This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on January 7, 2007.
by Kathleen Vallee Stein
In high school, I was such a complete and utter nobody that I didn’t even belong to a
clique. I wasn’t in the band, I couldn’t draw, girls didn’t have sports teams in my little
town in Ohio in 1966, so I wasn’t a jock. I abhorred the idea arguing with people, so the
debate team was out. I didn’t work on the yearbook or school newspaper. I wasn’t brave
enough to be a “hood,” which at that time were students who smoked and wore leather
and used lots of hair grease.
Every morning I stood alone, in the shadow of my locker door, trying to be invisible. I
had a couple of girl friends but they were as nondescript as I was. During my junior year
we three didn’t have the same lunch period, so I ate my peanut butter sandwich in a
stall in the girls’ locker room and then stood around in the student store till the bell rang.
I was slightly interested in English class and had a teacher who I believe could have
had a profound effect on me, had she chosen to do so. Her name was Mrs. Smith and
she lived in my neighborhood. I played with her son, Sam, during the summers when we
were in elementary school. Once we got to high school, we never spoke. He ran with the “smart” kids.
Late one summer afternoon, just before Sam and I were to start 6th grade, we were in his house during the dinner hour. I was headed for home, because my sister was screaming from our backyard that dinner was ready. Sam told me he was having cereal for dinner because his mom went to college at night. I was incredulous. In 1961, in Ohio, all decent moms were in the kitchen pulling tater tots out of the oven during the dinner hour. I sadly concluded that Sam didn’t have a good mom.
Flash forward six years, and Mrs. Smith and I were in a new paradigm – student and teacher. She had graduated from college and stood before me, a newly minted Englishteacher. I wondered if her son told her how judgmental I was about her dinnerprovisions. I wondered if she knew for sure it was me who soaped her windows during Halloween. Her reputation around the school was that she was a hard teacher.
My seventh period class had the captain of the football team and his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, without a brain in her head, but with a body that distracted all the bored male adolescents in the room. She sat in the middle seat of the middle row and smiled for the entire hour. With that dynamic in the room, I was more invisible than ever.
Mrs. Smith gave us a writing assignment: describe someone we knew. The next day, as we turned in our papers, she told us she would read some of them and we should guess
who wrote it. An exercise like that struck terror in me but silently I hoped she would read
Mrs. Smith read several pieces and everyone guessed right away who wrote it. The people with an identity in high school were pretty predictable, and their writing gave them away almost immediately.
Then it happened. Mrs. Smith read my description of my sister. I had written about her smile that was like a lipstick – it appeared and disappeared quickly. Her laugh, I wrote, gurgled like the water running down the bathtub drain. The whole class laughed at what I wrote. I hunkered down in my chair, pulled my lips over my buck teeth, and waited to be discovered.
No one guessed. It became a mystery and Mrs. Smith let the speculation grow. Everyone looked around the room, and I did too, as if wondering who wrote such great stuff. No one guessed. Mrs. Smith looked at me. I froze. She smiled. I stayed frozen. wanted her to tell them it was me. I wanted to have that identity – writer.
Mercifully, Mrs. Smith moved on to the next piece. My identity was never revealed and
my classmates soon lost interest. I wallowed in obscurity for the rest of high school and
finally, and gratefully, graduated in June of 1968. The memory of Mrs. Smith’s and my
moment has remained in focus and I will always wonder what effect some recognition,
some special identity, would have done for my miniscule self esteem.
Mrs. Smith could have asked me to stay after class and told me that I had potential.
What little positive effect it might have had would certainly have been washed out by my lack of identity, and the disinterest of my parents, but she could have tried.
I ran into Sam several years later and he told me his mother had passed away from cancer. I doubt I would have worked up the courage to ask her about that moment in English class, but now it was certain that I never would.
When I think about taking a chance, and I don't know if I should, I try anyway. Sometimes
the consequences are good and sometimes not, but at least I know. The memory of Mrs. Smith, preserving my anonymity, and smiling at me, while my classmates looked around and never saw me, will always be a mystery. I’ll always wonder what was in her mind as she watched the scrawny, catatonically shy girl sit in silence and let her chance go by.
We both let our chance go by.
Kathleen Vallee Stein