IT’S ALL ABOUT NUMBERS. ALL it takes are two; three are better; four are better still. It is in numbers that ugly is born and nurtured. We do in the safety and the protection of numbers that which the lack of conviction would otherwise thwart. We were sitting at our desks one morning, while Miss Bishop went to the office, talking and jostling and such, the way that all first graders do when the teacher is out of the room.
“I hate that kid.” Harold had venom in his tone as he glared at Jesse.
“What’d he do?” Pete was curious.
“I just don’t like him.” Harold scowled at Pete like that should be enough.
“I’ll bet he steals stuff,” Jude chimed in. “I’m gonna put my stuff in my desk where he can’t get it.”
“He don’t look right,” Harold said through gnarled teeth. “What is he, a Chinaman?” Jesse was dark.
“He don’t say nothin’ to nobody, just smiles,” I said. I didn’t want to be left out of the piling on, of course.
“I’m gonna whoop his damn stinking ass.” Harold was the first kid I ever heard cuss. I heard Mama and Daddy say “shit” and things like that, but I hadn’t heard a kid say cuss words before. I would get used to it.
“You ain’t afraid he’ll kill you?” Pete warned.
“He ain’t never killed nobody before. He’s just a damn liar.”
Jesse never opened his mouth. Harold was right about one thing. None of us took a bath more than once a week back then, but Jesse stunk. We all wondered if he had ever had a bath. Even I could figure out why Miss Bishop sprayed that can of stuff every day. She said it was for flies.
The bell rang for recess, and I confidently cantered to the spot where we all met each day to choose sides for football. I was good at football. Though I was the runt of the class, I was equalized with quickness.
When I arrived, nobody was there. There were other kids on the playground, but where was the gang? I searched for a few minutes before I spotted one or two of their backs, the rest hidden from view on the other side of the building.
A full circle of a dozen or so boys and some girls were cheering. Some of the girls, however, looked aghast and were screaming and waving for one of the teachers. Two kids were on the ground, one was pummeling the other. I asked Pete who was fighting.
“Harold is whooping that tramp kid,” he said excitedly.
“’Cause he’s a tramp and ain’t got no money or nothing. He ain’t even got shorts. Look!”
Jesse’s pants, at least a size twelve, came off and slid down to his knees. Pete was right—no underwear. Jesse wasn’t fighting back, just trying to block Harold’s slaps and scratches with one hand and attempting to pull up his pants with the other. The laughs were so loud that the echo reverberated off the side of the schoolhouse. Everybody laughed; I laughed.
Miss Bishop came stomping. She swung her arms and elbows from side to side while taking long, bouncing strides. Her feet struck the ground, harder and harder. The thud of her shoe soles turned into a slapping sound. She busted through the line; everybody stopped laughing. She was furious. I knew Harold was about to get his.
She reached down, lifted Jesse up by his arms and put both hands on either side of his pants. She pulled so hard that when they lifted up, it raised his frail, bony body off the ground. In one motion she put her arm behind Jesse’s head, bent him slightly over her leg, and beat his ass viciously with the palm of her hand. At least twelve licks. Jesse offered no resistance.
I looked at Pete, then Andy, then Bart, Philip, and Thomas. I wanted to see if they were as shocked as I was. Some were, some weren’t, and some shook their heads and grinned at each other. I didn’t know what to think.
I had only witnessed one paddling before, that being when Miss Bishop quickly returned from the office one morning and caught Jimmy pouring half the goldfish food in the fishbowl. She gave him a couple of light taps on the butt, but that was enough to make me shiver with fear the rest of the day. However, this wasn’t a paddling; this was an assault.
Jesse never looked up, just kept his head bowed like he was ashamed and got what he deserved. Or, maybe he was just embarrassed about not having underwear, but I don’t think so. His look telegraphed he was not at all surprised he had gotten a beating.
After Miss Bishop harshly pulled Jesse by the arm back to our room, he emerged a few minutes later, strolled over to a crosstie and sat down with an unconcerned look on his face as if it were merely part of his job description.
Meanwhile, Harold strutted along victoriously. Three or four of the gang walked slightly in front and to either side while gazing in awe at his face as if they wanted an autograph. Even though Jesse was a good two inches taller, Harold had given that tramp a good whipping. He was more of a king than ever. He had taken care of that thieving tramp, and he’d think twice before stealing any of our stuff again.
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