By ANDREA HIGBIE
I was the youngest, the smallest and, I thought, the dumbest. The school librarian instructed us on that first day to write our names in our notebook.
"I said, 'Write your name!'" Miss Kaplan demanded in that voice, loud and slow, that Americans use when they're convinced that foreigners will understand them once they hear the same thing louder and more slowly.
I answered, "I did."
"Script!" Miss Kaplan ordered. "Script!"
Then we both got it.
I was the girl they jumped from second grade into fourth. To me, writing my name was as simple as printing. And that was all it was to me.
But from that day on, I taught myself cursive by copying and then attaching the letters of the alphabet displayed above the blackboard. An "A" in print was followed by one in script. All the way to "Z." All I had to do was, say, for "bitchy librarian," to make the "b" a little squiggly and attach all the following squiggly letters in turn.
Easy as ABC.
Miss Kaplan, not Ms., mind you, but Miss, was a bully-in-waiting. But I escaped any wrath to come by focusing on the cool gray Jaguar she drove -- one for me one day, please -- and her oddly see-through blouses (none for me, thank you).
As the little girl fresh out of her seventh year of life in a classroom filled with nearly 9 year olds and jaded 9 year olds proper, I would be expected to find a harder time of it with them, and I did. The grade I got with them would be mine for years to come, if not for life.
And the test was not in the classroom, but in the rougher, tougher lunchroom. Where there was no alphabet arranged along the wall.
Fitting in? Some of these girls were on the verge of getting their periods. To me, a period was what went at the end of a sentence, a printed sentence.
So I watched. For some reason, the cool kids allowed me to sit at their table. This allowed me to watch them skewer Rhonda, a very uncool kid.
I watched as Rhonda unscrewed the top of her thermos, and then poured the soup into the cup. Thermos? Soup? Even I could tell things were looking bad for her. Even I could tell this would be a reprise of many other lunches, many other opportunities for torture.
As if all we were waiting for was the bullying to begin, there was one intermediary step. That was the soup itself. Matzoh ball soup.
The mean girls went into action.
Rhonda cried, silently.
I plotted my move. I laughed at Rhonda along with the mean girls.
The taunts -- "Matzoh ball girl!" "Say your prayers!" -- were not religiously motivated. Everyone was Jewish; we all knew our way around a dreidel. It was that Rhonda had brought old people's soup. Simpler times, though no less cruel.
I knew this was wrong, but I also knew I wanted to fit in. If it took bullying someone until she cried, that's what it took.
Until I unwrapped my sandwich. Cream cheese and jelly. On rye bread.
I could feel everyone's attention turn to me.
This would not be good. I felt my own tears, and pretended that I loved nothing better than that sandwich, vowing meanwhile to never eat such a monstrosity again.
I looked at Rhonda, still sipping her soup, looking at me and not laughing.
She was the one with dignity. I, on the other hand, had sold my soul. And I didn't even get my money's worth.
Could a month of tuna on Wonder bread and Sunny Boy undo this damage?
I don't remember what I ate any other day that school year, but I did remember that short lesson in life. Bullying is wrong, was the lesson this newly minted 8 year old took home from school that day. It's hurtful. Those were the reasons not to bully someone.
Not because the bullies can turn on you. Though I'm glad they did turn on me, and my cream cheese and jelly.
Like the alphabet letters I stared at all year long, that lunchroom memory will stay with me for life. And remind me, if ever I do need reminding.