Fifth grade wasn’t kind to Susan O’Farrell. No longer an undifferentiated mass of squirming humanity, our class at Miller Elementary began to sift itself into the social haves and have-nots, the in-crowd and everybody else. Susan O’Farrell, a plain and unremarkable girl, suddenly found herself on the outside of friendships she had never had reason to doubt.
And even I, oblivious as I was, became aware of the growing sadness that seemed to be the central fact of her life. The angles of her face got sharper, and the dark circles under her eyes got darker, giving the impression that she was sinking more deeply into herself. I was a nice boy, and I tried to be nice to Susan. I imagined myself one of the few rays of sunshine in this girl’s darkening existence.
Why, then, did I wrong her so unaccountably?
One day during recess I returned to the classroom to fetch my coat. Emptied of fifth graders, the room seemed a completely different place. It was a strange and exhilarating feeling to have the room to myself. I savored the experience, walking up one row and down the other, seeing my friends’ familiar desks and possessions as if for the first time. Looking at Susan O’Farrell’s notebook I was struck by something so obvious I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before: that second ‘r’ in her last name could easily be made into a ‘t’ so as to read O’Fartell. Get it? Fart—right there in the middle of her name! I pulled the pen out of her spiral binding and scratched the ‘t’ in its place, a little larger than it needed to be, just to be sure my efforts wouldn’t go unnoticed. The spell of the quiet room was broken; I went back to the playground.
When the bell rang for the end of recess, I hurried to my desk. I wanted to be watching when Susan saw what I had done to her notebook. I looked as nonchalant as I could as she came to her seat, catty-corner from mine. This was going to be good.
I didn’t have to wait long. Susan’s eyes widened when they fell on her notebook. Then they filled with tears. Then she hunched over, covering her name with her forearm. She looked furtively to her left, then to her right to see who had noticed her humiliation. And also, I believe, to see if she could tell who hated her enough to humiliate her so.
Up to this point in the story, I’m willing to chalk my actions up to youthful indiscretion. My motive was wordplay (albeit juvenile and coarse wordplay), not malice. Until the moment I saw Susan’s face collapse, it hadn’t occurred to me that she might not appreciate my wit. In other words, my failures to this point were the failures of the immature.
But as Susan scanned the room, I made a very mature calculation. I realized that I was literally the last person in the room Susan would suspect of such a meanness. If I played it cool, she would never know I was the person who had hurt her. So there I sat, looking off into the middle distance, pretending I hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Susan scribble out her name. Think on that a minute: in her sadness and hurt, the poor girl scribbled out her own name.
It would have been so easy to fix my mistake. Two or three sentences: “Susan, will you forgive me? I don’t know what made me write that on your notebook, but I promise it wasn’t because I dislike you or think there’s anything wrong with you.” Which would have been true. But saying that that would have cost me something. Susan would have thought less of me. She might tell our classmates what I had done.
I told myself that Susan would be crushed if she knew that I, the nice boy, had done such a thing to her. If she couldn’t trust me to be kind to her, whom could she trust? Best to let her keep some shred of hope in—well, in me, I guess. Besides, it wasn’t like me to persecute the downtrodden or to deface other people’s property. I had never done that sort of thing in my life. Surely I could be allowed one mistake, as long as I promised myself not to do it again. And I never didn’t mean to hurt Susan. Wouldn’t the judge count that in my favor?
So I never told Susan what I had done. I let that suffering girl believe that, on top of the rejection she felt every day, she had an unknown enemy actively seeking to hurt her. I felt the cowardice of it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.
The next day Susan had a new notebook. As far as I know, nobody but she and I ever saw what I did to her old one. Every day until the end of the school year, I felt a pang of conscience when I saw Susan and her clean notebook. Any one of those days, I could have made things right. But I never did. I never paid the small price of confessing my wrong. Instead I let Susan pay a heavier price. Oh, but I paid a heavy price myself: it’s a hard thing when you realize you’re not as righteous as you thought you were.
The next year, Susan was in the other sixth grade class, and she mostly faded from my consciousness. The year after that, we went off to different schools. If I ever saw her again, I don’t remember it. I don’t suppose I even heard her name mentioned until one day in high school an old classmate from Miller Elementary asked, “You heard about Susan O’Farrell, I guess? Dead. She had some disease. Had it for years.”
I wish the story had a happier ending. But when fear and self-protection and self-righteousness carry the day, we can’t expect happy endings. Instead, we’re left longing for the day when love and truth and justice win out and sweep everything before them like a flood—the day when, to paraphrase Sam Gamgee, every sad thing will come untrue. Lord, haste the day.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.