Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Attack of Conscience

I talked to anything when I was little. Mom got me a parakeet. Jill, a male parakeet as it turns out, seldom got a word in edgewise. He could say, “Drink,” especially when he heard water running in the kitchen sink. Jill and I were adoring friends, though. He liked to sit on top of my head and play with my long blonde hair.

We had dogs when I was very little, springer spaniels, I think. Clementine, named for my very favorite song that she and I would sing together, encouraged to stay outdoors, shared a dog biscuit one day when I was in need of deep doggy comfort. Of course, I talked to Clementine, certain she understood my every word.

Clementine and her brother Rocky had to go away though. I don’t remember why. It was some grown up reason of course. Having had and lost a dog all in one year, a year when my parents were in full bloom of their years-long, most bitter and violent fighting, I switched roles in what now seems like a perfectly understandable way from a psychological point of view. I became protective of all animals who needed someone to hug them and love them and talk softly to them. I became detached from people who were angry and sad and loud and frightening. I built fortresses of stuffed animals to buffer me from the screaming and tears when I wasn’t trying to actively intervene to make it better.

I quickly learned to read and became a fan of children’s mysteries, usually stories where the adults who were supposed to help didn’t or couldn’t. The children rose to the occasion, most often with their animal companions who understood and supported them. Often the children, the animals or something interesting they found was magical in nature. Sometimes a kindly older person would give them a hint or let them in on a secret most adults had forgotten.

Half Magic by Edward Eager was one of my favorites. Four children, left to the latch-key because their father was gone and their mother was forced to work, stumble across a nickel that wasn’t exactly a nickel. It was, of course, magic. Each of the children had an adventure, first by accident with one of them musing that she wished kitty could talk. The cat started sputtering in nearly-English epithets and the children worked out that the nickel was, well, half magic. They got half their wishes with unpredictable results.

One of the children, Kay, wanted to be part of King Arthur’s Round Table and found herself seated on a horse in full armor, a knight, “Sir” Kay. After knightly bravery and feats of derring-do, she takes off her helmet to reveal that she is, after all, just a little girl. I loved this part.

How could I be strong, brave, noble, effective, triumphant, rescuing, able, protected and protective? How could I be all those things and still a little girl? I liked being a girl. I just wanted to be all those other things too. Kay got her chance to wear her armor and was assumed to be knightly until she revealed herself to be herself, someone who was underestimated.

It should not be a surprise, then, that all my pets are rescues. Maybe it is because I wanted to be rescued from my family’s unhappiness and turned it around so I would not cast myself in the role of victim without hope.

In the transition from talking to stuffed-toys to adult stray critter collector, I had some bumps along the way.

It was 7th grade, a year of bitter disappointments, social disasters and dashed fantasies. It was winter in wind-bitten New Mexico and lunch-time. We huddled in groups, near doorways, behind trees, anywhere on the junior high campus to shield us from the relentless blast that went through all the layers of clothing, sometimes laced with “dry” snow, little ice balls with a grain of dust at the center of each. We waited for the teachers to let us back into the building.

A commotion on the east wall of the main building drew my attention. It was one of the teachers, Mr. Burke, a bull of a man, history teacher and football coach. A shivering puppy had wandered onto the campus and sought shelter in a winter-dormant flower patch. Mr. Burke was kicking the puppy, kicking its head against the wall, the rough brick wall. The puppy was squealing in pain. Mr. Burke was yelling. The kids were yelling. I snapped.

I had no armor but I charged. I landed on the teacher’s back like a creature from a gothic horror, screaming, trying to strangle him. I had never tried to kill anyone or anything besides cockroaches before. I was only partially successful. The puppy got away. Mr. Burke lived.

For the next two years, I called him “Fatty” to his face, daring him to hit me even as he punched my cafeteria lunch ticket each day in line. I learned he beat his children. I saw his daughter bear the bruises of his brutality. My loathing grew. This abuser of the weak had power over us. He learned I played football in the summers with the boys, one of only two girls the guys allowed to play. Mr. Burke said it was too bad I couldn’t play varsity junior high football since I wiped up the sandlot with his team off season. I smirked but hated him still.

Finally, junior high was nearly over. I had a hall pass, a valid reason to be in the hallway during class for some errand. And Mr. Burke stopped me.

“I have a hall pass,” I glared defiantly, all 5’1” of pure resentment. Oh, this teacher inspired me, all right. I determined to be a teacher. One more of me meant one fewer of his kind. I couldn’t kill him even though I tried that one day long ago but I could be what he never could.

“See here, McCord,” he sputtered. “I have to ask you a question.” I waited, feet planted.

Tea Tarot
(c) Copyright 2011 Marcia McCord
“All this time I thought you were just some ordinary ornery kid, calling me names. Now I find out you’re one of the smartest kids in school. Why don’t you treat me with respect?”

I was astonished. He didn’t know. His depravity was so complete that it never occurred to him what he was. My chin started to crawl up my face, about to crumple into tears. But Mom had taught me if you’re going to talk, say something intelligent. I spoke distinctly, knowing I would not be able to repeat myself.

“I cannot respect a man who kicks dogs,” I spat out word by word, suddenly 6 feet tall in full armor, my hall pass a sword in my hand. I had risen to become not the Knight but the Queen of Swords finally able use the truth as a weapon in defense against tyranny. And I ran for the girls’ bathroom and stayed, sobbing until the bell rang. I was half magic too.

Best wishes.