She was very thin with unkempt golden blonde hair perpetually hanging over her azure eyes, a polite, but empty smile on her face.
I sat across the four top desk on our second grade classroom in Central Florida, from Kathy. Her little shift dresses sleeveless were threadbare and hung off her tiny little frame, with one shoulder always exposed, or the other. It was a middle class community in which most parents had a good income and a retirement for later. These were the years of the mixed signals in my life. On the one hand we watched wholesome television shows such as Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, The Wonderful World of Disney and of course the ever dreaded Lawrence Welk show featuring Sissy and Bobby.
On the other hand social uprising was happening everywhere. In just a few years I would be bussed into a run down African-American neighborhood for the purpose of desegregation. Women were insisting on equal rights in the boardroom AND the bedroom. It was a tough time to be a kid, but nobody had it tougher than Kathy.
She sat, everyday with a blank stare, smiling as if it was always required of her to put on a happy face. I watched a lot. She was an enigma. You see I had begun to realise that the popular girls were the slim, blond haired, blue eyed girls. The ones who knew all the social graces and didn’t seem to have trouble such as falling off the slide, missing the tether ball or forgetting to touch first base as they ran past. And Kathy was a slim blond, blue eyed pretty girl. But somehow she wasn’t popular. It puzzled me. She was very, very nice to everyone in our class. Extremely introverted and soft-spoken, petite, demure. Pretty much all the things a young woman of the sixties was supposed to be. But something…..something was not right. Nobody talked to Kathy. No one played with her. No one even really saw her. She seemed to be the invisible girl.
Kathy was an anxious little thing. Like a fragile little bird that didn’t know how to fly yet but was pushed out of the nest. Every time she was called on she stuttered and stammered; she froze. Her answer would not come even though she knew it. She just couldn’t handle being the center of attention. The teachers would become annoyed with her because they knew she was capable of answering, too. So they just stopped calling on her.
Invisible. Sometimes she was there, sometimes not. But even if she was there she seemed like she wasn’t.
The day came when she didn’t come to school. That horrible, gut wrenching day. Our teachers were crying, but pretending not to. They opened the partitions between the two second grade classrooms so as to have one large class to give us a serious lesson that day. They said this was the day to all be together. In my little child’s mind I had a horrible feeling of dread. I wondered if they had dropped the bomb after all. And if so why weren’t we crouched under our desks? Was it too late? I began to feel panic.
My teacher began talking about Kathy and how she wasn’t coming back.
I thought, “Who cares?!!! Just get to the bomb! What were we supposed to do?”
Then they said all three of Kathy’s sisters were also not coming back to school. The two teachers looked at each other with raw horror and grief. The look was “who’s going to say it?” It was completely unsettling to see our teachers out of control like this.
There was a long pause. Finally my teacher said that Kathy’s mother had put them all in the garage and turned on the car. That all four sisters had died, along with the mother. All of the golden blond, blue eyed, fragile girl children had floated to heaven. Then she said the word that I had never heard but would also never forget. “Suicide.”
I don’t really remember what they said after that because I was stunned and grieved. And ashamed. Even at that young age I knew what I still believe now which is that we ARE our brother’s keeper. Why had I not become her friend? Maybe there was a clue. Even if there was nothing I could do there was no excuse for sitting across the desk from someone for months and never getting to know them. Had I done that at least she would have left this earth knowing she had a friend.
The school grieved. All of the teachers, the administration and the children. The children grieved and wondered and walked around questioning who else’s mother would kill them. What had started as a safe world now suddenly looked very treacherous. Our feeling of safety had been shattered. The shards piercing into our hearts and killing something in us, too. We would never get over it.
If I thought I might grow past it, maybe develop a little callous in my heart for survival sake I was wrong because a little later in life a dear friend’s mother lost her mind one night and killed her son. I was in my late teens at that time. It was a shock, yes. Especially since I had spent many a night at their home with that mom who was so very loving and kind. But it was not that great a shock because I already knew what people are capable of. And with severe mental illness there are no guarantees.
Where ever we go in life there is always a Kathy. Oh, it may be difficult to notice her. Or to see her. Or to talk to her. But she’ll be there. Will you find her?
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