I was 9 years old and I’d never seen a dead body, or even ridden a bike, but then, my ‘I’d nevers’ were an endless list. They would fall one by one gradually with the years to come. This year in the third grade, one of my ‘I’d nevers’ came to a premature end. This was the year I’d have my very own brand new pair of shoes. Everything I’d ever worn before was hand-me-downs from my older brothers or picked out from a second-hand store. How I got my new shoes, was unforgettably wonderful.
My first two years in elementary were just awful. I was a small, Mexican boy in my class in Torrington, Wyoming. I couldn’t speak English at all in first grade. The other children stared at me and giggled when I tried to speak. It embarrassed me to the point that I regressed slowly, shamed, ridiculed and outcast those first two years. I dressed sloppily, my hand-me-down pants were always too big, and my shirts too long. I tried to make things fit but I couldn’t. If it weren’t for my belt holding me together, I think I would have fallen apart. My old shoes had holes in their soles that my father patched up as best he could. He would cut out cardboard inserts for me that eventually disintegrated with the wet, slushy, snow. Children made fun of me and my tortilla tacos that I took for lunch. I was always excluded from their games and my teachers didn’t seem to care.
I knew my place when I started third grade. I took my rejection quietly, and at age 8 I sank further into a solitary heaviness and its tentacles that wrapped around my small body, consuming me little by little, taking me down. I sat by myself in a dim corner of the cafeteria, ate my tacos from inside my brown paper bag, trying to hide them. When I finished, I drank water from the fountain outside. I never participated in class, too afraid to raise my hand and make a fool of myself. I was skinny, undernourished and small.
Vernon, a loud, husky, red-haired, freckled-faced bully picked on me and pushed me around while the others laughed, probably glad, better me, than them.
It was at this point that my third-grade teacher noticed me and took me under her wing. She was different, she was very nice to me. She was my savior. She always took care to make sure that I understood what she was teaching. It was like she taught the other children through me. She noticed how and why I sat alone during lunch so she bought me lunch cards for the year and immersed me into the group. I was soon enjoying wonderful hot food and delicious, wholesome, fresh milk.
She took me by the hand one day as we walked together down a few shady, tree-lined blocks to a shoe store nearby, where she bought me my first pair of brand new shoes. She even bought me a small tin of wonderful smelling Shinola so that I could take care of my new shoes. Walking back with her, with my old beat up shoes in their coffin box, I could not take my eyes off my feet.
From then on, the children accepted me, I participated in class and Vernon and I became best buddies. He and I were the best tether ball players in class.
I don’t remember if I thanked my teacher, but I have a feeling her reward was being proud of me and seeing how I responded socially and academically to her act of kindness. I’d like to think it was an act of love.
I admire and applaud all of you, especially my Facebook friends, who have chosen this noble profession, made noble by your dedication and love.
By Rudy Ruiz-Arce