My first lesson in justice was when I was in the sixth grade.
I had scraped with a few injustices already by then, like being meanly pinched off a swing set by two big twins (when there were plenty of empty swings available), and such as the sorry day in fourth grade that my teacher strolled by my desk and noticed a tiny flower I had drawn on the wood top with a blue ink pen.
From the intonations of the strident voice that went off next to me, before I realized she was talking about me, it sounded as if she had seen something never before witnessed on Earth. Appalled, she ordered me to stand up, then "Would you do this to your furniture at home?" No, of course not, she answered herself, then sentenced me to stand in front of the class.
Overcoming uncertainty somewhere between stunned and petrified, I inched out of my desk and went to the front of the room. As I stood a few feet in front of the black board, the class was quickly instructed out of their seats into a corner of the room, and into a line. To a condemning narrative, then silence, one by one the students began to file past my desk. And I faced the procession of suddenly sanctimonious faces and self-righteous expressions - of children who had also drawn on their desks.
It was quite a study. The way they readily mustered and filed by the exhibit. I remember wondering who had taught them to contemplate the evidence so. Each lingered over my desk, they either gasped or solemnly shook their heads, or scowled at it disgusted, then, one by one, launched a scathing look to me, or a mean one, or pitying, or scornful. And I stood before them, without filter, transfixed, bewildered. Especially when Steve, a boy whose own desk sported side to side entire battle and ship scenes, looked at mine aghast, then up at me, narrowed his eyes, and sorrily shook his head at the miserable wretch I was.
I received it all, all thirty two looks and the general glare when they returned to their seats. I was in an fearful-curious-ashamed daze by the time I was finally told to sit down.
The teacher demanded I pay for the damage, a whole $3.50. That was fair enough. I spent my savings ($2.00) and my entire week's allowance for six weeks. And I paid it, quarter by quarter, up to the last. Only to not attain exoneration, but to be scolded that this should be a lesson and that she was next going to tell my parents.
So fearing, I thought I should be the one to break the news. One night at dinner, I managed the stamina to tell my father about it.
He was proud of me, that I had paid for it out of my own allowance, and for having 'fessed up to him.
His praise was inspiring. But also I filled with shame at the reason I told him, and the reason I had paid for it out of my allowance rather than asking him - to escape more punishment.
No one ever did call my parents about it.
And that year, I completed school feeling a general malaise of worthlessness. Just plain bad.
In the sixth grade, I had taken to carrying around belongings in an old cigar box of my father's. Along with assorted pens and pencils, I kept a pair of sunglasses and a beige chiffon scarf in it.
It was just my bliss that one afternoon in English the teacher took to reading a story about an ocean liner. I was possessed with the spirit of illustration and pulled out the sunglasses and chiffon scarf, and put them on, vivifying that cruise and tale.
The detonated snickering of a couple classmates alerted the teacher, Miss Susan Kramer was her name, and she looked up.
She scanned the room and saw me and, not knowing what to do, she set down the book from which she was reading and held me in a gaze a moment. She suppressed a laugh, I knew it. Of course, I had immediately snatched the glasses and scarf off my head. Then she sternly said, "Would you like to come up here, Miss Bonta, and show the rest of the class what was so funny?"
Cries instantly rose. "Yes! Yes!" "Yeah!" "Yeah!" I was at the back of the class, and remember that vision of students all turned toward me in their seats, snidely grinning, leering, calling for the public execution.
I felt a panic I had known, the panic of humiliation, fear. My merriment evaporated. It had suddenly turned into something else, and I wasn't sure what. Assessment of what I had really done and what was going to happen had begun as I slowly scooted forward in my seat. I was half way to my feet, and prepared myself to take the march up to the front of the class.
Then Miss Kramer said, louder than the clamoring voices, "Nevermind. Sit down. Come see me after class."
"Aaawwww," rose the swell of disappointment. "That's enough." She commanded the class back into order and finished the story.
I was relieved.
After class, when I went to see her, she said, "I didn't have you come up to the front of the class. Do you know why?"
I shook my head.
"Because when the kids started calling out like that, that wasn't the point," she told me, herself amazed. "I heard the cries for your blood, that just isn't the purpose and most of those children would do what you did or worse anyway. The point was that it isn't alright to disrupt the class. So, I want you to turn in an extra story for your writing assignment. One hundred words."
I left, beaming, and happy. And turned in not a hundred words but over ten pages, it must have been well over five hundred words. She was enthusiastic over the story.
I followed Miss Kramer around at lunch times, I would kiss her hand sometimes, and I wanted with all my soul to live up to her respect of me.
Susan Kramer, I love you. I still remember your birthday, every year. April 14th. I love you for teaching me the purpose of rules. For giving me the chance to know that I really was good, and would do right with the proper understanding.
Penalty is different than punishment, because it offers something with which to regain honor. That was my first lesson in justice.
The beaming desire in us to do good and right by one another is more valiant and efficacious than the confusion of punishment which crushes but never resolves.
The loving hand is the heaviest, the hand that keeps us safe while we view our wrongs, that protects the spark in us which effulges as our true worth: the ardent fervor to be of value and not let down our fellows. That spark is our real spirit and resistant to everything - except the conviction that we are bad.
Dedicated to Susan Kramer.
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