Barbara Ann

November 8, 2016

Chicago, Illinois

It’s election day here in America. I voted already, but have neither the time nor desire to watch the coverage of the polls. I’m still busy putting my belongings up for sale. I’ll find out who won tomorrow morning on my way to work.  Unless the country blows up tonight.

At any rate, I’m sharing another story that I composed in the past. This one was penned in 2003. I still remember writing it out longhand with a pencil on notebook paper while at work in a paper mill. And I recall how lost I felt at the time. I’d love to hear how it feels to you after you read it.

Barbara Ann

I don’t exactly recall actually meeting Barbara Ann Hanson.  I was the new kid in the second grade, having moved to this small, Southern community from the northern Midwest.  Everything was so different here.  I had a little difficulty adjusting to the new environment.  I was a little shy.  After some of the other children had checked me out and decided that I was okay, they began to introduce themselves.  Jimmy, Ronald, Arthur, Tara, Shelley, and so on.  “And that over there is Barbara Ann,” I was told.  “She’s got the cooties.”

The little girl I saw was nothing out of the ordinary.  Just a quiet, shy, brown-haired girl with freckles and a simple dress.  She didn’t look up at me.  I didn’t go over to her to introduce myself.  She was Barbara Ann.  She had the cooties.  All I needed to know.

I don’t remember Barbara Ann ever playing with the rest of the kids during recess.  She was always the last one picked in any team sport that we were required to play.  No one wanted her.  No one talked to her.  She was just there.

One of the worst things that could happen to a second grader in Mrs. Williamson’s class was to accidentally touch Barbara Ann.  My classmates and I would go out of our way to walk around her.  “You got Barbara Ann germs!” was the most horrible insult lobbed at another student.

Little Barbara Ann rarely spoke in class.  I’m sure it was just much easier for her that way.  Just coming to school every day under those circumstances must have required courage beyond comprehension.  Were her parents nurturing and supportive at home?  I have no idea.  Evidently, they had been excited enough at her entering this world to name her after a wildly popular Beach Boys tune.  So great was our aversion to Barbara Ann that we hated that piece of music.

What had Barbara Ann done to earn this ostracism?  I didn’t know.  I never questioned it.  Whatever it was, it had happened long before I arrived.  What crime as a kindergartner or first grader could she have committed to deserve it?  Most likely, nothing more offensive than being poorer than most of the others in this cliquish small town.  She wasn’t dirty.  Not unkempt.  Her clothing, though not stylish, was neither threadbare nor ragged.  But her family did not have a lot materially.  Not that this was an uncommon situation in the county.  Most people didn’t have a lot.  I really don’t know what made Barbara Ann’s case different.  I never bothered to find out.  I guess I was just glad that it wasn’t me who was being persecuted.  Being nice to Barbara Ann would have invited the same treatment.  I certainly didn’t want that.

My parents, had they known, would not have approved of my cowardice.  We were reared to treat everyone with respect and kindness.  Which in itself was a rarity in the racially divided area.  I was friendly with the black kids and the white.  The white kids, for the most part, tolerated the black children, and vice versa.  But not Barbara Ann.  She was an outcast.  A leper.

One day, in the fifth grade, Barbara Ann vomited on the floor after our lunch period was over.  I remember laughing when it happened.  The teacher spoke to me rather sharply as she hurried the poor, embarrassed girl to the washroom to clean her up.  Why had Barbara Ann gotten sick?  Was it something she ate?  Was it the flu?  Or, perhaps, was it a case of nerves on edge, caused by years of relentless torture inflicted upon her by children who should have been her friends?  While the teachers certainly did not endorse our treatment of our classmate, neither did they do much to put a stop to it.  This was years before Columbine and the subsequent spotlight shone on the issue of classroom harassment and its consequences.

After seventh grade, my family moved to another town about 30 miles away.  I lost touch with most of my former classmates.  I had no idea what became of Barbara Ann.  I had heard from someone that she had gotten pregnant as a teenager by a boy who also had been somewhat socially unacceptable.  I had no way of knowing if this was the truth, or just another malicious like perpetuated by those who despised her.

As I grew older, I began to feel ashamed of my treatment of Barbara Ann.  She had never done anything to me.  I had just been a follower of the crowd.  A spineless conformist.

I had a little taste of my own of what it was like to be pariah, when during my later teenage years a misunderstanding caused some who I thought were my friends to turn on me.  Memories of that dark period of my life haunt me till this day.  I cannot imagine the pain that it would cause for a little girl too young to understand why the world can be such a cruel place.

Decades later as I composed this record of my shame in my head, it was as if an iron claw gripped my throat.  I actually began to sob.  I wanted so badly to be able to find Barbara Ann, get down on my knees and beg for her forgiveness.  But then, as I thought about it, I realized the futility of such a gesture.  What if I was able to track her down after over 20 years?  What would I find?  What if I discovered a broken-down alcoholic thirty-something woman living in a ramshackle hovel?  What would I say?  “Sorry, Barbara Ann, for my part in bringing you to this condition.”  No.  What if I found an attractive, well-adjusted woman?  Would I really want to remind her of those awful years she went through?  To drag up the past she had worked so hard to forget?

And I think that is what pains me the most.  I will never know how life turned out for Barbara Ann.  I cannot imagine her as an adult.  I can only see the quiet, shy, brown-haired girl whom everyone hated.

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