Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Brenda Sargent
I never knew how old Ruthie really was. She was there when I started first grade, and she was still there when I finished eighth grade. Ruthie wasn’t like everyone else. She didn’t have a real desk, and she didn’t have lessons to do. She just sat at a little table behind the kerosene heater with a shoebox full of broken crayons and a wobbly chair. She was, as we said then, “retarded”. Today we have nicer sounding names for people like Ruthie.
But this was 1956 in a small rural one room school house, with one teacher, eight grades, and two out houses. (Boys and Girls). Ruthie came from a very poor family, and she came to school dirty and smelly. On my very first day of school, I was told by another little girl my age, that Ruthie had “bugs”.
While the other grades were going through the daily rituals of reading, spelling, math and geography, Ruthie sat at her little table and drew the same picture over and over. It was always a house, surrounded by trees and flowers, and a pretty little girl looking out of an upstairs window. There was always a dog sleeping under a tree. Ruthie could draw really good dogs.
Once in a while Ruthie would shuffle up to the teacher’s desk and show her a completed drawing. Ruthie kind of dragged one leg when she walked and she had a crooked back. One hand didn’t have fingers that could waggle, just a clenched fist. She had big yellow horsey teeth and her lips never could seem to close over those teeth.
Sometimes the teacher would tape one of Ruthie’s pictures to the wall, with the drawings done by the rest of us. Ruthie would laugh and bob up and down and hug herself. Her laugh was kind of a donkey bray, and Ruthie wouldn’t stop doing this until Mrs. Ford said, “That’s enough Ruthie!”…then Ruthie would shuffle back to her table.
At recess, the little boys played on one side of the white frame school house, and the girls on the other. The BIG boys would climb over a fence and play baseball in a farm pasture, and the big GIRLS wouldn’t play anything at all, they just sat on their sweaters under trees and chattered away like birds. But the LITTLE GIRLS played a game called “Buggy Ruthie”.
One of us would tag Ruthie to “get her bugs”. Then we would run around screaming and trying to give the bugs to someone else. Once “infected” you had to get rid of the bugs before the bell rang, or keep them until the next recess. IF you managed to tag someone else, THEY got the bugs and you became immune. Ruthie would hobble along, trying to keep up in her limpy way, and braying her donkey laugh….she didn’t know any better.
I kind of felt sorry for Ruthie. I thought we should play a nicer game, but I held my tongue about it lest I be shunned by my first society. I forgave myself by telling myself that Ruthie was having fun and she didn’t really know that we were making fun of her.
One day, just before Noon hour, Mrs. Ford announced that Teddy Latham had forgotten to bring his lunch. She hoped everyone would share a little bit of their lunch so that Teddy would not go hungry. I gave Teddy an oatmeal cookie. Someone else gave him some carrot sticks that they probably didn’t want anyways. But Ruthie did something we had never seen before. She shuffled over to Teddy’s desk, and put her peanut butter sandwich in front of him. Ruthie brought a peanut butter sandwich every single day. It was never wrapped, just carried inside a dirty paper sack. Teddy didn’t even glance at the sandwich but I did.
I could see some grime from Ruthie’s fingers on the white bread. Ruthie shuffled back to her table and Teddy crunched carrot sticks like they were the best thing in the world, and the whole classroom was dead quiet except for Teddy’s crunching. I was just wondering if Mrs. Ford would make Teddy eat that sandwich, when she interrupted my thoughts by saying it was time for everyone to go outside to play.
I carried my sandwich with me, because I’d been too interested in what Ruthie and Teddy were doing to even taste it.
I saw Teddy come out, drink from the water barrel, and then hop over the fence to play baseball. My friends were playing on the swings, and Ruthie had not come out at all. I looked around and saw Mrs. Ford come out, carrying an orange and some papers to correct.
I went back into the school house and had to wait for my eyes to get used to the dark. Mrs. Ford always closed all the blinds during noon recess. But I saw Ruthie’s crooked little shape standing near the trash basket so I went over to see what she was looking at. There, on top of the crumpled up papers, was Ruthie’s sandwich. Not even one bite taken out of it. Ruthie was just standing there, staring at it with tears rolling down her cheeks.
I reached down into the trash and tried to hand her sandwich back to her, but she just stood there, so I put it back. Then, I offered her my own baloney sandwich, still not even tasted, and she just stood there. I just wanted her to stop crying. I’ll never know what made me do it, but I tossed my uneaten sandwich into the trash on top of hers.
We both stood there just looking at the sandwiches until Mrs. Ford came in to raise the window shades and get her bell. I went back to my desk and Ruthie went back to her table.
The next day was the last day of school. Ruthie didn’t come, probably because it was only a half day and all we did was clean out our desks and get our report cards. Ruthie didn’t get report cards. When I opened my desk that morning, there on top of my books, was a picture from Ruthie. It was the same one she always drew, with the house, the flowers, and the dog sleeping under a tree. But this one had TWO little girls looking out of the upstairs window.
“Oh Ruthie…why didn’t I have the courage to be your friend? Why did I crumple your picture and hide it under a rock on my way home from school? Why, when school started again in the Fall, did we still play the Buggy Ruthie game?”
I don’t know what became of Ruthie. Along with my friends, I went on to high school, marriage, children, career and retirement. That little white frame school house was torn down and replaced with a modern brick building a long time ago. It seems more than a lifetime ago that we played the Buggy Ruthie game on the green grassy lawn beside that white frame schoolhouse. But now and then, Ruthie comes into my thoughts. I still try to comfort myself by telling myself that Ruthie didn’t know the difference. Ruthie was retarded, she didn’t know we were being cruel. And then I think of that day, and the sandwich and the picture she drew for me. And I think…….just maybe…..she did.