That Day

October 21, 2009
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I watched him that day, that fateful Tuesday day when Carter Levi trudged into school with tears rolling down his face. I had never really noticed him before; as a fifth grader I was always busy with some activity or another, but this day there was something different. As he walked into the room, everyone stared. I looked at the clock, eleven thirty. He was late, and everyone knew he was in trouble. The teacher’s initial look of distaste turned to sympathy as she observed his appearance. Hair matted down, his eyes were swollen, and trails from his nostrils guaranteed a morning of distress. Rather than create a scene, Miss. Wallace looked sadly away as she marked notes into her book. The rest of my classmates continued to stare and murmur to themselves all the unkind rumors that grade school students often devise.
As he took his seat across the isle from me, a slip of paper fell from his pocket. More curious than kind, I obligingly took the paper and handed it to him. It was a crumpled photograph of a women who appeared to be the about the age of Miss. Wallace. The back was dated nineteen forty-one, only twelve years past. The image itself was torn in one corner, and had tear stains in various places; more than one of which had smeared the ink in a hasty attempt of removal. As I gave it back, he looked miserable as he gently placed it back in his middle pocket. I felt increasingly distressed throughout the day as I contemplated his situation.
Every school has that one kid: the one that no likes and everyone refuses to associate with. He is the constant victim of their cruel taunting, and has no place in the cliques and groups of middle school drama. In my school, Carter was that kid. He rode the country route bus to school every day. None of the popular kids rode the country route. Every day he wore dirty jeans and a flannel shirt, sometimes substituting overalls. All his clothes were stained, and most were ripped in one place or another. Everything he wore hung on him like a bed sheet; all were apparent hand-me-downs from older siblings. The stench of being unwashed often carried farther than his own desk. His face and hair were always dirty, and he was relentlessly mocked because of his appearance. In retrospect, I am tortured by the knowledge that I too was one of the arrogant and brash students who made his life a living hell beyond whatever circumstances waited for him everyday in his home life.
Later that week I was doing my chores at home after school. I was hauling my father’s newspapers from the week from the den and into the garage when I tripped and fell over the step into the garage, shooting papers all over the floor. Picking myself up unharmed, I began the task of compiling all the loose papers scattered about. Continually ignorant to the situation, I picked up the neat stack of papers and placed them in their cubby by the trash can. Turning about, the top paper’s headline caught my eye: POLIO EPEDEMIC SWEEPS ENTIRE CITY. Curious, I grabbed the paper and started to read.

Woman: Anna Levi, 32 years old passed away on Saturday at approximately four o’clock p.m. Polio claimed her life as a wife and mother. She is survived by her husband, Clark, and children, Daniel, Emily, Buck, Rueben, Elizabeth, and Carter. May the Lord watch over the Levi family in their time of pain and suffering; a service will be conducted on Tuesday at nine o’clock a.m.

My anxiety increasing, I scanned the paper again to be sure of what I had read. Anna Levi? Carter Levi, from school? It couldn’t be that his mother would die! Dying was for old people, like the lady down the street who had been aged ever since I could remember. I had never thought about people dying and leaving a family behind. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live without a mother.
My eyes welling with tears, I shoved the papers into the container and stormed into the house slamming the door behind me. The next few days I felt a growing restlessness gnawing inside me. As I continued to observe the words and actions of my classmates, I began to feel more and more distanced from my friends. Could it be that I was just like them? I was determined to change. I could no longer live myself being one who terrorized others for the sake laughing and fitting in with others. I no longer wanted to “fit in” with people who could do that. I was ashamed that I had ever been that way, and sought to amend my personality immediately.
The following Monday I watched Carter closely all morning. I saw the ragged condition of his clothes, and the uncleanness of his body. More than physical attributes, I noticed his social situation, or lack of, that is. I watched as others mocked him to his face, only to turn and laugh behind him as they walked away. I was horrified that people were treated in this manner, and worse, that I had once acted that way myself.
Walking into the lunchroom that afternoon, I stopped before I headed to the center table with all of my friends. Looking about, I scanned over all of the tables in the room. They all seated eight people, and most were full. I continued looking until I found what I was looking for. Seated at the furthest and most secluded table was Carter, and as I suspected, he was by himself. A feeling of nervousness sweeping over me, I turned and took a step towards my normal table which at this moment offered friendship and security. However, as I turned and looked again, I realized that on a daily basis Carter experienced neither of those things. Angered anew, a wheeled about with a new confidence and strode to the back table.
I saw him glance up at me as I approached, but quickly look back down. I forced a smile as I got closer. As I took a seat two places down from his, he shrank back in apparent fear. He was no doubt expecting the normal treatment he received from people like me.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Jay.” I tried to smile, but felt nervous as I spoke. Hearing the unanticipated words of kindness, he looked at me in shock. He didn’t say anything, just stared at me with his big, wide eyes. I began to feel as though I had made the wrong decision. I could see strange looks thrown my way as I glanced about. Focusing on Carter, I saw that he had looked away and was eating his food. He had nothing but a sandwich wrapped in tinfoil, and I felt embarrassed with the elaborate meal my mother always prepared for me. I covertly removed my own sandwich from my character lunchbox being careful to keep the additional contents hidden inside. I ate my food while looking around, but consciously made an effort to appear friendly. I finished my lunch then sat and waited for the bell to ring. He had finished his food as well, I could tell he was watching me curiously.
Determined to make a difference, I continued this pattern for three days. I was beginning to feel more and more hopeless as the days dragged on. My friends were distancing themselves from me due to my uncharacteristic actions. I continued to greet Carter as I sat down, and continued to be met with that curious gaze. I was starting to think that maybe I could do no good after all. On Thursday, I very nearly decided to return to my own table. “Just one more day,” I thought. “One more day and than I’ll just forget about the whole thing.” I clutched my tray, and made my way to the “new” table. I gave my normal salutation, and than dejectedly began to eat my sandwich. Today seemed to be another sad day as eyes appeared swollen. However, his look of shocked wonder towards me had slowly turned to one of appreciation sometime in the last two days. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him watching me while I ate. As I finished, I crumpled up my bag and began to rise.
“Wait,” I heard. Turning to look at him, I saw his hand trembling. “Thank you,” he murmured. I looked at him, speechless. Just as I was about to reply, he walked away.

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