It was my sixth-grade teacher and her husband. Mr. and Mrs. Olson. I'm sure they have first names, but you know how it is with teachers--they're always and forever Mr. or Miss or Mrs.
I am forever grateful to Mrs. Olson.
At that stage of my life there were many things that were wrong. I have a daughter and a few friends who adamantly want me to write about my childhood with all its strangeness and chaos and paradoxes, but I haven't felt ready to do that. Yet. Except to say that in my little world, I had no clue how to define a problem and find a solution. And making a fuss was absolutely not ok.
I was a little Beachy-Amish girl in Minnesota at Grove City School, on the top floor of the old elementary school with its brick walls and high ceilings. I wore a large white cap and simple dresses among dozens of Lutherans in jeans. [We were known in the community as Mennonites, for some reason, but in truth were much closer to Amish.]
I was also an avid reader, plowing through shelves of books in the classroom library, from Freddie the Pig to Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Most of the time, I got along fine with everyone, and they were kind. But I always felt Different.
We would file down the long flights of stairs to the cafeteria for lunch, at which time Mrs. Larson and Mrs Knutson [most Minnesota names end in -son] would take over, watching over the lunchroom and the play time afterwards. Usually we walked a block or two to the playground, but in really terrible weather by Minnesota standards we played in the "small gym." Usually several games were going at once, circle games or shooting baskets or jumping rope.
One day one of the girls in my grade decided to tease me by grabbing the hem of my dress and yanking it up. It took me by surprise. She laughed and laughed.
The other girls started doing the same thing. There I'd be, waiting on my turn to shoot, and suddenly, WHOOSH, and the more they saw the more they laughed.
Day after day.
Why was it that I didn't have the skills to make them stop, to tell Mrs. Larson, to stand up to them? Why did I feel like somehow I deserved this treatment just because I existed and was Different? Or that I would ruin any chance of acceptance and friendship if I made a fuss?
I would giggle nervously and try to tuck my skirt between my knees. I'd go sit on the bleachers between turns, embarrassed and confused. If I tried to hold my skirt down at the sides, they jerked it up at the back or front.
Nothing worked very well or very long. Yank, laughter, boys turning and looking.
It was awful.
Maybe I could get out of the noon play time somehow. One day I offered to come back to the classroom after lunch and clean the chalkboard erasers. Mrs. Olson said yes. Wonderful.
The next day I came up with another excuse. I think it was something like coming back to work on my math.
It was about the third time I stayed in the classroom that Mrs. Olson said, just straight out, "Why don't you want to go play over lunch?"
"Uh, well, I don't know..."
She was not ok with that. What a beautiful thing it was to have someone in my life recognize a problem and ask me about it in straight-out concise words and to insist on an honest answer.
So I told her about the girls pulling up my dress, feeling relieved but also terrible for tattling.
She said, "Who did this?"
I didn't want to tell her.
She got out a pen and paper. "Tell me the names of everyone who did this to you."
She meant it.
I started listing. She wrote down name after name.
"Anyone else? Did Vickie?"
"Well, only once I think."
She wrote "Vickie" in a determined hand.
She didn't say much more, but I could tell she was a woman on a mission.
Pretty soon everyone came back up the stairs, grabbed a quick drink at the fountain, and came back in the classroom laughing and wiping their mouths.
I sat waiting, knowing that the earth was about to shift on its axis, or at least that something in my strange little world was changing in ways I had never experienced before.
Mrs. Olson stood at the front of the classroom. She held up the paper and said, "Debbie, Vickie, Deanna,. . ." She read off the entire list. "All of you go to the principal's office. I want to talk to you."
They got up and left. Dear God, what had I done?
They came back a few minutes later, grinning a bit sheepishly.
I thought, "I am going to Get It."
None of them looked at me. Nor did they glance at each other and Look at me.
The next day we went to play in the gym and no one pulled up my dress. No one ever did that again. And no one ever said a word to me about what had happened.
I still felt different, but mostly people were kind.
At the end of the year, we voted on all kinds of categories, and then Mrs. Olson gave us awards. I got the Smartest Girl award. And then to my utter astonishment, Mrs. Olson said I had tied with Tammy Ellingson for "Prettiest Clothes" but she gave Tammy the award since I already had an award and she didn't.
My awful little Amish dresses had tied for Prettiest Clothes!
So that was a nice ending to sixth grade. But the best thing about sixth grade was the new and glorious experience of having someone notice that I had a problem, insist that I speak it out loud, and advocate for me when I needed it most.
I will always be grateful to Mrs. Olson.