasses that were somewhat popular at the time. Unfortunately for Mary, that style of glasses only added to the whole sorry ensemble. Naturally, Mary seemed to lack any sense of self confidence. It didn't take the kids in the class even 10 minutes to home in on all of this.
The new girl in the class was treated to ostracism, rude comments, pranks, and outright bullying. Some girls were good about inviting her to spend time with them on the playground, but it seemed painfully obvious that this was only because they thought her pathetic and themselves morally superior for deigning to allow her to join them.
I hardly thought about most of the kids at school over the summer, when the kids in the neighborhood became the center of my social world. As the glory days of summer wound down, the thrill of the impending new school year built. (That usually lasted until about two days after school started.) My elementary school only went through 3rd Grade back in those days, so my class was going to be at the top of the social heap.
Desks in my 3rd Grade classroom were aligned in pairs. The first day of school started with an empty desk to my left. We were told that another classmate was out of town and would join us a few days later. When my desk mate arrived, I was horrified to see that it was Mary. Over the summer I had forgotten that Mary even existed.
Some kids made rude comments or openly gloated over how unlucky I was. Many that didn't join in the verbal ridicule still gave looks revealing how pitiful they thought my plight to be. The snotty boys were the worst, repeatedly making the obligatory accusations of Mary being my girlfriend.
As the days passed, we all got quite used to sitting and working with our desk mates. I was frankly rather shocked when Mary came out of her shell from time to time, revealing intelligence and humor hidden beneath her insecure surface. I'm ashamed to say that each time I enjoyed these moments, I quickly pulled back, lest the crowd lump me in with her and punish me as it did her.
Desk assignments changed after a couple of months and I was no longer seated next to Mary. Frankly, I hardly gave her another thought. She was just another kid in the class — one that was particularly unfortunate and was regarded as something less than fully human by most of the other kids.
In my memory (which may admittedly be tamed to hide some of the darker elements of my past from myself), I never openly abused Mary the way some other kids at school did. But I also was never truly kind to her. I never cared about her as a human soul. It never crossed my mind to do anything to help her. I was just trying to survive the merciless realities of 3rd Grade life myself.
Although I never had classes with Mary after 3rd Grade, I saw her around school. The pattern I had seen in that 3rd Grade classroom pretty much followed Mary through high school. I remember one guy being proud of the fact that he mocked her during her testimony at a seminary religious meeting for graduating seniors. This guy would leave to serve as a missionary a few months later. Yes, Mary was even abused by people that professed to be disciples of Christ.
I haven't seen Mary or heard anything about her since graduation day all those years ago, so I have no idea what became of her. It would be sweet if she had somehow managed to dig her way out of the misery heaped on her during her school years. I wish her all the best.
Schools, churches, civic organizations, and parents have developed a much greater awareness of bullying than they had back when I was a kid. But I'm certain that our schools are still filled with Marys for whom the realities of childhood social life entails a great deal of pain.