In second grade, Ruthie was already what adults euphemistically called “big for her age.” The year was 1972, but Ruthie wore ’50s-era cat’s eye glasses with white frames. Bushy dark eyebrows slashed a stark unbroken line across the wide expanse of her forehead. Her teeth were crooked and yellow, and her pungent body odor became ample fodder for “Stinky Ruthie” jokes on the playground.
Many recess hours at Jefferson Elementary were spent playing “run away from Ruthie.” I was small for my age and didn’t run very fast, so Ruthie loved me. She’d sidle up to me in the lunch line and offer me her Hostess Cupcake, if I’d let her sit by me. I’ve always been a sucker for chocolate, and Ruthie mistook my fondness for cupcakes for friendship.
When we played Red Rover in P.E. no one would call her name, but often I’d think about those chocolate treats and call Ruthie right over. “No! Cindyrella!” the boys would yell at me. And after a while, I stopped calling her over.
The turning point came at story time one chilly fall morning. Mrs. Pendergast was reading “Charlotte’s Web.” We sat in a circle and Ruthie squeezed in next to me. Everyone else moved away. The class sat in rapt silence as Mrs. Pendergast read how Charlotte had written the word “humble” in her web. That silence was fractured by the unmistakable ripping sound of flatulence, and immediately a foul, sulfuric stench permeated our little reading circle.
Groans and guffaws erupted. “Ewww, Ruthie!” my classmates howled. Ruthie’s face turned a mottled scarlet. “It wasn’t me,” she protested. She looked around desperately and then pointed a shaking finger. “It was Cindy!” I sat stunned. No amount of chocolate was worth this kind of betrayal. Mrs. Pendergast ordered the windows opened, and I scooted as far away as I could get from Ruthie.
After school she tried to walk with me. I refused to look at her. “I’m sorry,” she said, and her blue eyes appeared watery behind the thick lenses. I didn’t speak, and as soon as I got to the crosswalk, I ran faster than I’d ever run before. The next day I ignored her offer of Hostess treats and sat at the table with the cool girls who had Barbie lunchboxes. We moved the following year, and Ruthie slipped into the dim recesses of memory, along with penmanship lessons and long division.
She remained a squinting shadow in my second-grade class photo, until a video clip from the television program “Britain’s Got Talent” appeared in my inbox. I clicked the link and watched the amazing performance of Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old, unemployed Scottish woman who lives alone with her cat, Pebbles. The never-married, and admittedly never-kissed frump, wowed the judges during her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables.”
British tabloids report that Boyle was bullied as a child because of a disability and is still the target of children’s taunts in her village. For her television debut she committed the unforgivable fashion faux pas of wearing dark hose with light-colored shoes. The Daily Mail called her a “middle-aged hairy angel.” Apparently, her brows have never seen a pair of tweezers.
But all I could think as I watched the video was, “That’s Ruthie!” Indeed, this dowdy Scot looks like the middle-age version of a second-grade Ruthie, minus the glasses.
From the first bars of the song, Boyle held the audience captive. Her voice, steady and true, conveyed the deep pathos of the lyric “And still I dream he’ll come to me, that we will live the years together. But there are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather …”
And 37 years too late, I wept for my childhood unkindness. Perhaps Ruthie outgrew her ugly-duckling phase and blossomed into a swan. Maybe, she too, can sing like an angel. All I know is that in a time when she needed a friend, I ran away and never looked back.
As I watched the video again, I said a prayer for Ruthie. Wherever she is, I wish her well and I hope life has been kinder to her than her second-grade classmates were.