It was school recess on a deep winter’s day. Tracks made from playing fox and goose or making wide-winged angels crisscrossed the school yard’s white expanse.
Mr. Pretty, the custodian, was hosing down the perfectly-iced rink. After school we would don our skates and scar her slivering hide with our awkward flailing.
We loved Mr. Pretty, a kindly, wrinkled man who had icicles on his glasses in winter and an orange in his pocket in spring. No, he wasn’t just glad to see us. It really was an orange. I know because he and I shared many of them as I hugged the walls of the school. An only child, I was afraid of the rambunctious children, when I first came. His gentle support gained him a special place in my heart.
But this particular day, chunkily-bundled 8 year olds with frozen mittens, tingling toes and running-red noses, lined up at the top of the ice slide Mr. Pretty had made. We never thought about how many freezing hours he’d spent digging snow, piling it on the slope and watering it down.
“Here he comes. Watch out Carol,” I yelled up from the bottom of the slide. “He” was John McDonnell, the resident bully. But, unheeding, Carol Toley launched herself onto the silver-blue slide. Arms out for balance she whizzed dizzily downwards.
Just there, at the bottom, a rubber-shod foot snaked across her path. Her wide freckled grin turned to open-mouthed terror as she rolled end-over-end into the snow bank. Other downward -hurtling kids couldn’t stop and in seconds there was a pile of pink and blue snow-suited arms and legs.
We dug Carol out of the bank. Her eyelashes were caked with tears and snow and her freckles stood out in marked relief to her white face. Nothing seemed to be bruised except her pride.
I turned, and without thinking I let fly an icy-mittened fist right up into the smarmy, laughing face of John McDonnell. It was one of those moments where action precedes thought. Judging by my cheering section the other kids were glad that John had finally gotten his comeuppance.
When reality dawned I was afraid of the consequences of my rash act. Would John retaliate? What would happen to me once word got back to the teacher? I was a well-behaved quiet student who never got into trouble. The fact that I seethed with anger underneath was carefully hidden.
John, on the other hand, was no stranger to trouble. He was older than the rest of us: tall, skinny and blonde. But his good looks were marred by his bullying acts. It was hard to avoid him on the way home from school as he lived right on my street.
In winter it was snow balls spiked with gravel or sticking your face in a snow bank. For variety in spring he flung your books into mud puddles.
But it was in summer that he really got his kicks. He liked to feed baby birds. When they obliged by opening their food-expectant beaks he stuck in a lighted fire cracker.
I learned that whining to my parents was small comfort. Dad, who’d always wanted a son, would say, “Hit him back.” I suppose he’d gotten this idea because his younger sister had always defended him from bullies. Mother’s solution was to call the boy’s parents. Even I knew that would only make things worse.
My face burned as I removed my snow togs in the cloak room. Was it the sudden heat of the class room or the blood-rush of exhilaration that I felt?
The teacher, Miss Hood, droned on interminably but I was far away, lost in fear of reprisal. A rap at the door interrupted the lesson and Mr. Schott, the school Principal, let himself in. Gerry Schott was a barrel-chested, silver-gray man: silver-gray hair, silver-gray mustache, and silver-gray suits.
He had a reputation among his grade seven math class for whipping chalk. It was rumored he had eyes in the back of his head, could turn on a dime and that the speed of the chalk sometimes exceeded a hundred miles an hour. Walking up and down the aisles as he lectured, he’d suddenly reach out and squeeze a boy’s neck, hard, till the victim whimpered in pain.
He wouldn’t get away with this behavior today but it was considered normal in the 1950’s. So was the strap, or standing in the hall with gum on your nose if you were caught chewing it.
He bent to converse with Miss Hood in a low rumble, looked at me and then left. Miss Hood beckoned me to the front and said with an unreadable expression in her dark eyes, “Mr. Schott wants to see you in his office.”
I walked the endless corridor; sure I was leaving little drops of sweat behind me. “Come in, Jane,” he said when I knocked on the wooden door to his office.
Peeking in the partially open door I saw him, looming grayly, in his large leather chair. The strap lay on top of an otherwise empty desk. He caressed it fondly as he said, “Sit down, while you still can.”
My feet swinging inches from the floor, I sat quietly looking down at Mr. Pretty’s handiwork on the highly polished terrazzo tiles. Mr. Schott broke the foot-swinging silence with, “I hear there was a scuffle in the school yard at recess. Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Well, we were all playing on the slide and John McDonnell kept tripping the kids that came down. Carol Toley’s got a black eye. He’s always pushing the little kids around and I was sick of it so I bopped him one,” I said in one breath.
Mr. Schott looked serious for a moment as he fondled the strap some more. “Well, John’s got a nice shiner of his own. It’s nice to see a girl who can take care of herself,” he said putting the strap back into his drawer. “You can go now. But I don’t want to hear any more of this behavior.” I thought I heard him chuckling as I left the room.
I was bursting as I entered the class room again to the curious looks of my classmates. We buzzed about my good fortune for weeks before and after classes and on the way home.
The added bonus was that John didn’t come near our group after that. Now if I could just catch him with those baby birds, I thought.
I ran into John a few years ago. We recognized each other immediately. He and his wife had a pair of tiny dogs which John carried tenderly; had he changed or were they victims too?