Though time casts the shadow of uncertainty over our lengthening memories, certain events stand out like neon signs in the streets of our minds. I no longer recall the color of the sky that day nor the dress that I wore, but my first experience with injustice looms large over my secret memories of childhood. In retrospect, it seems like such a trivial incident, not a thing to be remembered after twenty-five years, but we humans tend to paint our own problems in the boldest of colors, convinced that our own troubles must certainly be more significant than those of other people.
I can still remember the joy I felt at finally being allowed to attend school. Kindergarten was a long-awaited privilege to me. I was one of “those” children – the miniature adult trapped in the uncooperative body of a child, with an enormous vocabulary and solemn temperament that belied my emotional immaturity. Making friends was a bit of a challenge as I recall, since to my peers, my prim demeanor and serious nature probably seemed more like a character from a Victorian novel than a modern child. My best friend was a slim girl with smooth brown bobbed hair and a cheerful disposition. Her name was Angie Penterman and I worshiped her. So much so that six months later, when my normally overly attentive mother was otherwise engaged, I got the sewing scissors from their hiding place and chopped off my waist length hair, much to the horror of all who knew me. But that is a different story of a different problem…
The story of this problem began on an ordinary morning during what was referred to as “free time”; that part of the school day when we were allowed to quietly play in groups in the classroom. At the time, I was one of the only kindergartners who already knew how to read, and I often read aloud to my little friends when asked. On this particular day, Angie Penterman and I decided to read during our free time, and we crept under the large painting easels kept in the corner of the classroom, taking our book with us. They had recently been used, and several sloppy paint pots in various states of fullness still rested in their holders. Angie and I carefully climbed under them and began to read. I remember we were very pleased with the way the easels served as a private sort of tent just for us, and for a time the only distractions from our storybook were the cracklings of the paintings, still drying on the easels from the morning’s art projects, as they rustled in the breeze from the open window.
Then the boys came along, as the boys always do, and spoiled our peaceful little reading tent. They were noisy and they were obnoxious, and of course we alternately hated their attention and fought to be the focus of it. Although I no longer recall the particulars of their intrusive games that morning, it is easy to imagine they probably involved plots to steal our book and the overuse of the word “cooties”. Also easy to imagine is the ultimate outcome of kindergarten boys playfully harassing two little girls under unsteady easels with open paint pots. Of course after a few minutes of skirmishing there was a crash, and wild streaks and splashes and spatters of primary colored paint lay in swaths across the carpet like a Jackson Pollock painting. There was a momentary silence as Angie and I looked at each other, still under the easels, paint dripping on our heads from the tipped pots, and then there was the sound that strikes terror in the hearts of children everywhere - the sudden rush of air that means a very large and very fast moving adult is rapidly approaching. It is at this point that we come to the introduction of the villain of the piece: enter Mrs. Foster.
Mrs. Foster was, of course, The Kindergarten Teacher. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have a lovely, kind, encouraging kindergarten teacher to usher you into the sacred halls of learning, someone who inspired you to become the wonderfully fulfilled person you are today. Some of us were not so lucky. Some of us had kindergarten teachers who were perpetually cranky, unjustifiably bad tempered and smelled funny. If there were a country composed of crabby kindergarten teachers, Mrs. Foster would have been its leader.
As Angie and I waited for our impending doom as it crossed the classroom toward the art corner, we realized the real culprits in this paint pot fiasco, the boys, had bailed like rats from a sinking ship, and we would be left to face Mrs. Foster alone. She accused, shouted, pointed skinny gnarled fingers of blame, and generally was unreasonable and unreachable, and I could not for the life of me find it within myself to protest. I waited for Angie to say something, to explain that we had merely been reading, for the boys to step up and acknowledge their actions, for the sound of my own voice to say “I did not do this!” but ultimately I crumpled under the weight of her false accusations and meekly obeyed her instructions to fetch paper towels and water to clean up the biggest splashes of paint.
I remember crying as I trotted back and forth to the sink with wet paper towels, dabbing ineffectually at the garish paint stains on the carpet. Angie stoically did the same. There was no greater consequence than the cleaning of the carpet that I recall, but it was not the punishment that has made me return to this day in my mind so many times since the incident occurred all those years ago, nor was it the shame I felt at being castigated in front of the entire class. Quite simply, up until that day I had never been blamed for something I had not done.
Of course in the ensuing years since that day in kindergarten, I have seen myself behave similarly when faced with other problems. The patterns of my personality established themselves early, and I have frequently accepted blame and punishment for situations that were not mine to own. This martyr complex is a problem I contend with on a near daily basis, and may never be resolved to my satisfaction, but at the very least I am self aware enough to recognize its origins in a kindergarten classroom long ago. Paint stains may fade, but the memory of injustice is raw forever.