It was the first day of school. Sherry Hanson always looked forward to the first day with a new group of students. The town was small, if she didn’t know the student or the student’s family, she knew of them. Her class had some of the brightest, gifted students in the 5th grade.
Except for one name she didn’t recognize at all. “Patrick Flannery”. She looked a bit further down and frowned. He was one of the children the Touffers took in as foster children. Sherry and everyone else in town knew they only took these kids in because of the stipend the state and county offered foster families. She also knew those children rarely lasted more than a few weeks. She shook her head, tucked her brown hair behind her ears, and looked up.
The children were all seated at their desks. She’d put their names on big pieces of construction paper so there wouldn’t be any question about where they should sit. They looked at her, their faces all question marks, waiting for her to begin the new school year. Except for Patrick. His face, freckled by the sun, a small dirt smudge on the side of his nose highlighting his pale skin and straw-colored hair, was grinning from ear to ear. Sherry took that as a good sign.
After the introductions and first necessary work to get the students acquainted with her classroom, her rules, and her expectations – all spelled out on the chalkboard as well as in a packet she handed out for them to keep in their notebooks – she sat on the edge of her desk, folding her hands over her right knee. “So, class, what are your expectations for this year?”
She didn’t expect anyone to raise a hand. This always caught the children off guard. So she was surprised to see Patrick’s hand shoot up in the air.
“I heard this is the friendliest school. I’ve been excited about coming here. I hope I can make some real good friends.”
Part of Sherry winced at the naked desperation. Another part was so happy that, whatever circumstances had brought him to this town and this school, he still had that childlike honest and innocence that too many children lost in similar circumstances.
She heard Brad Adams whisper, “Good luck, weirdo,” as he turned his head away from Patrick. She was about to say something when Amanda Knox kicked him in the shins from across the aisle. A little classroom justice worked quite well sometimes.
The morning was uneventful as the routine first-day rituals passed. At lunch, she went outside to keep on eye on her students who played in the schoolyard at recess. She noticed Amanda, her friend Barb Jameson, and little Terry Peterson sat and talked with Patrick. She smiled. Sherry knew Amanda was from one of the more prominent families in town. Sherry had worried that would mean she might snub the boy’s wish to be friends. Instead, she and the others sat and talked and laughed. Sherry’s worries about Patrick making friends subsided.
She moved from one spot on the playground to another. A group of boys from her class and Ted Dawkins’ class were huddled around the monkey bars. They kept glancing over in the general direction of Patrick and the others. Prominent among them was Brad Adams. Without any question Brad was the smartest child in the 5th grade. He might be the smartest ever to go through their small town school system. Along with being smart, Brad was amazingly talented in sports, was usually easygoing, and made friends without too much effort. Today, though, the whole group seemed a bit too conspiratorial for Sherry’s liking. She walked over.
“What are you boys up to?” she asked.
Most turned their heads away, mumbling sounds that didn’t approach being words.
“It’s that new kid, Mrs. Hanson,” Brad said. “He doesn’t belong here.”
Sherry was surprised Brad had been so direct. “Why do you say that, Brad?”
“Look at him! His clothes don’t fit him. Everyone knows he’s one of the Touffer’s kids. I heard his Mom died and his Dad’s in prison.” Brad’s expression was firm. “He’s just not one of us.”
“One of whom?” Sherry asked.
“Us,” Brad replied. “He’s from Bakersfield, not here. Everyone knows what kind of people live in Bakersfield. Plus, he’s kinda dirty and he smells funny. I just don’t like him.”
“Maybe you should try to get to know him,” Sherry said. “You might be surprised.”
Brad shook his small head. “No I wouldn’t. I don’t have to get to know him.” With that, Brad turned and walked away. Sherry was left not knowing what to do when the bell rang and she had to line her students up to go back inside.
As that first week of school went on, she noticed some odd things. Of that first group who had tried to befriend Patrick, Barb had been replaced by Tom Smith. She also noticed that Amanda and Barb, whom she knew had been best friends since kindergarten, were no longer talking to one another. She saw Amanda shooting Barb nasty looks, while Barb only looked sad, rarely lifting her head. On Thursday, she’d had to break up a scuffle between Brad Adams and Terry Peterson. Terry was such a small boy, but he seemed to be holding his own against Brad until she walked over, broke up the fight, and escorted the two boys to the principal’s office.
“What started this?” Sherry asked.
The two boys glanced at each other. Silence.
“You can tell me now, or tell Mr. Roberts after he calls both your parents in to join him.” Sherry had never expected this kind of behavior out of either boy.
Terry sighed. “It was Brad that started it,” he said. “He was telling us yesterday we had to stop being friends with Patrick. I told him to get bent. So he jumped me today when I wasn’t looking.”
“I did not!” Brad shouted.
Sherry turned to Brad. “Brad, why are you picking fights with people over being friends with someone?”
“Like I said, Mrs. Hanson, he doesn’t belong here.” Brad shot Terry a nasty look. “Maybe if people stop being nice to him, he’ll leave.”
“Bradley Adams, that is no way to speak or act! Ever! That’s just not acceptable!” Sherry was angry the young boy was so open in his refusal to accept Patrick.
“I asked my Dad, and he said Patrick’s Dad got drunk and hurt a little girl. In, you know, a . . . well, he hurt a little girl is all.” Sherry realized the boy was trying to avoid saying “rape”. “Like father like son, my Dad said.”
“His old man may be a creep, but Patrick isn’t!” Terry’s face moved between Sherry and Brad. “He’s smart, he’s funny, he knows a lot more about football than I do. I mean, sure, he’s worn that shirt he wore yesterday, and he kind of smells bad, but that’s not his fault.”
Sherry had noticed Patrick’s lack of hygiene. If things didn’t improve next week, she would talk with the school nurse.
“It’s his fault he’s from Bakersfield!” Brad shouted.
“That’s enough,” Sherry said. She took them each by the arm and marched them in the principal’s office.
The second week, Patrick’s hygiene seemed not to have improved. That small dirt smudge on the side of his nose was still there, along with dirt on his wrists and hands. His hair looked as if it hadn’t been combed since the week before. His clothes were dirty, body odor rising off them in waves. She made the decision to talk to the school nurse at lunch.
As she walked toward the school infirmary, she heard what sounded like someone crying from around a corner. There, sitting against a wall opposite the infirmary, was Amanda Knox. The girl’s face was streaked with tears, her curly brown hair hanging down.
“What’s the matter, Amanda?” Sherry asked.
Amanda looked up, surprised. She wiped her hose on her sleeve. with her other she brushed her tears away. “Nothing, Mrs. Hanson,” she said.
“I’d hardly call it nothing if you’re spending your lunch time crying in a hallway.”
Amanda sniffed. “It’s Barb.”
“What about her?” Sherry asked.
The girl sniffed again. “She’s telling everyone I like Patrick.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “And I don’t!”
“What do you mean you don’t like him?” Sherry asked. “I’ve seen you with him plenty of times.”
Amanda shook her head. “No! I mean, I like him. I just don’t Like-Him like him.”
“Ah,” Sherry said. “So Barb is telling lies about you?”
Amanda nodded. Tears spilled out of each eye and rolled down her cheeks. “It’s more than that.”
“OK,” Sherry said.
“Well, like, last Monday, Barb and me were getting to know him and stuff? Then some of the boys started saying that we shouldn’t be friends with him. Barb stopped talking to him.” Amanda sniffed again, wiped away another tear. “She told me I had to stop being friends with him. When I asked why, she said because Brad and his friends said so.” She wiped both eyes. “I told her she was being stupid.” Her eyes welled as she let out a sob. “I’ve been friends with her forever. Why should I have to choose?” She broke down again.
“You shouldn’t have to choose,” Sherry said. “Who said you have to?”
“Brad and them,” Amanda replied. “They say it’s either them or him.” Amanda wiped her nose, then her cheeks. “I told them they’re all being stupid. They keep telling me I’m the one being stupid.” The girl shook her head. “Then Barb started telling everyone the reason I won’t stop being friends with Patrick is because I Like him.” She sniffed. “Why can’t people just be friends?!?”
Sherry wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed like everyone was taking sides for or against young Patrick Flannery. She wasn’t quite sure why the boy was such a lightning rod, but there was little doubt he was. “I tell you what,” Sherry said. “I have to talk to Mrs. Gibbons, then we’ll walk back to class. Does that sound OK?”
After chatting about possible approaches to Patrick’s hygiene, Sherry wondered why the boy seemed to attract so much attention.
Sherry was never quite sure when things got completely out of hand. Through the third and fourth weeks, it was evident that, while still having one or two he could call friends, most of the students’ free time and energy was spent arguing over why people should or shouldn’t be friends with Patrick. Old friendships ended. Kids who would never have associated with one another became close. Notes were passing at such a furious rate Sherry had a difficult time keeping up with them. Lunch recess saw more and smaller groups huddling together, exchanging dirty looks, sometimes harsh words. More scuffles broke out. One of them involved Barb and Amanda. Sherry had to lift Amanda off her former friend. If she hadn’t, Amanda might well have smashed Barb’s face in to the asphalt, breaking her nose or worse.
The tension in her classroom grew worse and worse. Terry and another boy, Evan Moss, both friends of Patrick, were no longer speaking to one another. Friendships and alliances came and went and Sherry had no idea one day to the next, one hour to the next, who might say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and the whole class would descend in to chaos.
Finally, on a Friday afternoon just before the final bell would ring, she called the class to attention. “Boys and girls, is anyone willing to tell me what’s going on? There’s just to much fighting, too much of some of you saying mean things about one another, spreading lies, telling people who can and can’t be friends.” She scanned the room. All the heads were hanging down. Except Patrick’s. “No one wants to tell me what’s going on?”
Patrick’s hand went up. Sherry was quite sure no one noticed. She nodded at the boy.
“Everyone is so busy arguing about whether or not they should be friends with me, no one seems to want to be my friend.”