“That’s not true,” the girl behind me said in a singsong voice. “You’re lying.”
I turned around and shook my head, hoping she wouldn’t attract the teacher’s attention. Judy’s hair was unkempt and dirty. Maybe her mother didn’t love her enough to take good care of her. I knew I should feel sorry for her, but Judy was as nasty as she smelled.
Rain rolled down the windows during indoor recess. Our second grade classroom was a neat rectangle except for the jutting wall where the door fit in. I preferred symmetry. At seven my mother’s mindset formed neat geometric spaces in my head. I adhered to her categories: clean and dirty, right and wrong, bad people and good people, truth and lies. Well, I had some trouble with the truth.
My mother often said that she loved us more than any words could say. She told us no one tried harder to have children than she did. Then she would tell us how many babies she had lost in order to have us.
Lost. The word resounded throughout my body.
When I was very small I worried that I too would be lost, as I often was in the grocery store. When I understood that her babies had died before they were born it didn’t help. My mother talked about the lost babies to express her love for us. She went through eleven pregnancies to have a family with three living children. I did the math. My brother, sister and I were conceived because those babies died. I tried talking to my sister about it once but she didn’t understand.
“They weren’t even people yet,” she told me. “They were probably smaller than a minnow. Don’t get all weird about it.”
But they were people to my mother. And to me.
Sitting at our desks during indoor recess, vying for attention, I casually mentioned to my friends, Jennifer and Stephanie and Julie, that I would have had a big family but lots of the babies died. I knew this wasn’t really true. My parents planned to have three kids, they just wouldn’t have had me. I also knew it was wrong to make family grief into a public tale even if it gave me momentary thrill of popularity.
“Oh, the poor babies,” Jennifer said.
“How many babies?” Stephanie wanted to know.
“Lots,” I said. “Eight babies.” I knew I’d gone too far.
Judy overheard, and she piped up, “I’m telling Mrs. Lauver.”
I felt my fate as tightly sealed as the braids my mother lovingly bound in colors to match my dress. I was in trouble.
After the tattletale got to her, Mrs. Lauver called me up to her desk. My knees trembled when she paid attention to me. I was a good student, but sometimes my teacher called me names and then pointed out that I was blushing. We had moved the year before and rules from my last school, such as rising when called upon, had been hard for me to break for the first week. Mrs. Lauver called me a “jumping jack” and punished me when I didn’t stop standing up right away. That started it. It seemed she was always after me.
But this time I’d brought it on myself.
Everyone watched as I walked up to the front of the room. No one got called up to the teacher’s desk during indoor recess. The teacher normally had that time off, sitting with her friends in the smoke-filled lounge, so she tended to ignore us and read a thick paperback at her desk, her chair turned slightly away from the class as if we weren’t her responsibility. We honored that inattention by keeping the hubbub down. After recess she would read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to us. She always threatened that if we got too loud she might deny us that privilege and go right to social studies.
I went up to Mrs. Lauver’s desk as slowly as possible. Anxiety made my senses acute. I could smell the awful geraniums she kept on the windowsill, their brown sickly leaves rotting away. I could feel my classmates’ eager curiosity—-cartoon watchers waiting for the silly wabbit to be shot. As I got closer I could see where the teacher’s too tight sleeveless dress cut into her flesh, the frighteningly hard texture of her hair and the orange-hued makeup on her face. I wanted my mother badly. Her dresses were loose, her hair soft, her face never anything like my teacher’s.
I should have been planning what to say, but a liar sticks to the story, sometimes makes it worse. I made it worse. I stood at the desk, unsure of what to do with my hands that twisted the ends of my braids. I insisted that our family did have lots of children once but they died.
“Oh, and how did that happen?” She had a tight smile on her face.
I thought about it.
I saw them inside my head, my unknown brothers and sisters. They would have been older than me. If they had lived, I would not have been born. To me, their deaths felt like a gift and a burden. Standing there at Mrs. Lauver’s desk I saw their lives pass without breath in the darkness of water, waves breaking over their heads in the distance. I could almost see their faces. So I said simply, “They drowned.”
Despite further questions I couldn’t get another word out.
“I’m calling your mother,” the teacher said. “We’ll see what she has to say .”
That awful outcast’s land. Wanting one’s mama, but being in trouble. Now how could I rush home to a welcoming hug when I would encounter anger? My stomach folded up and I had to remember what my face was supposed to look like the rest of the afternoon.
After school there was a scene. My mother said that only bad people were liars. Liars grow up to commit crimes and go to jail. Over and over she asked, “Just tell me, why would you make up such an awful story?
All I could answer was, “I don’t know.”
I didn’t. What I said about the lost babies couldn’t be explained. I took my spanking and went to my room. My parents had a conversation later and came up with a punishment—write an apology to my teacher for lying. My notebook paper was filled with carefully printed words, but they were just shapes. I didn’t feel anything I’d written.
When I stood there in front of Mrs. Lauver that afternoon I was being honest. I told her what I saw. A child may not have words for what she knows even on the day she begins to understand that there are no neat categories for truth and lies.
I haven’t forgotten those lost babies. I hope I live as a testament to the joys they never knew, like telling stories true as our shared DNA.