Get your Comeuppance Here

In first grade, I read the entire first chapter of Fun with Dick and Jane during the first reading session on the first day. Within a week, I was up to “‘See the big horses,’ said Jane” on page 50. Meanwhile, the other kids were stumbling through “See it go up” on page 6. By the time they got to “This is not fun” on page 9 the following week, I decided that what was not fun was reading in school. Reading in school was boring. I had already learned to read by being read to every night before being tucked into bed.

In the second grade, there were math problems. Could one buy a $1.49 kite with one dollar and three dimes? No, but one could buy a $1.29 pen. I would whip through three or four such problems—easy for me since I was already checking to make sure the clerk made the right change when Mama and I went to the grocery store. And then I would have to just sit there and watch the big hand on the clock until it was time for lunch. By the time the bell rang, many of the other kids were still on problem 2.

By the third grade, I had mastered the art of doing nothing while waiting for other kids to catch up. I didn’t complain; it just seemed to be the way things were. I was the smart one. They were the dummies.

I could have wished to be one of the dummies—I was that bored—but in my family being smart was where it was at. When my mother read to me and I mouthed the words along with her and pointed to them on the page, she said she was proud of me. After I told the grocery store clerk that he had given us a dollar too much in change, Mama bragged about me to her friends. She told me that because I was smart I would go far in life, be anything I wanted to be, do anything I wanted to do.

Children who are smart often have a thought process that goes like this: “I am smart. Smart is better than dumb. Therefore, I am better than dummies, and I deserve more.”

I deserve more?

I got my comeuppance when I was 20 and taking the bus to work. One day, a woman got on with a child of about 3 or 4 in a carrier that was strapped to her back. She was the kind of woman you don’t want to sit next to on a bus: She smelled. Her little girl had matted hair, a dirty face and filthy tennis shoes with no socks. Her sweater was thin and her bare skinny legs looked cold jutting out of the carrier.

Wearily, the woman paid for the trip, shambled to the seat across the aisle from me, and lowered her considerable bottom. She sighed then and leaned back—without removing the child from the carrier or the carrier from her back. The carrier had a metal frame, which as the woman relaxed was shoved forcefully against the little girl’s shins.

The girl whimpered. Mother shifted in the seat, apparently settling in rather than making any attempt to see to her child. The little girl then cried in earnest. Wailed, really. And mother did nothing. It was as though she could not even hear the cries.

Little by little, with her legs still pinned between her mother’s back and the metal carrier frame, the little girl’s wails subsided. Then her head fell forward and slightly sideways. Astonishingly, she was asleep.

For the rest of the bus ride, each time mother shifted in such a way as to lessen the pressure on the little girl’s legs and allow blood to flow again and pain to re-emerge, the little girl would wake up and cry, only to fall asleep again as soon as the pressure would cause numbness. Finally, mother got up and got off the bus, taking the torment with her.

This was 50 years ago. The phrase “child abuse” was not in normal usage. Children were considered by most people to belong to their parents, and parents were allowed to do whatever they did to those children without much interference by relatives, neighbors or the law. Intervention by strangers on a bus would not have been expected. Still, sitting there on that bus after the woman and the little girl had gone, I was horrified.

This little girl would never have the advantages I had been given. I was my mother’s precious little girl, cared for and valued; this child’s mother was hopeless. I had gone to bed each night in my own bed with clean sheets and a bedtime story; this child lived a nightmare and fell asleep in pain. I had been healthy and well fed; this child might not get enough nutrition even to support normal brain development. What kind of future would this little girl have? Would she ever have the chance to be happy?

Had I really thought “I deserve more?” What a dreadful notion, that I deserved more than this little girl because life had been easier for me. No! If anything, this little girl deserved more than I because she had so little and I had so much.

That day, I learned the difference between being privileged and feeling superior.

Since that day, I have often felt more fortunate when I’ve encountered someone without much capacity for learning. I am proud to say, however, that I have never again, not once, considered myself to be better than anyone.

I am profoundly grateful to that little girl on the bus.