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Sunday Journal: Well-meaning words pierce a child's refuge

It's 7:30 and a song from Oklahoma thundered through my head as I pedaled my blue bike through the morning mist. I had 25 minutes to make it to school before the first bell. "A bright golden haze on the meadow" . . . and something about "corn as high as an elephant's eye" circled endlessly in my mind as a hopeful burst of happiness tried to make its way into my heart.

The summer had been unbearably sad and confusing. Daddy died on a hot July night from his third heart attack. The world tilted into madness. While my brother and I spent August in Atlanta with an uncle and his family, Mother decided our future.

We came home to find our house rented to strangers and two weeks to pack our clothes, to decide what we could take with us to the Methodist Orphanage where Mother would be head matron as well as teach biology in the orphanage high school. My brother and I would remain in the city school system and live with Mother in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in the orphanage office building.

There were new rules to learn. Our meals would be in the big wooden dining hall with all the children and house mothers, breakfast at 7 a.m., dinner at 6 p.m. We stood in silence until the blessing was said and then more than a hundred chairs scraped back on the wooden floor and a cacophony of noise burst from a hundred throats. The meals were simple with oatmeal for breakfast that I forced down under the stern eyes of my mother, reminding myself that we were "lucky."

I had dreaded the first day of school. Most of my friends knew of my father's death and the move from our home to the orphanage, but we didn't talk about it. We were locked in the strange world of 12-year-olds, awkward and inept. Even so, I worried that I would be treated differently now that I was an "orphan."

At Taylor Street I dismounted and walked my bike across with the light, promising God I would be good all day. Up ahead I saw my friend Helen, her red hair curling like fine wire in the sunlight. I called to her and we rode our bikes to the rack and chained them together. As the sun burned off the morning mist and the day was warming, I realized here I was just another girl who played dodgeball at recess, jumped rope with friends I had known since third grade and could lose myself in the smell of chalk dust and oiled wooden floors. For those familiar, comforting hours I could put aside the bewildering pain that made me think of Spartan children whose mothers taught them to carry wolf cubs beneath their cloaks and ignore the tearing of their sharp teeth and claws.

A slamming and clanging of locker doors greeted us. The principal stood in the doorway of the office talking with the assistant principal as they looked over the arriving children, nodding and smiling. Helen and I scurried by, giggling, and hurried up the stairs. After putting away my green corduroy coat and twisting the combination lock so I'd only have to find the last number to open it later, I started toward my homeroom.

Mrs. Green looked up from a sheet of paper she was holding as she stood in the doorway. Her eyes behind the rimless glasses were thoughtful, her lips bunched together as though she had eaten something sour. An icy knot formed in my stomach and I ducked my head to pass her. She reached out and put her hand on my shoulder, holding me lightly.

"Dear, I'm so sorry to hear that your father died." Her fingers fluttered in a little pat as they burned through my blouse. I blinked back tears that suddenly blurred my vision. My ears filled with a soft roar. The morning's happiness receded down a dark, whirring tunnel disappearing with the safe place that was school, leaving me exposed to the hard, bright kindness in Mrs. Green's eyes.

Sarah Allen lives in St. Petersburg and is a retired commercial artist. A work of hers, "Clay," was published in the anthology "I Am Becoming the Woman I've Wanted" (Papier Mache Press), which won the 1995 American Book Award.

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Sunday Journal: Well-meaning words pierce a child's refuge 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 4:31am]

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