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If I Could Talk to Millie
I started this hub a couple of months ago (June 2012) and as happens was interrupted by other things. Before I could come back and finish, an event occurred within a family that my wife knows of. She came home one day after work and told me a supervisor at her place of employment lost a grand daughter from suicide. The fifteen year old girl was being bullied by her peers from school and chose to end things in the worst possible fashion. Teen suicide from these types of situations aren't uncommon in our nation today, and the solution if it exists seems as elusive as those of other issues we face as a society. In time, a few months or so, most will forget at least till it happens again, but those directly affected including her family never will.
This following true account is about a victim who was strong enough to survive. May I introduce Millie......
Small Town USA
It's peculiar sometimes to watch the hierarchy that develops in the communities where we live. It seems there is always someone, generally a select few that seem to top the social order usually because of wealth or ancestry, and then a similar grouping although somewhat larger holding the the middle class, followed by another smaller group at the bottom of the scale. Money plays a part in the lower rankings too, and most of the time there is substantially less of it.
This social ranking exists in every community in the nation large or small, urban or rural. Politicians have called it Class Envy and accused one another of using it to accomplish their own goals, but in reality, it is deeper than that. It's as pronounced as the racial divisions but for an entirely different albeit just as pointed reason. Fill a community with all white people and it will be there. Remove them and bring in Blacks, and it will still be found. Replace the Blacks with Hispanics, Southeast Asians, or any other ethnic group and you will still find separate, distinct classes. It's a human trait.
I grew up in Eastern Kansas in a small rural community and like all my peers was steeped in the concept from birth. And like the majority of people, I was neither in the top nor bottom class of our local society. That undoubtedly made life and growing up a lot simpler for me, but as I look back on my years in school, I find myself sympathizing with those whose place was at the bottom.
A Tenament of Education
Prior to starting school, my contact with people outside my family was a little limited, I guess being a sparsely populated farming community, there weren't all that many people around in the first place. My parents were well known although not of the "Upper Crust" and maintained their associations with a variety of people. They were solid friends of a nearby neighbor, but also reached out to the occasional family whose breadwinner was hired to help this neighbor out in his farming operation. The man had a reputation for not treating his workers very well, and I think it may have struck some kind of a chord with my Dad and Mom. Looking back, I'm glad it did.
It wasn't until I started school, that I was introduced to the social ranking of the local students. During the fall of 1959, I watched as certain children received preferential treatment from teachers, not necessarily in grades but rather in the way they were spoken too, or guided through things they didn't understand. You might expect, then, that they received greater privileges, more trust, and the more desirable parts in plays or performances and they did. And without fail, these individuals were the children of fellow teachers, community leaders, or prominent local citizens and came from families of greater affluence and higher social standing. It seems that although the heartland was separated from the "Old Wealth" areas of the country by half a continent, the ways of thinking were on the same road.
Millie's family like many others in the area lived on a farm a few miles outside of town. The rural community during those years was more populous and successful than during the eighties when many who farmed either went broke or packed and left while they still had enough resources to do so. In the fifties and sixties, farms in that part of the country were spaced about a half mile to a mile apart and the bulk of the population lived on them as opposed to in the towns. Millie rode the bus into school with the other kids that lived nearby.
While the county was unofficially divided into different communities usually known by the town where the local school was located, it was officially divided in to different townships. Sometimes, these townships followed the community lines, and other times they did not. They were generally put in place for such functions as road maintenance and voting, and so logically, they also loosely formed their own separate social order. During my early years in school, the rural bus routes also were drafted along those township lines and there were five different buses on different routes transporting the students. Growing up in a different township than most of my classmates, I never met any of Millie's family or any of the kids that lived in her family's community until I started school.
There were five kids in Millie's family. The eldest, her sister, was Mary. She also had an older brother named Ed, and two younger brothers, John and Randy. During that fall in 1959, I started school with John, and Millie was a grade ahead of us. It probably wasn't more than a few weeks into the school year before I was cautioned by a kid ot the higher social order not to touch Millie nor any member of her family because they had "germs." I only recently learned what that was all about, but as an impressionable first grader, didn't care nor question it. I only complied. Sadly, it was probably the beginning of a predjudice experienced by her for years to come.
Millie had another social obstacle as well. Her family had a reputation for being poor. Now back in those days, all of us were poor, but didn't realize it. Wealth as determined today by an individual's net worth and the amount of money in the bank was calcualted differently then. Most farm families gained the biggest part of their foodstuffs directly from their way of life. Gardens, cattle, chickens, hogs, and so forth provided food so that store purchases were limited a few things a farm wife couldn't or lacked time to produce herself. There weren't many farms in that area at that time that weren't carrying a mortgage, and most farmers required a line of credit in order to operate. We were all almost equally "poor" and didn't have much concept of the scant differences in our social statuses.
True to "five year old brat" form, I took the do-not-touch warning to heart. Although I have no recall of specifics, I can imagine myself and the other boys walking across the playground to avoid coming too close, or squeezing outselves into a corner if we found ourselves inadvertantly trapped inside. It's an irony that the world's most innocent can also be among its most cruel. One memory I still do carry with me to this day, however, is that of playing in a swing at recess. I was standing on the wooded seat which was only a length of two by six board attached to the suspending chains, and I was swinging as hard as I coud to reach the highest point on each end of the arc. We had all been warned to watch out for the swings and keep a safe distance away since they could injure us if we were struck. As I pushed with all my might to overcome the dragging force of gravity, Millie suddenly cut across my path. I was powerless to do anything beyond stopping the push, but it did nothing to slow me, and the wooden board struck her on the head as she went by.
The result was instantaneous. She burst into tears and ran sobbing into the school to tell our teacher who taught both first and second grades about the accident. It seemed like an eternity to me but could have been only minutes before she returned. She told me it was OK. She was alright. I was off the hook, then. No troubles with the teacher, or principal whom it was rumored, kept a collection of whipping instruments for students who got out of line. But through all this, I blamed her. Something that was an unfortunate accident with a very fortunate outcome, became an incident in my mind for which she was to blame. At that stage in my life, I could see only clouds and sun. Silver linings were beyond my perception.
It might have been different if the teachers had been able to treat her and her family without the bias I and my contempories did, but although they did much better, they weren't without fault themselves. In today's world, teachers are trained to recognize that individuals have different learning capabilities that aren't really related to intelligence. Millie's sister so far as I knew went through her education without issue, and graduated high school. In the ensuing years, she worked at a local grocery store. Her older brother had some things that probably hindered his learning and these proved to be as big a challenge to his teachers as to him. He ultimately was held back twice and finished his elementary school a year ahead of me. Millie was held back once and we went on to high school at the same time. But sadly, this became another onus for the family to bear. Now on top of having "germs" they were considered. dumb. But it's an odd set of circumstances that little boys couldn't even recognize, much less explain, that allowed them to accept her brother and not her. In this, it's good that the members of the fairer sex don't hold to the same rules. She was much more accepted by the girls especially after she joined my class than she was by the boys.
Everyone is Worthy
For all I've said here, it's not to say that she was the only one shunned by some of us. There was another local family also known as poor, and they experienced many of the same things. And in addition the occasional newcomer to school was subject to the same lack of acceptance until and unless they did something to prove themselves. I think it's like that most places. School continued year in and year out and the situation became just a normal part of life. Millie dealt with what must have been a nearly regular source of pain and disappointment but continued alongside her classmates without giving up. She regularly associated with other girls and did nothing offensive to anyone. Eventually people accept their nonacceptance.
At our small town school, things were different than at most elementary schools today. Ours, like many others during that time ran first through eighth grades, with the concept of junior high, or middle school as it's now known, being the stuff of larger school districts. Another thing we did that you probably won't see in the current times is the playing of sports at recess and free moments during the lunch period. Our sport of choice was softball. Grades from about the fourth on up would choose sides and form a couple of small teams. The older students, in the seventh and eighth grades were allowed to play on a space behind the school building that included a regulation size infield, and a backstop. The left side of the field was bounded by an untidy overgrown treeline that guaranteed the quick stop of a ball in most instances while the right side butted up against the school building itselt. The windows on that side were subject to damage although I don't recall anything ever happening to them.
The two years I played softball on that field are memorable to me and were some of the most fun I had. Something about that age and becoming a teenager brought out the good times. The entire class was allowed to participate in these impromptu games if they desired, and no one could be excluded. It seemed the boys were measurably better at the game than were the girls, and whenever one of the fairer sex came to bat, laughter accompanied by calls of "easy out" filled the air. The short stop and base men would step a few paces closer than normal and the outfield players stepped up to just behind the baselines. Often that turn at bat resulted in a strike out, or a limited base hit Occasionally a double play was made, and the girls side of the teams simply accepted it as a part of the way things were. One day Millie changed that.
Time has obliberated most of the details. All I can remember is the day was seasonably warm, so it was probably springtime not too far from the end of the school year. I don't recall whether I was in the seventh or the eighth grade that year, but I think it must have been the eighth. I don't even remember being on the team that was at bat. I have no recollection of who was pitching, catching or covering first base. All I remember is Millie came to bat. True to form, the other team played a little closer to home and waited for the next easy out. There may have been runners on base or not, I can't remember. I don't know how many pitches were made, nor the balls vs. strikes count. I only remember that at one point a ball was pitched to her, and it must have at least been close to the strike zone. Millie swung and connected with that ball as squarely as anyone on either team ever managed to do. And that ball lauched with a solid thunk from the heart of the bat. It soared in a line drive about ten feet off the ground that put it well beyond the reach of anyone trying to jump up for a catch, only coming back to earth well behind the last line of outfielders about fifty yards from the plate. But even after it landed it continued to bounce, roll, and otherwise make its way to the ditch just short of the street. I'm not sure if it stopped there or went across the pavement, but at that point it was all academic. Millie was back at home plate. The girl that was shunned, avoided, disrespected, and labeled as an "easy out" had shown her mettle. There wasn't a person in the game, myself included, that didn't tell here she had done a fantastic job.
If I Could Talk to Millie
That May, fourteen of us received our diplomas from elementary school and moved into the next stage of life. A decision was made over the summer that nearly shut down the high school where we had anticipated attending only a few months earlier and we were sent to a much larger school in a neighboring town. Social lines were redrawn, new friends were made and old were sometimes kept and sometimes discarded. Petty things like "that family has germs" were no longer important and Millie and her family were free to live life as they chose.
So if I could talk to her, what would I say. You probably ascertain from this article that there was no relationship beyond being classmates. I can't say we were friends, although I think some of the animosity that was ingrained in me and some of my friends had abated by then. So then what would I say? What could I say that would make up for an entire elementary school period of life of pure dislike? Nothing. Nothing I could say would be enough. But what I would say is "I'm sorry." I'm sorry that I allowed others to affect my feelings, thoughts, and attitudes, and I'm sorry I didn't have enough decency to filter what I was told through my parents who would have corrected my line of thinking. I sorry I perpetuated the disdain even far beyond the point where it should have died a natural death. And I'm sorry I collaborated with others of a similar small minded attitude to make her the underdog of our class. Further I would tell her I hoped in spite of the rude unruly group of boys that fate had placed her with in school, that her life went well once all that was passed.
Back to Today
But now, since hearing of the young girl who felt that death was the only way out, I would also tell Millie, that I'm glad she was strong. I'm glad the girl who hit the ball out of the park was strong enough not to let the petty feelings of other people dictate to her who she really was. I only wish the determination and perseverance of this person could be shared by the teens of today.
High School has been a long time ago, and I don't think I've seen Millie since then. A local newspaper published the obituary of her father who died a few years back. There were a few details about the family I only learned of while reading it. The most pertinent was that she married, probably had children and lives not far from where my grandparents lived. Life worked out for her and her family after all. And I'm glad.