I’m going to tell you stories.
In the desert where I was a child, the wind stings like anything. A desert dust devil would whip up and send all of us racing across the softball field to escape the sandblasting of sharp grains of sand into our tender calves. Everyone’s hair was a mess all of the time. Everyone had seen that one teacher’s underwear, because she wore billowy skirts that go clean over her head in a gust.
There were demons in my house. Crawling, scratching, watching, suffocating, telling. There were demons in the Christian school too. They told us that dinosaurs were a myth. The devil put bones in the ground, they said. They also said that science was bad but God was good as if the two could possibly be separated. The man teacher hit a ping pong ball hard between my eyes and told me to go back to playing barbies. The other man teacher told the beautiful girl in the class above me to take off her shirt one day after school. The boys hurt my friend every day. They cornered my sister and forced her to take off her shirt on the playground. There was a “boys will be boys” free for all in that place but it really didn’t just apply to the males. The pastor’s daughter told everyone that I smelled bad and was not to be talked to.
I swallowed the evil for a short time, I was a public school kid and didn’t know the ropes yet. I knew about school bullies and I knew how to defend myself. But this was a system of bullies and they were rewarded. This was a school of them. So I kept my head down. Then I remembered. I was the daughter of the man who told me to fight my own battles. The man who taught me how to shoot like any man, to find my center, to fight. When I was good and ready and could not take the boiling blood behind my eyes, I began to teach my own lessons. I started with the man who called me to his desk to let me know he did not and never would like me. Mr. Harper. I told him that I would never change; each day I showed him. He loved the boys who hurt my little friend, Tiffany. I watched and waited. When the boy who called out to her that she was fat and disgusting came to sit down with his lunch tray next to me, I pulled the seat out from under him before he had a chance to sit. I allowed his chin to hit the table hard, hearing the sound of his teeth closing hard upon themselves, I dumped his tray on his head till the pudding ran down his neon shirt. The mean girl was next. She was the teacher’s precious own and could do no wrong. They didn’t know that she was sick inside. That she liked to hurt people, that she was cruel and cold and ugly. She shoved my little friend’s lunch across the table removing her from her seat and proceeded to sit in her chair. I saw this, walked over with anger inside of my fingers, and slapped her calling her a bitch, which was an insult to dogs but was the only word that could escape my mouth at the moment. Each day, the cruel children with the money and the right shoes who hurt the rest of us, were punished and I used my own hands to do it. The principal was familiar with me. I was familiar with his shining comb over. They were demons. I hated them more than the ones in my house. The ones in my house never pretended to be anything but what they were. The ones in the modular classrooms in the middle of the desert pretended to be good when they were, actually, dark and filthy. This was before I knew that Jesus was better at revenge than me, but I can’t really repent. No one was there to stand in the gap for us. I am quiet and calm but have never known how to abide any injustices. Someone once told me that they thought Jane Eyre seemed an unbelievable character because she was subjugated all her life and couldn’t have known to expect better and to defend her own rights. I laughed in my heart. She didn’t know me.
I will tell you stories.
I will tell you stories, because I am telling myself stories. I am learning about how to be a truth teller and what that looks like when cynicism has muddied my mind. I am, again, exercising my demons. Bad metaphor. I am really trying to pour clean water into my muddy stuff to see if I can see what is there.
In the desert I was raised by my father. I raised my little sister. And she raised Hell.
Sometimes things got too hard and we lived with my grandmother too. My grandmother taught me how to match clothes that made my eyes look more blue and how to curry comb a horse. She bought me a pony, in fact. I’ll bet your grandma didn’t buy you a pony. But mine did. One for my sister too, but that one was fat and liked to step out from under skinny red haired kids with no confidence. My pony was silver. He probably wasn’t actually silver, but in my memory he was silver and dappled with white. He was Joey, and when I sat on him for the first time, he was gone. He knew by the way I tentatively inched my light little body onto his back that I was terrified of him. No sooner had my grandma handed me the reins than he reared up and took off across the desert yard toward the Joshua trees where, I assumed, he intended to scrape me off. He was taller than most ponies and looked more like a smaller than average horse and his speed startled me. His everything startled me. And then I was on the sandy patch with goatheads and foxtails and I watched him run away. Then I watched the blue sky. Then I cried. Then Grandma stood over me. “Get back on him or he will think that you are scared of him.”
Furious, “I AM scared of him!”
Grandma caught him and brought him to me. “He knows what you are. You are green. You just have to teach him who is the boss in this relationship.” With that she held him again for me to mount. At this point I was too angry to consider allowing myself to be dumped by some low down dirty pony who isn’t even a real horse. I decided that I liked the idea of being his boss. I mounted him, sitting hard and angry on my saddle blanket. The thump of my bottom was the cue he wanted. Instantly, he snorted and reared and took off across the yard with me bouncing around like the insubstantial child that I was. He was headed for the Joshua trees again.
“Pull the reigns to a hard left and hold his head!” yelled Grandma. I had fistfuls of mane and reigns all tangled in my sweaty hands, but I was too fighting mad to surrender. I pulled hard on the left reign, forcing him to turn his head nearly to his withers and walk in tight angry circles. I surrendered the bit just a little to see if he was still going to run and sure enough he took his head and ran off toward the barn. I remembered the black widows in the barn, the ones I used to shoot with my BB gun and pulled the reins again. Hard left. He was stuck going in tight circles in the hot sand till he and I were in a cloud of dust. Till I thought we would both turn into butter like the tiger in that Sanjo story. Till he decided I was boss. Both of us were dizzy with lungs full of dust before he consented to a walk. We walked the property together. Feeling each other for signs, waiting to react to each other. I didn’t trust him and he didn’t trust me. But we walked together just the same.
Every single day after a miserable day at school, I went to the backyard with a carrot and a brush and just talked to him as I combed him. I put honey on his bit so he would take it into his mouth and slid the horse blanket onto his back. I rode him and he threw me. I rode him again, and he scraped me off with convenient objects in the yard. But as the months wore on, when I came outside to see him he came to me expecting his apple or his carrot and, in return, let me ride him. Eventually, he and I became good chums. I told him about the mean teachers and the boys, and he looked at me wishing I would just give him another bite of my pb&j. I lay on his back staring at the evening sky as its desert brush strokes painted another sunset. I got him to a trot and stood on his back, barefoot and brave. I stopped using a bit or a halter or even a saddle blanket. I just kicked up onto his back and gentle pulled his head this way or that and he would go where I wanted him to. That’s round about the time I stopped beating up the boys and telling off the teachers. I started to talk to God. I started to believe that I didn’t have to do everything by myself. Also, my dad came to my school during class time and called out the teacher who hated me and threatened his life in front of all of the kids. It. Was. Awesome. Also, it helped a lot, too.
Seasons changed. I moved. I moved back, I moved again. Moving is a consistent theme for me. And I had to say goodbye to Joey. He was my very dear friend. He taught me to think something of myself. He helped me to release the rage and surrender myself to the good things around me that I had been missing.
I will tell you one more story today.
That teacher’s wife was killed in an accident. When he was told the news over the phone, he had cardiac arrest and died that same day. They had two really nice kids. I wasn’t sorry about all of that until just now when I wrote this. Now I’m really sorry. His kids became orphans in a day and I carried a vengeful joy that he had died all these years. It felt like poetic justice, but really it was just a really terrible thing that happened to a really small minded person with kids who needed him. I’ll light a candle for Mr. Harper tonight. I’ll pray for his kids who are both older than me and have no idea that their dad’s least favorite student of all time is thinking of them and hoping they are okay.
As for that tiny Christian school, it has been permanently closed and will probably blow away with all of the tumble weeds. Fingers crossed.