Willy and the Tennis Ball ■
It hurt so bad, then suddenly it didn’t hurt anymore, but she was still counting, Mrs. Amherst was at 12, 13 … 15.
“I said, that’s what you’ll get”
I didn’t feel 14 or 15… when she stopped counting, it was quiet, cold…Till my back started thumping and throbbing and she pulled my shoulder back, said:
“Pull your dress down girl. Maybe you’ve learned your lesson. Off you go, go home. Without the ball. You won’t get it till I say so, and I’ll decide when.”
I had to face my father. That was worse than the rod smacking my back. Tell him I didn’t bring the ball home, couldn’t say I forgot it, that would sound like I didn’t care, like I didn’t listen to his rules, like I didn’t think his tennis ball was important. My head ached as I thought about telling him that I came home without the ball, and my back burned as I pulled my dress down.
“Get your coat, and go,” Mrs. Amherst barked at me. “And remember what I said.”
It was cold that day; I tried to push my arm into the sleeve, couldn’t. My back felt torn, shredded. I put my coat over my shoulders but it was too heavy and scratched through my dress. I was shivering, held my coat over one arm then moved it to the other, and started the long walk home. Usually I counted cats and rose bushes while I walked but not that day. All I could think of was Mrs. Amherst counting till 15 – all I could think of was how frightened I was when the first one hit, then till five, then the pain got wider, stretched over into my stomach, ran down between my legs till my toes twisted. It stopped at 13, I don’t remember 14, and then she said 15 – and it was over.
I was wrong to bounce the ball in the classroom, I knew what the rules were, but I was so proud to have my father’s tennis ball. Proud he let me have it for the day. Proud to tell the kids how he played tennis. Mrs. Amherst wasn’t even in the room when I did it, it was the end of recess, she wasn’t back yet, but Willy ran out shouting, you’re not supposed to be bouncing in the classroom, I’m going to tell. I stopped right away, but it was too late. I can’t tell my father that I didn’t bring the ball home because I didn’t pay attention to the rules, that I didn’t listen, and that Willy told on me. I was ashamed. When I got home I was cold, shivering, it had started raining and my dress was wet, and my coat was on my arm.
My mother shouted out as she saw me walking up the stairs: “You’ll get a cold! Why aren’t you wearing your coat! I don’t understand you at all!”
I came into the hall, let my coat slide onto the floor, and just as she was about to say, hang it up! I started to cry. I had held the tears until then, maybe because it was cold, maybe because I was so ashamed I had broken the rules – maybe because my back hurt so much, my ankles were swollen by then, my shoes had gotten so tight. I couldn’t stand. I told my mother I’d fallen down the stairs.
“Where?” she whispered as she leaned over me.
“At school, by the front door …”
“They could have called me,” she said.
“No one saw me,” I said. “I didn’t tell anyone.”
I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, what really happened. At least not for a long time. I don’t remember why, maybe it was in the summer, or the next year, but it was a long time till I told my mother the truth. I don’t remember telling my father, he seemed to overlook the fact that I hadn’t brought the ball home because I was so badly hurt.
“I can’t imagine stairs leaving marks like that,” he had shouted, and even suggested getting a doctor, but I murmured that I was feeling better, and fell asleep even before dinner, and slept till almost noon the next day. I didn’t go to school for a few days, I couldn’t even get out of bed. My mother made hot compresses and had me lay on my side, but nothing helped. My back felt torn into ruts for weeks, until one day it stopped. Somehow I was able to go back to school, though sometimes I couldn’t sit in my seat for the whole lesson, asked permission from Mrs. Amherst to stand by the window, and she said yes I could.
When I did finally tell the truth, about the ball, about fat Willy, about how cruel Mrs. Amherst was, about how I had to lift my dress, how I couldn’t put on my coat because it hurt so bad and how I walked home in the cold – my mother hugged me, told me that I was wrong, that I should have told them, that nothing I had done, that breaking the rules about bouncing balls in the classroom didn’t deserve being beaten that way.
“Abused,” she explained to me, “that’s what happened to you.”
They should have gone to the school, to the principal, had Mrs. Amherst admit what she had done.
“Nothing you did deserved such punishment,” my mother said.
I remember thinking they could have gone to the school then, even though it was the summer, or the next year, they could have phoned someone, someone needed to know, but they didn’t do anything.
I never took my father’s tennis ball to school again. And I do like school. And studying. Mrs. Amherst wasn’t able to ruin that. But if I get caught in the rain, if I get cold, ribbons squeeze over my back, run in chilled stripes, bring the memories back. I realize now that I didn’t tell my parents because they had such a complicated life, they argued so much, they argued every day, sometimes about the same things, sometimes about new things, and it seemed easier to deal with this myself, just keep it to myself, not add more concern to their lives. Whenever I get caught in the rain I remember how difficult it was to deal with all that shouting.
I have rules in my class. This is the first grade, and these children have to understand that this is a classroom, not a playground, that balls and bats and other toys are not to be used inside this room, they are to be placed on the shelves in the cloak room. I don’t ever want to see anyone playing with those toys here, I’ve made that clear to them, and suddenly here comes Willy, huffing and puffing, running his fat body way across the yard to tell me that Donna is bouncing that ball. She was in for trouble. I’ve made it so clear to those children. They have to obey my word. That child is so busy thinking of things to say, wanting to read out, asking questions… no wonder she can’t remember a simple rule like that. Why can’t she sit quietly like the other children! Jewish children talk a lot, I’ve heard the other teachers say that, but there are few in the school, we haven’t had much experience with them, and this is the first I’ve had… can’t she just listen, must she always comment, ask, explain – does she always have to express an idea. So impatient that child is, wondering what’s next, what’s going to happen, asking if I’ve looked at her picture – yes she draws well, has a way with color – but wait your turn, I tell her, the others have hardly started, and you’re asking for more paper.
So when Willy came and tugged at my sleeve with the news, it all came at me.
“You’re getting real red,” said Willy. “Mrs. Amherst are you okay?”
But I was way ahead by then, marched into the classroom, pulled at the girl’s arm, and dragged her into the back, pushed her over the table with the supplies, told the children to go out to the yard till recess was over, grabbed my rod and said:
“We have rules here, rules you have to keep. You are not special,” I told her. And I will remind you with 15 smacks.”
She shouted with the first, and I told her to be quiet, not to be the noisy child she usually was, not to interrupt me, not to whimper or cry.
“Quiet, that’s what I want,” I insisted.
I knew that my anger had gotten a hold of me, that bouncing a ball deserved a punishment far from this, but I couldn’t stop myself. She’d better start obeying this chatterbox of a child, this busybody, this prattling Jewish girl. Maybe this would teach her a lesson.
“Get your coat and go,” I said when I was done, “and don’t forget what I’ve told you. Don’t make me remind you again!”
I thought she’d fallen down the stairs, that’s what she told her father and
me. He was right, her father, stairs don’t make marks like that. She’d slip now and then, always had a scraped elbow or bloody knees, but nothing like that. She couldn’t even put her coat on to walk home, she didn’t tell anyone that she fell, came home after the last recess. Didn’t go back to class after it happened, why didn’t someone call me. Why didn’t she tell anyone. She’s only in first grade. That’s a lot for a youngster to deal with, even though my daughter is mature, always has been, very responsible, keeps things to herself, we see that as very grown up. She can handle things herself. She slept way into the next day… I could hear her moaning at night. Her father thought we should call a doctor in the morning, but she said she’d be okay, she’d just sleep, stay in bed a while, and that’s how it was for the next few days, till she could get up. Then she went back to school.
I don’t remember when it was, but finally she told us the truth, about her father’s tennis ball, about bouncing it in the classroom, about how embarrassed she was that Willy ran to tell Mrs. Amherst that she’d broken the rules, about how frightened she was to disappoint her father and not bring back the ball as she had promised. Then I realized how she had kept it all inside, afraid of her father’s anger, and so am I. That’s what we live with, that’s what we have to live with.
It’s hard to believe that a girl of 6 could have bundled up that horrible experience inside her, managed those 15 thrashings, walked home, got up the stairs, then started weeping. I’ll never forget her crying. She slipped to the floor, I couldn’t get her up, finally rolled her in a blanket, wiped her face with warm cloths. She trembled for a long time. I didn’t know what to do. I fell down the stairs, she said. I can’t believe she’s so grown up, so mature, able to handle so much pain, keep it till it seemed right to tell us. She’s always been stubborn like that, but I see it as self-discipline. She’s been that way ever since.