There’s a little game I refuse to play. It’s called, “You can’t be friends with me if you’re friends with [fill in the blank]!” My stock answer to that is, “Fine, I’m sorry you feel that way. I guess we can’t be friends.” I don’t care if the person saying it is my best friend at the time, and [fill in the blank] is someone I hardly know.
I also learned, back in grade school, not to judge someone based on others’ opinions. Oh, granted, others opinions hold some sway; I may be more cautious in getting to know someone if I’ve been given specific reasons to be, or I may be more open if people I trust and respect speak highly of the person. I can also be persuaded by facts – like rap sheets. But opinions and hearsay have no power, and it’s always wise to consider the source of your information or your feelings about something, before acting on it.
One Halloween, my friends and I dressed up and met on the road to go trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. It was a small, close-knit village; my mom had grown up there, too, and many of my friends were children of her school friends. None of us could make a move without it getting back to our parents, so we were all pretty well behaved. And the neighborhood was safe; we were allowed to roam, mostly unsupervised, for several blocks at night, ringing doorbells and begging for candy, provided we only went to houses that had their porch lights on.
Just around the corner from my house, there was an older wooden home set back from the road, almost within reach of the railroad tracks. I’d never been there before, on Halloween, but the light was on so I started up the sidewalk. My best friend, Mary, and her sister, Val, stopped me.
“You can’t go there!”
“Because that woman’s a witch. She hates kids. She’s got a gun, and she’ll shoot you. And she’s got a guard dog. He’s mean. He’ll eat you.”
I thought this was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but they were quite serious, judging by their wide eyes and pale faces. They tugged at my sleeve and tried to drag me away from the house. “The light’s on,” I said.
“Well, wouldn’t the light be OFF if she didn’t want us to come to the door?”
“She’ll shoot you with her gun. She’ll sic her dog on you.”
I pulled free and marched right up to the front door. Val hung back, on the road, ready to run for help. Mary timidly joined me. I rang the bell.
The door opened, and the woman who answered it peered out at us through Coke-bottle glasses that made her eyes seem three times larger than normal. “Hello,” she said. She looked like somebody’s grandma.
“Trick or treat!” I said.
“Oh, do come in. You’re the first trick-or-treaters I’ve had all night. I was afraid no one was coming!” Her dog, a tiny little bundle of energy and enthusiasm, pressed his nose to the door and wagged his tail. “I’m Mrs. Morgan. And you are…?” She opened the door and we introduced ourselves. We stepped into a well-lighted foyer, where card tables were covered with little cups full of apple cider and plastic bags filled with homemade cookies. There were enough treats, there, for all the neighborhood kids.
Mary and I looked at each other. How could we tell this sweet old lady that the other children wouldn’t be coming? That the word on the street was, she was a mean old hag who liked to shoot kids and feed their bones to her dog? I bent down to pet the vicious mutt. He licked my hand.
We couldn’t do it. We drank some cider, took a bag or two of cookies, and told Mrs. Morgan we had to go – but that we’d be back.
After knocking some sense into Val and goading her into walking up to Mrs. Morgan’s house for cookies, herself, the three of us made the rounds and told everyone that they’d better go to the “witch’s house” or be branded chickens and idiots for life. We showed them the cookies they’d be missing if they didn’t. We told them all about the nice old lady and her yappy little furball “guard dog.” I think we made her night.
Mary and I became frequent visitors at Mrs. Morgan’s house after that, bringing her flowers from our gardens: bright yellow branches of forsythia, fragrant purple lilacs, red and pink tulips, and the occasional sticky, ant-covered peony bouquet. She always seemed delighted to see us, and spent hours telling us about herself, her family, her dog, and the history of the little town we were growing up in. She had an old-fashioned crank telephone and lots of antiques. Her house was one of the original resort homes back around the turn of the century, when the whole village was a resort and amusement park.
I finally confessed to my mom that I had befriended the woman everyone had said was a witch, despite worrying a little that my mom would be mad I’d spent so much time talking to a “stranger.” She laughed, and told me she knew Mrs. Morgan – who, Mom said, seemed old back when she was a kid. The kids had called Mrs. Morgan a witch back then, too, and Mom was glad I’d discovered the truth for myself.
Each year, on the last day of school, we were told who our teacher would be the following year. I was delighted to be moving on to Second Grade, but terrified by the news that my teacher would be Mrs. Hansen.
“Oh, she’s mean.”
“She hates kids.”
“You won’t like her. She’s strict.”
I went home in tears and begged my mother to call the school. I just couldn’t have the dreaded Mrs. Hansen next year – for a whole year. After all, she was mean. And I had worked myself into a state: my eyes were red and puffy, my cheeks stained with tears, my whole body heaving with sobs at the utter injustice of it all. I knew my mom would come to my aid and save me from a fate worse than death. After all, we had moved so that I wouldn’t have my awful Kindergarten teacher in First Grade. (That’s another story for another time; suffice it to say that the woman truly did dislike me and actively worked to make me miserable. Furthermore, she “kidnapped” our entire class – okay, not kidnapped, exactly, but she took us on an unauthorized field trip to the donut shop on the city bus, because for some unfathomable reason she decided a class full of Kindergarteners needed to learn how to use public transportation. So yeah, my parents had reason to move when they learned she’d been “promoted” to First Grade at the same time I was.)
This time, though, my mom just smiled. “Have you met this Mrs. Hansen?”
“No. But everyone says she’s mean.”
“How would you feel if everyone said horrible things about you, called you mean, and people believed them, without getting to know you first?”
This was a trick. I knew it. I just wasn’t smart enough to avoid it. “Pretty bad, I guess.”
“Would that be fair?”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing to Mrs. Hansen?”
“I guess.” I sniffled.
“Do you think maybe you could just give it a try? Get to know her for yourself, see how it goes?”
“If it turns out that she’s really as mean as everyone says she is, I’ll call the school and insist they move you to a different class, okay?”
“Okay. I guess. You promise you’ll get me out of her class if she’s really mean?”
I tried not to spend my summer worrying about it. In fact, I pretty much forgot about it until the first day of school. I went to class wary. But the blue-haired old lady known as Mrs. Hansen didn’t seem all that scary. She wasn’t particularly mean; she simply laid out the rules and expected us to follow them. But she smiled, too. She might be okay.
A few weeks went by, and I don’t remember much about them. They were unremarkable. Mrs. Hansen was just a teacher, like all the others, only older than most I’d had. Probably eighty, at least. And she had that funny, blue, curly hair.
One day, she gave us a worksheet. I don’t know if I was bored or what, but I didn’t bother to fill in any of the blanks. I hadn’t been paying close attention, and didn’t realize we’d be required to turn it in – or that we’d be getting a real grade on it. I turned it in blank.
And I got my first “F” the next day.
“F”? Oh, my God. My parents would be furious. I was horrified. Little Miss Smartypants got an “F.” I grabbed my #2 pencil and proceeded to grind “I hate Hansen” into the margins of my paper, while my classmates corrected their errors. Apparently, I’d missed the part about correcting errors and turning the paper in again.
“Five minutes,” called Mrs. Hansen. “You have five more minutes, then I want those papers on my desk.”
I was screwed. I didn’t know the word “screwed” back then, but I understood the concept, and knew I was screwed beyond redemption. I frantically tried to erase the hateful words. Not because I didn’t mean them, but because now I’d added insult to “F” and that would surely mean a call home to my parents. They would not be amused.
Have you ever tried to erase ground-in pencil marks from manilla paper? Hmm? It can’t be done.
I turned the paper in. I don’t remember breathing, after that. The phone became a deadly snake, coiled and ready to strike. My adoring parents were going to kill me for this one.
The next day, Mrs. Hansen passed our papers back to us. I still had a big red “F,” of course. But beside my horrible, half-erased sentiments, the woman had written – in bright red ink – “I’m sorry.”
She was sorry? Oh, God, no one could be sorrier than I was at that very moment. What did Mrs. Hansen have to be sorry for?
Then the worst happened. Those of us who had failed to raise our letter grade would have to come up to her desk for a private chat. I stood in line. My feet were made of lead. I wished God would just strike me dead. And then it was my turn.
Mrs. Hansen stood up. Our eyes met. And she did the strangest thing: she hugged me. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“So am I!” I said. We both cried. The rest of the kids thought we were crazy, but in that fraction of a second, I had found my favorite teacher ever.
Mrs. Hansen never did call my parents. About a year later, my grandparents were throwing a lawn party some twenty miles away, and who should be there but Mrs. Hansen and her husband. I was still afraid she might call – what teacher wouldn’t? – but she hadn’t. I didn’t like her being there at that party at all.
“What is she doing here?” I asked my mom.
“Who? Mrs. Hansen? Oh, she and your grandmother have been friends for years. Didn’t I ever tell you? Mrs. Hansen was my Eighth Grade teacher!”
Uh, no, Mom…you omitted that little detail.
Once again, my mother let me discover the truth on my own. And years later, when I ‘fessed up to what I’d done back in Second Grade, my mother assured me that Mrs. Hansen had never betrayed me to her. “It was between the two of you. You resolved it, didn’t you? That’s all that mattered.”
I kept in touch with Mrs. Hansen until the day she died, sometime when I was twenty-one. Her son wrote to me and told me how much my friendship and letters had meant to her over the years, but words were inadequate to describe how vitally important her teaching and friendship had been to me over the years.