A Purple Heart
For the past two weeks Tommy Breen has been sporting a magnificently mutating black eye and a purple heart on his chest. A badge of honor that Miss D cut from a faux-suede cloth remainder in our art supplies box and then decorated with a strip of gold sticker stars, the Purple Heart seems to rest against Tommy Breen’s chest like a superhero’s shield.
According to a lesson that Miss D once delivered to us, George Washington established the Purple-Heart Medal to honor the courageous and wounded in their fight against enemy forces. In his courage against 5th-grade bullies during recess, Miss D tells us during a quiet award ceremony over lunch, The Honorable Thomas O’Malley Breen, 4th Grader at Johnson Elementary, showed us today that right beats might.
Right beat might, but it was not easy to witness. Although the recess bell was buzzing, and he could have heeded our calls for him to jump into line with us, Tommy Breen had a different goal that morning. For the first time all year, Tommy did not run to us, he did not cry for help from the man-boy, Nicholas Kastinopoulos, and he did not seem to feel the repeated punches to the small of his back and to his slender and flaccid arms. Instead, he stayed behind while the rest of us stood silently at attention, frozen and horrified, suspended in the hushhhhh between the first and second recess bells.
Clouds that had kept their distance during recess now descended and seemed to envelop us. We recognized them. These were the same clouds that enveloped Achilles in his battle with Hector. The will of the gods, Miss D had told us as she read the battle scene to us. And then, as if to deliver to us a wand that only we would know how to safely use, she leaned into our grid of desks-in-rows and sounded out the words with dramatic elocution:
Deus ex machina.
Although one of the teachers was directing us to file forward, we did not move. We could not move. The only picture that we could imagine was Tommy Breen’s new Raggedy-Andy arms and head. The only sound that we heard was the terrible echo from the nearest corner of the schoolyard: the treble bass of choking blows.
Tommy Breen had not stood up to the 5th-grade bullies, as Miss D’s speech would have us believe, but he had not exactly stood down either. When one of the toughest 5th-grade boys pushed Benjamin Bomberger, Tommy had simply stepped out of line to keep from falling too. It was a kind of two-step that Tommy and Benjamin had choreographed since the 3rd grade.
Although Tommy Breen was one of the smallest 4th-graders, he still dwarfed Benjamin Bomberger, and so he became Ben’s back. Whenever we assembled ourselves into rows for class photos, whenever we fell into line for recess, whenever we took our positions on the playground, Ben would squeeze in front of Tommy and into the arc of Tommy’s slender and slightly hunched frame. While the rest of us forced a smile for a class photographer or while we stood sullenly in line at the end of recess, Tommy Breen would gaze over the top of Benjamin Bomberger’s head and study the world before him — and for just that short time, Tommy Breen became taller and stronger than somebody else.
Hey Boooom-boy-gah! It was Benjamin Bomberger’s mother that the 5th-grade boys were mocking — an accent that, from the moment they heard it, they instantly condemned as barbarian, as attached to somewhere else — even if that somewhere else were the not-too-distant neighborhoods of Paterson, New Jersey. Boygah instead of berrgah – the proper pronunciation in North Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their mastery of her New-Jersey-dialect-with-a-German-Polish-inflection might have won our praise had it not cut such a visible wound through Benjamin Bomberger’s psyche. As the new kid who came to our school mid-year, Benjamin Bomberger was still catching up: he was still discovering the hierarchy at Johnson Elementary of 5th-graders over 4th-graders, of tall over small, of Principal’s son over ship-builder’s son, and of cunning over kindness.
When the taunting began, Tommy Breen put his arm around Benjamin Bomberger the same way that Nicholas Kastinopoulos had done for Tommy on so many occasions. He turned the two of them around with such stiffness and calculation that they might have been synchronized skaters lost in their own routine. It was as if the 5th grade never existed, as if no one had ridiculed anyone’s mother, as if they had better things to do. Those of us who had been calling to Tommy and Benjamin to join us in line sighed with relief at this happy ending.
But Tommy Breen was not the tall and broad and muscular and prematurely hairy, heavy-weight contender that Nicholas Kastinopoulos was.
By the time Miss D and the Principal got to us, all of the 5th-graders had resumed their places in line. When the Principal tried to pass between Benjamin Bomberger and the rest of us in order to reach Tommy Breen, we held our line together as if someone had shouted “Red Rover, Red Rover send the Principal right over!” Miss D asked us demurely to please let the Principal through, but we somehow knew that she meant the opposite, and we squeezed one another’s hands even tighter than before.
Any minute now, we thought, Tommy Breen will pick himself up and take his place in line. Any minute now, we will all be returning to our classroom and Tommy Breen will slip off to the boys’ room as he has done a dozen times before, and he will wash his face and hands, and he will straighten out his tangled jersey and he will flatten his disheveled and auburn hair, and he will check his sober and freckled face in the mirror the way one checks for something that he may have lost.
Any minute now, all will return to normal, and so the Principal should wait and see.
What happened? the Principal wanted to know.
What happened was that the politics of the playground had suddenly shifted. Right faced Might, and from the looks of things, Right lost. What we would come to learn is that losses are not necessarily measured by injuries – but that victories always are.
In her 4th grade class, I was the 10-year-old girl in pigtails, who preferred to answer questions only when called upon. Heidi, she named me. I had scribbled the salutation Hi D! across the top of an almost-certainly-failing math quiz. It was an effort to earn her grace – an attempt to remind her that I did not fail in school subjects. A day later, the math quiz came back to me with a shimmering, gold medallion sticker and a velvet purple ribbon attached to it. Sure that it was not my exam, I began to hand it off to Glen Rooney, the smartest boy in our class – until I saw the note in her perfect script across the top of the page:
For Heidi: F. Congratulations!!! You joined the human race!
When I showed it to my parents, they wanted to know what the joke was, and there was talk about Miss Dunning, and they would bring it up at Meet-Your-Teacher Night. Although I could not decode the joke, I felt sure I had scored the highest in a subject worth knowing – perhaps a subject that we had not covered yet, or that we would learn in the coming grades. I tacked the failed test to the bulletin board in my bedroom reserved for prizes and accolades.
In the fifth and sixth grades, I became a self-appointed ombudsman reporting to anyone who would listen – friends, parents, neighbors – but never, for some reason, Miss D – the unnaturalness of our new teachers. How Miss Drohan, our fifth-grade teacher, held our small button chins with her forefinger and thumb, and left the crease of her painted thumbnail there when we didn’t speak up – or look up, or sit up, or quiet down. How we sat at our desks in rows doing drills and answering questions in workbooks; how she cherished silence and bristled when we spoke. How we tip-toed our way through a government of our thoughts, wary of missteps. How Tommy Breen stuttered his worst that year.
How Mrs. Rothwell, our sixth-grade teacher, threw a Level 6 Civics book at Bailey Arnold for reasons none of us ever learned – despite a week of conferences on the playground during recess. Miss D had encouraged us to fight brute force with force – but more often, with logic. Make reason your sword, she would tell us, the gods will favor you. But, when Bailey Arnold drew from his pocket his own arsenal of marbles and rubber bands and confidently displayed them for Mrs. Rothwell, telling her that that these made better missiles than a Level 6 Civics book, the gods covered their eyes in fear.
I imagined a grand trial, not against me or my peers in the fifth and sixth grades, but against the 5th-grade and 6th-grade teachers themselves. They would stand and hear the charges brought against them:
Tired repetition of lessons
A cherishing of standardized goals
Inability to see the child standing before you
Love for uniformity
Disdain for the non-conformist
Even then, the act of turning books into projectiles seemed incidental next to these other inexpungible crimes. During my years in 5th and 6th grade, I would find reasons to casually pass by Miss D’s classroom door and look in. If we happened to meet eyes, I would simply look back blankly at her as if to let her know that she had somehow defaulted on her promise. The Enlightenment was over.
And yet, on that damp October morning when we could not distinguish Tommy Breen’s bloody lips and nose from the burnished tips of fallen leaves, when it looked like the 5th-grade bullies had clearly had enough of Tommy Breen — we knew better. Tommy Breen was just getting started.
In the thick of the bullies’ jeers and jabs, he was rounding a corner in his life. He was going to stay the duration this time.
No choking calls for help.
No river of tears.
No terrified look in his coal-black eyes.
Just a steady and burning gaze at his opponents that would hopefully sear their consciences – a fiery gaze that would leave them branded in precisely the manner that they had tried to brand him. Tommy Breen knew exactly what he was doing. He was facing the enemy. And this time, the enemy would not be his wounded self.
Tommy Breen was looking for a medal.
What happened? The Principal had assembled us to report to him.
What happened was that a government of fear had been toppled.
Without any dread of a tooth for a tooth, without any thought about tomorrow’s recess, Tommy rallied to the Principal’s questions like a paid informer.
Suddenly bulletproof, he boldly pointed to the pack of 5th-graders who had collectively crippled him, who had made him wish that his own baptism had never happened. And, as if intending for Miss D and the Principal and all the sky-gods to be sure of the cruelest bully’s name – as if for all of us to know our names – Tommy stared down a tall, broad-shouldered, and black-haired 5th-grader. Pointing to him with his trembling finger and bruised arm, his usual stutter a kind of foamy-slur now, he named him:
Sss-son-of-a-bitch! he exclaimed.
The Principal wanted Tommy Breen expelled.
Miss D wanted him decorated.
As if nothing could be clearer in a court of justice, we soberly fell in line to return to our classroom, eager for the ceremony to begin. The opening drum of our palms on the tops of our laminated desks that morning – good theater that Miss D joined in on – would become a kind of pulse for some of us, a recollection of village songs, a foundation in Natural Law that would carry us through a series of tyrannies both on the playground and in our workplaces for years to come.