Based on a true story, of my dad
by Steven R Malikowski
Her pupils were small. They seemed to pull her eyes forward, toward him.
Elroy looked down and scanned his shoes. The leather was scuffed and brown, typical for a schoolboy. Inches in front, her shoes pointed toward his. They were polished and black, typical for a teacher. His eyes shifted around the old wooden floor. She still said nothing.
On his left, the rest of the class sat in straight rows. None of them spoke or whispered. And to Elroy, it felt like they didn’t dare move.
His gaze wandered up her black gown and paused at the gold cross. It glimmered against the gown and hung over her heart. His thoughts wandered to his mom. She showed so much respect for the cross and the nuns who always wore one. Something higher moved, just a little. He glanced up but stopped short of her eyes, paused at her neck, and saw veins pulsing.
The room stayed so silent that he could hear her take a deep breath. He suspected she would speak soon in her angry voice. It still sounded calm, but it was a little louder, faster, and clearer.
“Show me your wrists,” she ordered.
He had as much courage as other lively kids in seventh grade, so he didn’t scare easily. He lifted his arms, held his wrists out, and glanced at them. They shook a little. The left one still had bruises from last time. Elroy hoped she’d leave that wrist alone.
He quickly looked into her eyes to show he was sorry. He opened his eyes more and lifted his eyebrows, trying harder to apologize. Her expression didn’t change.
Still staring at Elroy, she raised the ruler higher than before, almost to her eyes. He looked passed her. Over her right shoulder, a cross hung on the wall. Elroy’s mom had hung a similar cross on his bedroom wall. Over the nun’s left shoulder, he saw a picture of FDR, the president. Elroy admired FDR’s phrase, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” He looked into FDR’s eyes and tried to shed some fear. Elroy didn’t want to react, didn’t want to look weak in front of the class.
Still looking in FDR’s eyes, a blur appeared in an arc. He gritted his teeth and heard a strong slap.
His eyes went wide while a shock burst through his body—from his left wrist. More slaps and shocks quickly followed. “Agh!” He pulled the wrist to his chest and leaned forward. When the pain faded, he felt ashamed. The entire class just saw him crumble, saw him weak.
“Stand straight, young man!”
“Now, tell the class why I had to do this.”
“I, I,” he paused and tried harder to speak. “I, la, laf, laughed.” Weeks ago, he started stuttering after Sister Kolinski told him to write with his right hand. The bruises on his left wrist came after she caught him writing with his left.
“Don’t look at me! Look at them—tell them what you did, not me.”
Before turning to the class, he shut his eyes for a moment since that sometimes stopped the stuttering.
“What are you waiting for?”
He slowly turned toward the class, gazed at the floor, and felt weak, even too weak to stutter.
“When did you laugh?”
“When Sister Kolinski was talking.”
“Will you ever do that again?”
“Good, now return to your seat.”
He walked away from the front of the room. Later that day, Elroy walked away from school, caressed his left wrist, and looked at his bruises. The ones from last week were dark blue. The new ones were red. He couldn’t touch them. It would hurt too much, maybe even bleed.
“Hey Elroy, how’re you do’n?” asked his friend Henry.
Elroy stopped caressing his wrist but kept looking at it. “M, m, my….”
His face tightened up, and in frustration, he smacked his left fist into his right palm. The wrist hurt, but he didn’t care.
Elroy pointed to his mouth, his face still tight.
“OK, your stuttering’s getting bad again.”
Elroy nodded, his jaw clenched.
“Try taking some deep breaths.”
Elroy rolled his eyes, quickly took two long breaths, and spoke, “My mo, mo, Agh!” He smacked his left fist into his right palm again.
“You only took two breaths. Try three, slow ones.”
Elroy sighed, took the long breaths, and tried speaking again. “M-my, mom, ih, ih, is, Agh!”
“OK, how about if you write it?”
Elroy rolled his eyes again.
“Ain’t nothing else work’n, and you can use your left hand.”
Elroy looked around and pointed to a brick wall around the next corner.
Elroy pointed to the same wall again, his face tight with determination.
“Oh, you want to go over there and write, so nobody can see.”
Elroy rapidly nodded and walked forward fast.
“That’s a good idea.” Henry caught up to him. “No use get’n ruler-beat again for writing with the wrong hand.”
The boys walked around the corner. Elroy walked faster and turned again into an alley.
“You don’t have to go this far down the alley. Ain’t nobody going to see us.”
Elroy kept walking, and without facing his friend, he waved him forward. He stopped by a large trash can and sat behind it, where nobody could see. He opened his notebook and wrote hard and fast with his left hand. When Henry sat next to him, Elroy held the notebook in front of Henry.
He read it aloud. “My mom’s going to be mad when she sees my wrist.”
Henry shrugged. “You’re probably right. My Dad whooped me hard the last time he saw bruises on my wrist. He kept telling me that Catholic School costs him a lot of money, so I better not mess up.”
Elroy pulled the notebook back and wrote more. “I don’t get it. We both have to work, so our families have enough money to get by. But our parents pay for Catholic school.” He showed Henry the note.
“I know it’s stupid, but everybody goes to Catholic school.”
Elroy shook his head and wrote, “Not everybody. There is a public school.”
“Yeah, but that’s for other kids, like Swedes or Germans. We’re Polish.”
Elroy slowly looked forward and some words softly came out. “I, I thought we wh, were Am-American.”
“Of course, but that doesn’t change anything. Polish kids go to Catholic School, even poor kids. We can’t get away from that.”
More soft words came out. “Ya, you thought about go, go, going away once.”
“Oh, you mean run’n away.”
Elroy looked at Henry and nodded.
“But you din’t want to, said your family needed you.”
Elroy looked away and spoke slow. “They d, do need me, b, b, but ….” He wrote again. “This is getting real hard. The nuns get mad if I laugh at school. Mom gets mad when they get mad, and she takes my pay-check as soon as I get it.”
“I know. It’s the same for me, and that’s why I wanted to run away.”
“We talked about this before. If you run away, they don’t need to pay for no school. You’ll save them money.”
Elroy shook his head and wrote, “They already paid for this year, and Dad doesn’t make enough.”
“Elroy, they’ll be OK. They’re used to liv’n on a little money. We all are.”
“They’ll b, be m, mad.”
“I can’t figure out why ya want to keep help’n your parents. They beat ya almost as much as mine and give ya noth’n back from your pay.”
“Th, They’re still g, good to me.”
Henry sighed, looked away from Elroy, and said nothing for several seconds. “How about if you send them money? Factory jobs in Minneapolis pay real good, so you’d have money left over.”
“Ca, could I, d, do that?”
“’Course ya could. One of my uncles just got to boot camp. He sends my sister money every month.”
“Ma, maybe that ca, could work.”
“Are you say’n you want to run away?”
Elroy paused, stared at the wall in front, and nodded slowly.
“Are you sure?” Henry asked with a firm voice. “If we go, I want to go soon, like tonight. I’m tired of get’n beat and work’n hard for noth’n.”
“Da, does it, ha, have to b, be tonight?”
“Tonight! I’m tired of it all, but I need to know you’re sure.”
Elroy looked forward, gazed at his left wrist, and nodded again.
“You need to say it, Elroy. Ya can’t back out on me. I ain’t hop’n no train to Minneapolis on my own.”
Elroy remembered Sister Kolinski’s face when she used her angry voice. He didn’t want to see that again. He looked into his friend’s eyes. His words were soft yet firm. “I want to go, Henry. I’m not scared.”