By Phyllis Evan
PROMPT — If only ...
I still remember their names.
Caroline and Miriam.
Caroline’s face was long and narrow, except for her cheek bones which were pronounced and oddly angular. She had the most repulsive acne I had ever seen and it was everywhere on her face. There was not one clear spot to show what she might have looked like without it. She was so cross eyed you couldn't tell if she was looking at you. Her hair was frizzy and dry with tight curls like a bad home permanent. She wore oxblood lace up shoes of the type I understood to be therapeutic.
Miriam was less obviously different. She was round and soft looking. You couldn’t put your finger on it but she was definitely not a normal 12 year old girl. Some kids said that she had false teeth. It was rumored that she had taken them out and shown them to the class. They said she was sixteen years old.
It was whispered that Caroline and Miriam were retarded.
Today there are programs about understanding differences. Today I hope we would have been educated about physical and developmental disabilities. Back then no one talked about it. Nobody told us why they were there. Nobody told us how to be with them.
Caroline and Miriam were just there - in our classroom. We were on our own.
They were scary because we didn’t understand and they were scary because they were so obviously different. In junior high school nobody wants to be different.
This was the era of cliquey mean girls. You could be ostracized at any moment. Your life made miserable.
By high school groups would form. The cool kids, the jocks, the arty kids. You could find a niche. But not yet. Not in junior high.
All the kids stayed away from Caroline and Miriam. No attempt was made to integrate them into the classroom. The teacher always sat them together at the same table with one “normal” girl and one “normal” boy.
I was at the table with Caroline and Miriam and a boy which meant I had nobody to talk to. It was awkward and uncomfortable and I looked forward to table change day.
That day finally came. The teacher announced the new tables.
I couldn’t believe it. It was so unfair! Everybody else breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t at the table with Caroline and Miriam. Once again I had been placed as the normal girl at their table.
I was incensed with the unfairness of it. I was too afraid to talk to the teacher. She knew. She knew nobody wanted to be at that table. I thought maybe she put me there again because she thought I wouldn’t be mean. I wasn’t mean. I wasn’t nice either.
I wanted to be nice but I was afraid even to look at them. Would it be rude? Would it be staring? I didn’t know what was okay to say or okay to do. I was afraid. If other girls saw me being nice I could be teased. I could be ostracized. So I just kind of ignored them. Every once in a while I felt brave and said something. I don’t remember what I said to Miriam but I do remember she brightened with the attention. She smiled. But I was frightened, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I retreated back to my silence.
To this day I feel terrible about the whole thing.
Today I would embrace Caroline and Miriam. I would reach out and be nice. I would talk to them and ask questions and find out who they were. And if I was teased I would speak out. I wouldn’t be afraid of the mean girls.
But this is my 74 year old self.
My 12 year old self was finding her way. My 12 year old self wanted to be good and she didn’t know how.
62 years later I can’t remember the names of my 7th grade teachers. But I remember the names of those special needs girls.
I am sorry Miriam. I am sorry Caroline.
Phyllis Evan studied painting at Cornell University and art education in graduate school. A highlight—both figuratively and literally at 13,828 feet—was celebrating her 70th birthday hiking the Inca Trail with her three children. She writes from Weston, MA.