All eyes turned to look, as I opened the classroom door. I was ten years old and a little nervous. As the principal introduced me to the 4th grade class, I saw only one vacant desk. The principal asked the neighboring student, “Pat, how about we have her sit next to you?” Pat responded by nodding and offering a warm smile. The class snickered. While I didn’t understand what they found funny, I still took my place at the desk. Meanwhile, I managed to return a smile to Pat, who was seated behind me.
I had noticed that Pat had long hair like me and we both kept it in a single pony-tail. Pat wore a plain shirt and jeans. I had on jeans too, but I thought my shirt was more attractive with its calico flowers. I also saw that Pat wore glasses with pointy corners. They looked like a cat’s eyes. But, I didn’t have time for more observations. I had entered the class, during a history lesson.
The teacher quickly brought our attention to the overhead projector. The transparencies displayed the poem, Paul Revere’s Ride by Longfellow. The class had been working on it, all year-long. I would have only four weeks. All 13 stanzas and nearly 1000 words were to be memorized. And the exam consisted of reciting it aloud, alone, and in front of the class. It began,
“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”
“So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice of in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.”
Longfellow wrote the poem in 1860, to celebrate our battle for freedom from the British. But, he also wrote it as a wake-up call, before the Civil War. According to Wikipedia, Longfellow “used poetry to remind readers of cultural and moral values” and by sharing “common history he was attempting to dissolve social tensions.” His poem included intentional, historical mistakes for effect. Unfortunately, many textbooks relied on this poem as historical fact. It was not. Those in power hadn’t done their homework.
Later that afternoon, Pat and I shared the same lunch table. Most of the kids were eating a hot lunch from the cafeteria, like mine. Although, there were a few who brought sack lunches from home. Pat was one of them. However, Pat’s sack lunch was different from anything I had ever seen before. Pat’s sandwich was not in a plastic baggie. Instead, it was wrapped in a cloth napkin. It was made with bread that was brown and thick with flakes and seeds. The filling was bizarre, too. There were green plants in it. Pat’s carrots were not pale orange, cut into wavy sticks, or wrapped in more plastic. The carrots were whole, long, almost red, and the tops weren’t even cut off. I even watched Pat eat some of the green tops. And Pat’s apple was sad-looking. It was small and not very red. Green and yellow stripes dominated it. And it had bug bites on it.
Honestly, I felt sorry for Pat. So, I offered to share my hot-lunch. My offer was graciously declined and then reciprocated. Pat offered me a bite of a living sandwich. I thanked Pat, but I could not accept. Pat’s wasn’t normal. It was different. All the other kids had normal sack lunches. Things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonderbread, Hostess snack cakes, and fancy bags of potato chips. Some had apples, too. Jumbo sized, ruby-red, and shiny apples exactly like the one offered to Snow White. There were no bug bites, spots, or dents. They were so perfect they didn’t look real! However, I noticed that kids only took a bite or two and tossed ‘em in the giant garbage cans, on their way out to recess. Whereas, Pat ate all the “pitiful” lunch and didn’t throw anything away.
At recess, I quickly found out that the girls’ cliques were all full. And the boys’ games followed a top-secret playbook. Unfortunately, it was the end of the year and there was no room for anyone new. Then I spotted Pat, reading a book under the slide. Apparently, Pat was either shunned or opted out of playing at recess. I interrupted Pat’s reading and we spent recess together, talking. I discovered that Pat was really smart. I’m not talking about triple-digit, multiplication smart. I mean genius smart. So, I reasoned that’s why the other kids must have snickered.
However, I didn’t find Pat’s intelligence funny. I found it fascinating. Pat even knew that the poem we were studying wasn’t all true. Wow! I wondered, did the teacher know, too? After we returned from recess, one of the girls in my class taunted me, “Are you friends with Pat?” Then a group of girls surrounding her giggled. I saw Pat’s head lower in what appeared to be shame. I looked at the girl and defiantly said, “Yes. I am friends with Pat.” Pat looked up and smiled. The class roared and the girl doubled over laughing. When she could catch her breath again, she announced, “Pat’s not a girl, dummy! Pat’s a boy.” So, that’s what had been so funny to them.
Yes, Pat’s long hair had given me a different impression. It was a conservative time when most boys wore short hair. And I’d soon learn that Pat’s hair was not the only thing that set him apart from the others. Pat loved books and not contact sports (dumb!). His father was a rocket scientist for NASA (yeah, right!). His mother and father did not live together and were never married (scandalous!). And there was a man who lived in their home, but had not fathered all his brothers (shameful!).
Even Pat’s brothers brought sack lunches to school. They all ate strange-looking bread and nothing with white sugar (weird). Pat’s family didn’t believe in store-bought deodorant and they made their own soap (eeewww). They didn’t buy anything that was not a necessity, saying they had enough (no such thing!). They didn’t purchase birthday or (gasp!)– Christmas gifts. They had even done school at home, depending on where they lived (illegal?). They told stories of staying at home all day, just reading books, gardening, and learning about nature (whoa!). They grew all their own food (no way!). And (shock of all shocks!) they had no T.V.!
Everyone rationalized their family’s oddity with poverty. The local gossips wanted to know, just how did Pat’s mother pay cash for the acreage they were farming?! The gossips were even busier when she later paid cash for the house that they built. It fell on deaf ears when Pat and his brothers would patiently explain, they were not poor and it was a lifestyle choice. “Who in their right mind would choose to live that way, if they had money?” was the response. And they were damned when they didn’t even know how to farm the “right way”. According to our Big Ag neighbors, they were doing something called, “Organic” and it was just plain stupid.
To make matters worse, many of the students’ parents were malicious. Some went so far as to say that Pat and his siblings should be taken away from his mother. But, the kids were healthy and smart. They weren’t neglected or abused. So instead, their house “mysteriously” burned down. Thank God, everyone got out, but they lost everything.
To add insult to injury, the gossips then accused Pat’s mother of doing it for the insurance money. But, my family knew better. She didn’t believe in supporting the insurance market. And unlike everyone else, they had no coverage. My parents offered what they could, but Pat’s mother refused. Besides, she had had enough of the local ignorance. And while Pat’s mother was a strong woman, her determination to stay was not worth the lives of her children. So, they moved and I cried.
“A cry of defiance, and not of fear,…
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear…
the midnight message…”*
Attention class! This 4th grade poem is now for 8th graders.*
*(source: glencoe.com “Paul Revere’s Ride”)