Susan O’Farrell’s Notebook (Education of a Grade School Pharisee, Part 1)

By

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 inwell, 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 floodthe day when, to paraphrase Sam Gamgee, every sad thing will come untrue. Lord, haste the day.

Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

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.


16 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I read this when you first placed it into the queue, Jonathan. After it was posted this morning, I read it again. It’s a brave thing to share a story that leaves egg on one’s own face and doesn’t wholly exonerate us in the end. I really like the way in which you told the story.

    I couldn’t help but think about Randy Stonehill’s “Rachel Delevoryas”:

    The song has a happier ending than your story, but shares a lot of similarities. In a remarkable song catalogue stretching over many years, it’s one of Stonehill’s best, in my opinion.

  2. Steve

    Jonathan,

    Thank you! This is the kind of sharing that will haste the day. I am reminded of Dallas Willard saying something like, “Alot of bad things have happened in the world; I’ve done some of them.” We’ve all done some of them.

  3. Aaron Roughton

    I remember that exact feeling that I was somehow the only bright spot in the days of my less fortunate classmates. I also remember the pain I caused, and my grade school justification. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not as righteous as we think we are. Thanks Jonathan. And I want to point out that a community is usually only as authentic as its leaders, which is something that makes the Rabbit Room so different. Thanks to all the contributors for not making it a place solely for self promotion, but for authentic engagement.

  4. euphrony

    Hauntings. I wish I were not haunted by my own actions like the one you wrote about. Things I can never seem to forget, will regret forever. Thanks for your story – I know how you feel.

  5. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jonathan,

    Beautiful. I remember some similar instances in school, especially one where I gave into fear and didn’t do the right thing.

    In and of ourselves, that’s all we are – a collection of impulses that pop out willy-nilly, usually selfish.

    Fortunately we are not left there. Where we begin is not where we finish. And in Christ all the rest is washed away. It’s good to see the truths of what we’ve said and did. It’s good to drink our shame down to the last drop, because it nourishes us and lets us know that we can do nothing apart from Christ. As Aaron said, “It’s good to be reminded that we’re not as righteous as we think we are.”

    And yet paradoxically we are much more righteous than we think we are. After we drink the cup of our sin and selfishness we’re to move into an awareness of the present reality of Christ in us as our life, “The Lord, our righteousness.” His righteousness becomes mine, because His Self re-forms my thinking and believing and becomes the driving force within my human self. He becomes the real Me of me – His life through my life.

    But it starts with what you’re talking about – the recognition of our total weakness and inability to do the right thing even when it sits there blinking like a neon sign in front of our face. If we let it, in that weakness, sin, and shame we begin to find our true Strength.

  6. Stacy Grubb

    To this day, I look back on middle school as two of the worst years of my life and definitely the worst two years of my childhood. I know that doesn’t make me unique. I was very brutally and relentlessly bullied by nearly every clique in the school. My physical safety was often threatened, but there wasn’t a day that passed that I wasn’t mentally and emotionally beat up by many of my classmates. I was called names, had food thrown at me, was made fun of for anything and everything, untrue rumors were circulated about me, had my things stolen, and was even routinely prank phone called at home. While I realize it’s unfair to form longstanding opinions on people based on things they did as 12 and 13 year olds, a certain part of me is bitter to this day toward those people who went so far out of their way to torment me for two years because of how their behavior affected what I thought of myself, both at that time and in the several years that followed. In fact, I advanced out of middle school by the skin of my teeth because of my poor attendance and the nosedive my grades took. My regret when I look back on my school years is the fact that, when ninth grade rolled around and those same people were leaving me alone and mysteriously as they zeroed in on me, I didn’t stand up for their next victim. I just praised God that it wasn’t me, anymore, and pitied my successor in silence.

  7. becky

    Stacy, I can relate. I spent most of those years trying to become wallpaper–it’s there, but most of the time we don’t even see it. I also relate to Jonathan’s story. Every once in a while there would be a role reversal, and I would become the oppressor instead of the oppressed. I don’t think anyone comes through that time in their life unscathed. I cringe when I think about how I was treated sometimes, and I cringe again when I think of some of the things I said and did to others.

    But I am happy to say that I am definitely NOT the same person I was then. God and time have changed me. Made me more comfortable with who I am in HIm, and more aware of the devastation I can unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) cause. I know that some of my tormentors can say the same thing, so I try to treat them with grace and hope that they will do the same for me.

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Becky, All,

    The thing we’ve definitely got to keep in mind is what Becky mentioned, that we are not the people we were back then. If we were to go back into those teen bodies with our current consciousness there is no way we’d react in the same way. For one most of us realize some of the reasons bullies bully, and like a pack of wolves its confidence – at least an outer confidence – that wins the day. I had a couple of instances of being bullied in high school where this played out; a couple of older guys were going to shove my head in a toilet to ‘initiate’ me as a freshman, and I told them they’d end up with their own heads in the toilet – they passed on the offer and went away. A couple years later I was sitting in class minding my own business and when the teacher was out of the room for a moment I felt something hit my head. I reached up and felt my hair full of chalk, and this kid John was standing up at the board grinning. I stood up, picked up the eraser, stalked up to the board, shoved him face first against the chalkboard with his arm behind his back, scraped up as much chalk as I could from the tray to the eraser, and then beat his jet black hair a nice chalky white with it. Then I went back and sat down and never said a word, though it gave me an immense sense of satisfaction (he never bothered me again).

    Those were two victories over bullies – another was that I picked a verbal bully up when it was pouring rain and gave him a ride home, and he never gave me any lip after that.

    There are reasons bullies act the way they do, and as our nation becomes more and more relativistic in its thought-patterns, the more crazy stuff in schools will increase.

    But all in all these three triumphs were anomalies in the life of a kid who put up with way too much verbal abuse – I was way too ‘nice,’ which really means I just didn’t say what I thought (heck, I didn’t even know what I thought back then). If I could go back I would not only rescue myself, but “rescue the perishing.” But that is precisely what we can do now – we can rescue believers from Satan’s bullying, and unbelievers from his power, simply by speaking the truth in love. We aren’t the same people we were, and shame isn’t something we hold on to – it’s something we drink to the dregs and be done. Lewis said there are things on earth that are too hot to touch, but we can drink them, and that shame is like that – try to do anything else with it, and it scalds, but drink it down and it can be very nourishing.

    Those people we were are the seed-bed for the people we are, and the people we are becoming. The negative is necessary; without having been bullied, I’d have no compassion for the Satanically bullied. Having not done the right thing, we’d have no compassion on those who, through fear, don’t do the right thing. In this way our past is a check on self-righteousness.

  9. Jason

    I am an assistant principal in a high school. I can see myself as a 15 year old walking these halls every day. I also have 3 school aged daughters and I try so hard to delelop their self worth not through my love for them or their freinds or their looks. I try to get my girls to develop their self worth from the fact that the God of the universe saw fit not only to knit them together in their mother’s womb but to give up his seat of glory, become a man, and die for them. Any other source of worth is a lie. I just wish I could behave as if I believed that instead of striving and strugling to gain worth from the world. It is that struggle that makes bullies do what they do.

  10. becky

    Very good point, Jason. I think that bullying and trying to be invisible are symptoms of the same problem. Kids that age (and some my age) are trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in the world. There is a general lack of self worth, which triggers both responses. I don’t feel like I’m worth anything, so I try to disappear. Or I don’t feel like I’m worth anything, so I try to force the world to acknowledge me or prove my superiority over someone else by bullying. In either case, the remedy is the same. Seeing myself from God’s perspective and grasping “how wide and long and deep is the love of Christ.”

  11. Susan Martin

    What first caught my eye on this entry was my first name. I thought, “Hmm..this might be interesting…I can imagine it’s about me. It’ll be funny.” Only the farther I got into it, the less funny an experience it became. Your honesty it appreciated in your story b/c you can see my last name there…Martin. It’s just as easy to change the M to an F…and some most certainly did when I was younger. However I want you to know something of most importance. I don’t hold a grudge against the people who didn’t fess up to making me feel less than I was. They may or may not have known better, but I always knew Christ saw me exactly as He made me. Beautiful. Perhaps your Susan had similar confidence in the end.

  12. Jim A

    What a timely piece. I recently had the rare opportunity to right a wrong or at least beg forgiveness in January.

    I’m almost 40 now. I circulated a lie about one of the boys in my little clique in 7th grade. On the list of cliques, ours was near the bottom, so when this boy was ostracized by the whole (small) school he was at the very bottom. We were merciless to him and no doubt he had no idea why this was happening to him. By the time we were seniors I had all but ruined this guys life up to that point. I was feeling pangs of guilt. I quietly apologized to him (I think at the local Walmart). However, when news of this got out to my other “friends” I quickly pulled a Peter on him and denied it as vehemently as I could.
    Fast foward 20 years. I have thought about this fella several times over the years and always wished I could have done something about it but I had no idea where he went after graduating. So several months ago, I found myself dragged into Facebook by colleagues and other friends. Within 3 months, this guy pops up on there on the list of folks I might know. I immediately added him and he surprisingly accepted.
    After a couple of “wall” notes on how good looking the familys look, I sent him a direct email. In the email I apologized and I meant it this time. His response was crushing and I think it’s appropriate to post those notes anonymously here.

    My apology:

    one of the regrets I do have is the way i behaved in junior high and high school toward you. I can not explain why I instigated or participated in the demonstrable things that our “clique” participated in, I can only say that I know it to be wrong. I further regret the way I recanted to the same group my weak attempt at apologizing, denying I’d done anything of the sort.

    The whole experience was perpetuated by a single stupid lie as a joke. Adolescents can be down right mean for no good reason and in this case it resulted in the ostracizing and belittling of a person who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. No one ever does deserve that and so even though this happend over 20 years ago, I extend my sincerest apologies for making school a living hell for you. I hope you’ve forgotten it if not forgiven us. I haven’t talked to the other guys for that matter in over 20 years but I would hope they had the same regret.

    I have, on occasion, wondered whatever happened to you after high school. It’s funny that a social web 2.0 network would cause us to cross paths again, 20 years later. There’s something about having kids that sharply focuses one’s attentions to their own paths. I am trying very hard, as I’m sure my parents did, to raise a couple of girls that respect others and do not have to regret any cruel things done just to gain favor with peers. As I’ve grown on my faith walk, I’ve noticed there are often moments that seem to be coincident but could also be seen as opportunity. I didn’t want to pass up the chance to share this thought with you after “coincidentally” reconnecting via the web.

    and his response:

    I don’t mind telling you I was quite surprised to get your friend request on Facebook.com. I was even more surprised to receive your email. It was always a mystery to me how and why things happened like they did in junior high. I do remember those days very well along with the pain and embarrassment I endured and the feeling that I was somehow “less” than everyone else. These are things I carry with me to this day. But they don’t define who I am. I have learned over the years that things happen for a reason though we may never know what that reason is. I just have to have faith in God’s plan. I have not forgotten those days and probably never will. But I have forgiven. I accept your apology and thank you for taking the time to offer it.
    I haven’t seen or spoken to Bradshaw since high school either. I did talk to one of the guys a time or two since then. He was dating and eventually married a friend mine that went to my church years ago. I spoke to another guy quite a bit. He never spoke of what happened in high school though. I spent three years working for the sherrif’s department with one of those years as a deputy so I would see him on occasion at a fire or accident with the fire department. After that I went back to school and got a couple degrees in computers. Met a nice girl from Pennsylvania, got married and the rest is history. And you’re right…having kids does change ones focus.
    I’m glad we had this chance to get reconnected also. It may sound strange but I have a greater peace about everything that happened now. I hope you and your family are well and I hope to hear from you again. Thanks again.

    These opportunities come rarely and having seized on this one, I hope that it encourages others to do the same. (I’m certain now that God led me to Facebook for this particular purpose!)

    Peace indeed and God forgive us all…

    Jim

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