From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1943 –
Justice Is a Group Affair
By Eva Willes Wangsgaard
Judith Rawson sat on a rag rug on the summer grass, wrapped in the warm, fruity smells of yellow roses, and thought about people and life. It had been long since she had had time to sit and think. But now the examinations were over, and she was graduated, and there was a whole glorious afternoon for her very own.
She looked down at her graduation dress made of white lawn with a yoke of tucks and insertion and ruffles of Valenciennes lace; and she remembered how nearly she had come to not having it. That made her recall Edna Silver and Edna’s courageous words, and the beauty of those words caught in her throat and tightened her chest; and the whole school year, just past, began to unfold in little scenes like stereopticon views.
There was Crossburg the day of the examinations. The eighth graders from every town in the county met in the Crossburg Central schoolhouse in three crowded rooms, which had been thrown into one large hall by sliding the great doors which made up their walls.
Judith sat in the room at the south where the warm May sun crept through the Venetian blinds. When she looked for Margie, her sister, she found her in the center of the middle room, but no matter how she craned her neck, she couldn’t see her brother, Artie. He must be in the third room, and it was around a corner so that only a triangle of it was visible from where Judith sat.
Every student was tense with excitement. Margie looked calm, except for that habit she had of wiping her perfectly dry lips with her handkerchief; and the pink in her cheeks was too bright. She’d be all right, though, and so would Artie whose thoughts were always slow, but exact.
Judith left off thinking of her brother and sister and looked around. Then a teacher appeared and began writing questions on the board, and Judith bent to her work of writing answers on the paper that lay on her desk which had been provided for this purpose.
All day the examinations went on. A large staff of teachers corrected papers as fast as they were handed in, so by nighttime everyone knew whether or not he had passed.
To know was a relief, though some of the kids failed and cried, or even got hysterical. Judith turned her eyes away from that memory. She knew some of them, and it hurt to remember.
But there were happier scenes. A girl from Hillsdale got such high marks that they called her a valedictorian, and she gave a speech at the exercises. Maybe on some other graduation day Judith could do that for her class.
And here were her white lawn dress and her hat of white chiffon pleated into a bandeau covered with pink forget-me-nots instead of the blue ones Margie wore. But she almost hadn’t got them …
Ever since she had entered Mr. Peterson’s eighth grade, she had felt baffled. Mr. Peterson didn’t believe in special promotions. Helen Tanner was somehow an exception. Maybe that was because Mr. Peterson taught her the year before; he had been promoted with the class. Helen was dainty and pretty, too, with her auburn curls and her gray eyes that smiled flatteringly up at him from under long, dark, curled lashes. Besides, she was a whole year older than Judith.
“What do they think I’m running here? A kindergarten?” Mr. Peterson was tall and skinny with thin, forward-falling brown hair, and he flipped Judith’s registration card as he spoke.
Judith just stood there fingering the pink ribbon that tied her yellow braids into a swing, and lifted brown eyes to his spiral-like, blue-green ones, which refused to meet hers.
He wasn’t ever openly cross; he just hid behind soft prickles like wild lettuce, so that the damp hand of caution pressed always on her throat.
If she sometimes got too excited and forgot and called out the answer, he would say, “Grown-up people wait their turns. Only babies yell for attention.” Then her report card would read: Deportment Good or Fair. Not once had there been an Excellent or a Very Good the way her studies said.
Father had talked and talked to her about it, but she didn’t know how to change. Father said, “Teachers are always right.”
Last year it had been different, because Mr. Jerome had been kind and wise like Father generally was. Even his hair curled in happy little curls, and his eyes were warm and blue. Last year there had been two classes in one room – one sixth and one seventh grade. Artie had been in the seventh with Mr. Jerome, but Margie had been in another room that was all seventh grade. Judith had been sixth grade then. With two classes in one room there had been more study time, and Judith had found it hard to keep out of mischief.
She had sat in one corner among a group of boys. The daily assignments hadn’t been nearly enough, so she had coached the whole group in arithmetic until they were two months ahead. Then it wasn’t fun any more. Billy, Clyde, and Robert had liked it at first, and they were good sports, too. They didn’t care if Judith was a girl, but worked with her anyway. But they lost interest.
One day Judith had finished the last word in Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, which Mr. Jerome had lent her. There wasn’t a single thing to do. Clyde was whittling a slender stick into a “guinny.”
“Want it, Judy?” he had whispered.
“Thanks. It’s cute.” Judith began to tap the tiny stick with her ruler.
Mr. Jerome had sat down at his desk to check a lesson. Judith had slid into the aisle and had given the toy harder and harder taps. It had leaped and fallen with a small, dropped pencil sound. Suddenly it had gone sailing through the air and had lit, plop, on Mr. Jerome’s book.
Judith had slipped instantly back into her seat and seized a book. Mr. Jerome had picked up the offending toy and had held it before his face.
“A ‘guinny’ is a dangerous plaything, even on the school ground,” he said. He pressed his forefinger up and down on one sharp point. Then, “Here, Judith. Dispose of it.”
If he had pricked her with the “guinny,” Judith couldn’t have been more startled and ashamed, nor could she have jumped more quickly. She had walked to the desk, though, and, taking the “guinny” from his outstretched hand, had dropped it into the wire wastebasket. The incident was closed, and Mr. Jerome hadn’t marked down her report card. He knew how hard she tried to hold herself back.
But afterwards Judith discovered that there were interesting texts in the seventh grade desks and borrowed one often. And she listened to seventh grade discussions instead of getting into trouble.
Even that proved embarrassing, though.
One day when Mr. Jerome was directing a seventh grade geography class he asked, “what article necessary in manufacturing is entirely absent in Brazil?”
The class had sat too still. No hands were raised.
Then up went Judith’s hand.
Mr. Jerome’s kind eyes looked tired. Maybe he was wondering what the child could want now. Maybe he was weary because the seventh graders were unprepared. But he decided to settle Judith first.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Coal,” answered Judith.
Two rows of seventh grade faces came up at once and stared at Judith. Three rows of sixth grade students quit studying and giggled. Judith dropped her hot face on her desk and felt the cool, smooth touch of the maple top.
Mr. Jerome raised his brows. “Where did you learn that?”
“I read it.”
“Well, you’re correct,” he said, and was still for a long moment. Then he went on conducting class.
At promotion time Mr. Jerome had decided harder work would be better for Judith. So he had jumped her into the eighth grade.
But Mr. Peterson didn’t look at things that way. He resented both her energy and her youngness. He resented all of her.
This year all three of the Rawson children were in the same room. Judith hung around Margie too much, but there were no other companions in the room. She missed last year’s kids.
Some of these kids were old – seventeen and eighteen. They stayed at home so often to work in fields and orchards. Artie often stayed home to look after things while Father was away, but Judith and Margie seldom missed a day. So Margie was just right. It was Judith and Artie who were out of place.
And there was Edna Silver who was an orphan and lived with a cross aunt. The other children in the room told tales about how much work she had to do each day before she came to school, and lots and lots of days she didn’t get there at all. Judith had often helped her with lessons at recess, because Judith was often lonely and didn’t know how to mix with these new kids.
Edna learned well, too. Some of the other big girls couldn’t learn even when you tried your hardest, because they couldn’t forget that they were older than you. But Edna wasn’t like that. She thought of the work, not herself, and stuck with Judith no matter how often Judith had to go over a thing. And she was eighteen, too. She was a nice girl, but too old to play with Judith.
Lizzie Shaw was Margie’s playmate – she and Helen Tanner. But Lizzie didn’t want Margie’s little sister along and often made it plain that what she said was not for Judith’s ears. Helen Tanner was all right when she and Judith studied together. But she acted just like Lizzie when it was recess time and she didn’t need her.
School wasn’t nearly so much fun as it had been last year. But Mr. Peterson puzzled Judith more than the pupils did.
When the class was in diagramming, Lizzie, Margie, Helen, and Judith read the text and went ahead almost without trouble. But if they ever got stuck, Mr. Peterson was always busy. It didn’t matter much, though. One of them always found the help they needed by reading the book again.
One day, Mr. Peterson was putting a diagram on the board. He made a mistake. Lizzie’s hand went up. She was like that. Things were never correct or incorrect to Lizzie. They were right or wrong, and must be set straight. So she told Mr. Peterson.
He was quiet and went very pale. Finally, “how would you do it?” he asked.
Lizzie drew the correct diagram. Judith, Margie, and Helen nodded.
Mr. Peterson said, “Well, that’s right, too. Just be careful to have a reason for your diagram.”
Lizzie opened her mouth, then shut it tight and plunked into her seat, and the lesson went on.
There was a lot of work to be done in the eighth grade and Judith liked it, but she wasn’t happy. She felt choked. There were too many ways for Mr. Peterson to show what he thought of special promotion students, like asking Judith if she didn’t need a rest when you could hear the younger students out at recess.
Once after he had said that, Judith stood by the steps not feeling like joining in any of the games at all. Edna Silver had come up and put her arm around Judith’s shoulder. “Don’t let it bother you, Judy,” she said. “You’re all right. Keep right on going. You’re the kind that can. I can’t, but part of me will follow you however far you go. Now run and play.” Judith smiled and ran.
When the report cards for the third term came out, Judith opened hers eagerly. She’d tried to be good, and maybe Mr. Peterson had noticed. But she held it down and stared at the wall. The subjects weren’t so bad. You either got your lessons and passed your examinations with high marks or low, but deportment was different. That was the teacher’s opinion. Now it was lower than ever and stood out like a stump in the snow – P for Poor.
Father would be disappointed and so would Mother. They had said that she couldn’t have a new dress for graduation if she didn’t improve in behavior. It was no use to talk. Teacher was always right. “It didn’t matter how much you learned if you didn’t know how to live,” Father had said.
Judith thought and thought. She could find no reason for such a low mark. She had “called out” a few times, but so many, many times she had succeeded in holding back even when she was the only one who wanted to answer! She guessed Mr. Peterson was right. Kids shouldn’t get ahead of themselves.
Margie would have her new dress now, and Judith would have to wear an old one, if they let her go to the exercises at all.
Still, maybe it was a mistake. Hope struck a small match. It didn’t seem fair, and teachers did sometimes make mistakes in copying, just as students did. She’d go and ask him. Anyway, she might find out what was wrong so that she could improve the last term. If she did, maybe she could have her new dress after all.
But Mr. Peterson wouldn’t notice her. Other children were around his desk, and he kept taking new ones even after Judith was sure that it was her turn.
When she tried to get attention, Mr. Peterson said, “Don’t push like a baby.”
There was nothing to do but wait. She pushed the tears back so that she couldn’t be a baby.
She felt an arm around her and looked up into Edna Silver’s quiet eyes. Edna took Judith’s report card, glanced at it, and handed it back. How long she had been listening and watching, Judith didn’t know. But now she was speaking to Mr. Peterson.
“What’s wrong with Judith’s behavior? I think she’s a good little kid. I’ve learned a lot from her.” She sounded defiant, but she wasn’t. She was just earnest. That was evident by the light in her fine, grey eyes; and something in her voice made Mr. Peterson listen.
Silence stretched like an elastic band between them, then snapped, and Edna continued, “Children are a sacred trust. They have a right to fairness and to understanding.” A change came over her face. “We can’t play favorites. I know one who wouldn’t get such good marks if she didn’t borrow Judith Rawson’s eraser so often during tests.”
Helen Tanner was putting her books into her sack. She gave Edna a swift look, and hurried out of the room with one book still in her hand.
Judith stood fascinated. Mr. Peterson had the same look he had on his face the day Lizzie corrected the diagram. But Edna stood tall on her convictions, and the color flamed high in her cheeks. She wasn’t fighting for Judith alone.
“Ahem! Ahem!” Mr. Peterson cleared his throat, but found nothing to say.
Edna hadn’t finished. “Whether you play fair with Judith or not isn’t just between you and the child. Justice is a group affair, and we older students expect to see justice done.”
Mr. Peterson looked out into the room, then dropped his eyes and went on making little fishes with his pencil on a blotter on his desk.
Judith looked up. Almost every older student in the room stood in a little group in the rear looking at Edna with approving eyes. Artie was among them, straight and tall, with his large blue eyes almost violet with concern, and those crooked little lines above his nose deeper than she had ever seen them.
Judith choked and tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks. The older kids were wonderful! And all this time that she had been concerned only with herself, they had known and cared.
Mr. Peterson cleared his throat again. “Let me see your report card, Judith,” he said.
She gave it to him.
“Why, there’s a mistake here. How is that?”
He used an eraser and a pen and handed the card back. A “G” was written where the “P” had been.
“Oh, thanks!” Judith gulped and ran to her seat. Mr. Peterson looked hard at a book. Edna turned abruptly and walked out of the room, her back a rigid exclamation point of triumph and disgust. Judith caught a glimpse of her face as she turned to close the door. It was grey-white like snow in shadow. The group in the rear broke up, and Judith moved outside, too. No one wanted to talk.
Afterwards the schoolroom was different. Mr. Peterson’s attitude was impersonal, and a whole new world opened wide. There was so much to learn and so little time! Life grew exciting and happy again.
Soon the feeling of expectancy, which was spring, rose on the air; and the hillside, still clothed in the shaggy grass of the autumn before, began to push through the snow. When the windows were open, Judith could hear the first water-song coming up from the sunny side of the bridge where the creek was creeping out of its cold, hard covering and bubbling over with freedom. The linnets alighted in the nearby trees and tossed up their tinkling notes: “Happy greeting! Happy greeting!” And there was a fresh, clean smell in the air as of rain-washed leaves or newly laundered curtains.
Then, suddenly, it was May; the Maypole dance was over, the pasture rolling down toward the creek from the schoolyard fence was warm and green and dotted with brassy little buttons of dandelions, and the final examinations were just around the corner.
Now Judith sat on the summer grass remembering Edna Silver … Justice is a group affair, justice for everybody, and everybody’s concern … Some folks unkind, but more who were selfless and lovable and great … Edna Silver. All these were hers in a wonderful country; and she had thought it was a new dress that mattered, but Edna had known. Her heart was packed to bursting with unformed dreams.