I was once the bell-bottom-wearing pariah of Battlefield Elementary School. I hadn’t thought about that for years. Then, last week, I was in a hurry, parking the BMW, bypassing the school pickup line, and wading through a sea of swarming kids to the place where my daughter’s fifth grade class usually stands after school. I was by my Brianna and another girl, both unaware they were being observed by an adult, when the memory of my sojourn through Battlefield rushed back to me like a tsunami.
Battlefield Elementary was situated out in a Virginia county. Which county, I don't recall. I only lived in the area for a year during third grade, but how could anyone forget that name for a school or the kind of indignity I suffered while I was there.
There were two or three official Civil War battlefields and at least one unofficial one that I personally knew of in the vicinity. None that I knew of were closer than five miles off from the school. I always wondered whose bright idea it was to make it so the parents of that part of the countryside could proudly state, “ I send my child to Battlefield.”
Before that, my Mama and Daddy and my younger brother and I had lived in a wood framed ramshackle which clung to the side of a mountain in West Virginia. We left that place in the middle of a chill, dark night, after we’d stuffed everything useful that we could into the back of our primer spotted ’65 Chevelle Wagon. Daddy assured us every few miles that there would be lots of work to be had for a man like him in Virginia. I couldn’t tell you how many days we lived out of our car and a leaky old, mildew smelling tent. I mostly remember Mama, all the while, nagging Daddy that we kids needed to go to school. It was “the middle of November and in the middle of November, kids are supposed to go to school.”
One day, Daddy got “sick snd tired” of Mama’s nagging. They had a knock-down-drag-out fight about it and Daddy drove away in the Chevelle, leaving the rest of us at a seedy campground to huddle in the smelly tent for a night’s sleep made hard for me to attain by untamable fear of what would happen next, then hard to maintain because of the cold and the wet.
The next morning, we woke to the unmistakeable rumble of the Chevelle pulling up alongside the tent. Soon after that we were transferring our belongings into an Airstream that, as Daddy pointed out, had been “the height of cool when it came off the assembly line in the ’50’s.” But the thing was twenty-five or so years old by the time we got to it, corroded, dented and the opposite of cool. It was reasonably clean, though and kindly fitted up with groceries and pretty much all we needed. Also, it certainly was better than the tent. It stood on a Shady spot on the back ninety of this old man’s farm. Daddy had agreed to work for the old boy in exchange for this lodging and a small weekly paycheck. Anyway, we had a home again.
At our School in West Virginia, we weren’t exactly popular. My brother and I together owned ten or twelve articles of clothing, not counting his Fruit Of The Looms and my days-of-the-week underpants. All our cloths were bought in thrift stores in my size or slightly larger. Most were masculine enough for me to share with him, though he was quite a bit smaller. I did have one dress for special occasions that was hardly fit for any occasion and one pair of pants designed for girls. They were bell bottoms and the only thing I’d been able to use to pass myself off as anything like stylish while in West Virginia. Having very little wasn’t terribly unusual at our old school, though. The reason we came to be reviled there in time is the fact that what my brother and I did have was never clean.
So the night before my first day at Battlefield I asked Mama if she could wash our clothes. She picked them up and stood in the middle of the trailer turning this way and that for a moment until Daddy turned on the radio and she sat down beside him letting the clothes slide down onto the trailer floor where they sat and sat until I picked up a pair of Levi’s straight legs I’d grown too big to fit and an alpine sweater for my brother, Frank, plus the bell bottoms and an orange sweater for me. Then I searched for soap. I found a bar in a dish by the bathroom sink and I scrubbed the clothes in a warm basin of water then rinsed and rinsed again.
I used the same bar of soap on myself head to toe and coaxed Frank into doing the same. Then I hung the clothes on the inside rack of the shower. I’d had no place take a decent bath for I don’t like to admit how long and having used Ivory soap to clean my hair, it was a rat’s nest to rake through with the comb I found in a drawer by the sink. But it was straight and long and shiny when I finally managed it. It’s darkened to a medium brown in my adulthood, but back then it was the color of reaped wheat. So was Frank’s.
The next day we hiked a half mile to the bus stop on the main road with nothing but our names and the slightly damp clothes on our backs, but for once we were clean. I had great hopes for the day, but at P.E. when teams were picked I was the last chosen. One boy said I had cooties and encouraged others to observe them. A girl who seemed to like that boy asked me why I was wearing bell bottoms in that sneering way only little girls can mange. Not all the kids looked well to do there, but the collective mode of fashion at this school was a step forward from my last. No one wore bell bottoms anymore. Not all the kids had on Jordache or Levi’s straight legged jeans, which apparently were the most popular kind for girls and boys respectively. (Lucky Frank. When those straight legged Levi’s fit me, they were considered yesterday’s news, same with the alpine sweater.) Some of the jeans the other kids wore looked like Sear’s brand or Wrangler, but they were all straight legged. Well, at least I was clean.
At lunch, the mean boy and the sneering girl became the catalyst to more teasing and barred the first two empty chairs I found. Allison, the girl who sat next to me in class welcomed me to a seat at her table. She said, “Serena, that’s a pretty name,” and, “I wish I had your hair.”
I didn’t know if I should trust her, though. I’d been duped by girls pretending before and Allison’s friend didn’t seem thrilled to have me sitting with them. She kept sneaking glances at the mean boy, who called out that my lunch companions were sure to catch cooties. But Allison stayed good hearted. She took her fair share of flack for it too. For a while, she even said one nice thing to me for every bad thing said to me in front of her.
Daddy started off in this situation doing really well, as he was always wont to do. We had groceries and supplies for school. We even got a new pair of shoes and a winter coat each, which didn't arrive anytime too soon. At Christmas, Frank and I got one real nice toy each, brand new in their original boxes, and the old couple that owned the farm had us over to their big white house for dinner. That lady was about the best cook I’ve ever met.
But like Daddy was also wont do, he started losing focus. Come February he was hitting a bar after his farm work and supplies started getting low. First I had to start bumming paper and pencils from Allison, but I realized that Allison didn’t always have much to spare herself. There was always a scene if I had to ask anyone else around us. They’d say no and the teacher would get involved.
A dentist came to school and gave us new tooth brushes and paste and these red tablets to chew that would turn your teeth red where you’d missed with the brush and I thanked God for that good timing, but though we now had dental hygiene tools, we ran out of soap. Frank and I tried to wash with just water, but we came away from the bath smelling like the sludgy part of the creek, not fresh and clean. I stole soap from the school bathroom, but that stuff didn’t smell very good either. The before mentioned prime bully in class made comments like, “One day you smell like my dog. The next day you smell like the school bathroom.” Others asked embarrassing things like, “Why don’t you ever wear girl’s clothes?” and “How come you wear that same stained outfit all the time? Doesn’t your mom ever wash your cloths?”
Daddy disappeared for what I guess was about two days or so right after Easter, and when he came back he had groceries and soap, but he also had a case of head lice, which he passed on to us. The school nurse gave Mama some medicated shampoo to get rid of the little beasts, but we got them again, and again. Daddy refused to use the lice shampoo, and I’m sure it didn’t help that Mama didn’t clean the Airstream.
Of course the news that we had lice spread over the school like Skippy over Wonder Bread. The second time we got it, even Allison stopped speaking to me. She was never outright mean. It was clear she was just afraid of catching lice. The third time we got it, the school said we couldn’t come back until the head lice were gone. They advised my parents what to do and cautioned them that the lice shampoo was not healthy for regular use. So Daddy proclaimed, “That shit’s too expensive anyway,” and shaved his own head, Frank’s head, and mine.
I begged Mama and Daddy not to send me back to school with a shaved head. It wasn’t so bad for Frank. He was a boy, but a bald girl? I already wore boys clothes. Two weeks, a clean bill of hair from a public health nurse, a little bristly growth on top of my head, and a mother who was nagging the life out of my dad about me missing school later and I was sent back to The Battlefield.
The teacher could barely control the class. They sounded like the audience at the Johnny Carson Show. Allison shot me a look of horror mixed with pity, but still didn’t speak to me. Luckily, I didn’t have to attend that school for much longer. Summer break started a month later.
Then on the 4th of July, Daddy moved us out of the Airstream in the middle of the night. We drove to DC, where he rented us a nasty apartment in Anacostia. We were only there about three weeks before Daddy was arrested after trying to sell something he’d stolen from the nice old farmer who was married to the excellent cook who’d shared their Christmas dinner with us. Mama got so she couldn’t do anything but sit and stare off into space, and we were sent to foster care.
Frank and I were separated. I was placed in the Georgetown home of a wonderful man who worked for the government and his lovely school teacher wife. These are the people I still refer to as Mom and Dad. They encouraged me to keep in touch with Frank and even tried to have him come to live with us after I’d been with them a few months. It never worked out for some reason. Nothing seemed to work out for Frank after his good luck with the fashionable clothes. He acted up. He got in trouble and when he was nineteen he died by the Potomac with a needle in his arm.
I studied as hard as I could and got an Ivy covered collegiate full ride, and I never looked back. I was never going to be the pariah of anywhere, ever again. I was never going to live another day in poverty and squalor again. I would not be in a home with an alcoholic. My kids would not either. They would not be bullied in school.
That fervent desire, which I'd worked so hard for sounded in m my heart like a gong, as I stood by Brianna and the other child hearing, “You smell like my dog. Don’t you ever take a bath?” chirped out in a sweet feminine voice and noticed furtive looks from other kids. Little things said by teachers and other parents also came back to me, because that sweet little voice saying such horrible things was Brianna's