Talking During Recess

childhood lies, teacher punishment, child's honestly, truth and lies in childhood, second grade punishment,

collage by L.G. Weldon

“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 years of age, 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.

24 thoughts on “Talking During Recess

  1. Laura,
    That is such a beautiful and heartbreaking story. I wish I could reach out through time and hug you as you stood there twisting your braids. Thank you for remembering your lost siblings so beautifully.


  2. So many things about this post resonate with me… The wanting to have a big story… the going too far… the brittle repulsive teacher who would embarrass you on purpose… that your mother was too mortified to recognize the truth in what you had said… there WERE 8 others, there were. So powerful. Thank you-


  3. Wow, what a powerful memory. And you told it with such vividness and honesty. We probably all have a stark memory of being caught out in a lie, but, you’re right, it sounds like it was the way you understood it at the time.


  4. It wasn’t a lie, but a child’s understanding of the truth. The need to share the hard truths as we understand them, esp. when they are such big truths as yours is natural for a little person. It was too big for you to hold yourself. Having someone else know, even in a cursory way, as your classmates would have known, is a help. You needed help carrying it. ((hugs)) Thank you for sharing this precious story with us.


    • Interestingly, my parents never realized the lie I was accused of telling had anything to do with my mother’s miscarriages. They thought I just made up a story about having a big family, but my siblings died. That would have been worse if they’d realized, I’m sure. But to me those siblings were my big family, they did die, and their deaths seemed like drownings far from shore. Remembering my childhood helps me understand the way kids might think, today. Thank you for understanding (and the hugs!) Debbie.


      • I’m wondering if your parents might have been more compassionate if they’d put two & two together. Trying to put myself in that position, I might have been embarrassed to have such personal information shared in such a way, but I think I would have been grateful for the opportunity to talk through the feelings my little one was obviously struggling with, unbeknownst to me.


  5. I spent far too much time in the hallway myself for “talking too much.” Now that I’m older, a grad student, I realize that my brain was bubbling with excitement over learning and connection. I wasn’t trying to be problematic or disruptive…. I was trying to feel alive.

    Lovely story and so well written. I’m new to wordpress and am really impressed with the quality of writing I’m finding while searching for other memoir writers. Bravo!


    • Oh Abby, you have quite the memory. It’s been lurking on my “articles and essays” page (which I keep forgetting to update). When life is too busy, I sometimes let a previously published essay stand in for a post. This one was published in The Writer’s Eye several years ago.


  6. As with all of your writings, they become a lesson that I can share with my grand child to give him the time and space to recognizing that we too have done this and didn’t know why. I’m always on the lookout for subjects to awaken a long forgotten memory or regret with the elders in my care homes. Often these things lie unremembered, even unable to be resolved due to the lessons of “right” and “Wrong” that their Victorian parents instilled in them. Now with parents long gone they can feel “safe” to let go of those painful and embarrassing memories. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories and thoughts. You brighten my life.


    • I worked for several years as a social worker/activity director in a nursing home. What a profound experience. I’m honored to think you can use anything I might have written to enliven your work with elders (and with your grandchild!). Thank you so much.


  7. Laura, I only just found your blog through Waking Times’ link to “Fostering the Flip Side of Gratitude”. From there I read “Talking During Recess”. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your writing brought me to tears. I am a 59 year old woman with three ‘children’ in their twenties. But, I suffered through 2 1/2 years of infertility before I gave birth to my eldest son. After that I suffered two miscarriages before delivering our second son. And another miscarriage before becoming pregnant with my daughter. These miscarriages affected me in profound ways. Our society does not always recognize the profound loss in miscarriage and the associated grief. Many told me it was a ‘blessing in disguise’. But, that’s not how it felt to me. I have been blessed with three healthy, beautiful and living children. I think of the three babies that I lost. I wonder what they’re up to. I send them love and speak to them of our reunion in heaven someday. You
    were obviously a very sensitive and spiritual child. I’m sorry your teacher was insensitive and that your parents didn’t understand your gifts. I’m grateful that I have been directed to your writings and look forward to visiting here often. God bless you. Denise


    • You’re right Denise, our society leaves no space for us to grieve a miscarriage nor a way to honor the children that didn’t get to grow up. You might be interested in a post I wrote last year. It’s about research showing that a pregnancy, even one so early a woman doesn’t know she’s with child, changes the mother right down to the cellular level. That’s because fetal cells stay with the mother. They’re not always beneficial, but it’s known that these cells rush to help heal the mother from illness or injury, and persist in her body well into her old age. Literally, our children are always with us. Here’s the link if you’re interested:


  8. Just read this because you linked it in your current post. The writing takes my breath. The story, so achingly familiar and real. Thank you for getting it down for all of us. You are a writer.


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