Many of my friends have distinct memories of being in elementary school. My memories, for the most part, are hazy at best or quite unpleasant.
Kindergarten’s only memory is making a clay candlestick, jumping over it, and singing “Jack Be Nimble.” I’m not any clearer when it comes to first grade. Sherwood Elementary School in Phenix City, Alabama. The only things I can recall are soiling my pants and walking home, and my first fire drill. I was terrified as I saw children running down the hall in a large pack; where was Bobby Brady when we needed him?
My world changed when I went to second grade. There was a Catholic school in our town that had the most colorful playground I had ever seen. I wanted to play on that playground. My parents enrolled me in Saint Patrick Elementary. I had to learn not to say “yes ma’am” but rather “yes, sister.”
The sum memory of second through fourth grade is walking around the playground asking the sky to snow and playing on the teeter-totter with Kim Norris, who weighed precisely as much as I did. We would spend our entire recess balancing on that equipment and pretending we were magic.
Fifth grade is where things started to get a bit dicey. Our class had the distinction of scaring off any lay teacher (any person who was not a nun). Our reputation was absolutely correct. I remember getting picked on in fifth grade. I was the skinniest kid in the school, had red hair, and had absolutely no ability when it came to team sports (I was always the last kid picked except for Kim Norris at times.) The best girl athlete was Kathy Randall, who unfortunately died years later in high school.
The bullying grew in intensity from there. Sixth grade was slightly better because we had a teacher, Sister Francis Mauer, who I remember being 6 feet tall (she wasn’t.) She had an underbite that made her look like she was going to eat us all up. She was a very kind woman who is still in the ministry and stood up to my bullies. At some point during sixth grade however, my parents transferred me out at my request. I was sent to Phenix City Junior High School. I only remember one teacher, Mrs. Pepper. Mrs. Pepper was the first Black teacher that I ever had. We lived in the deep South, and there were not many teachers of color that I remember. On the first day in class, Mrs. Pepper called role. When she got to me, she said, “Ronald Hamilton?”. I remember not responding “here” at first (we had to answer “present”) because no one ever called me by my first name. When I finally acknowledged that I was indeed Ronald, I asked the teacher to call me by my middle name, Perry. She responded, “Thank you (pause),” Ronald.” That gave rise to people calling me Ronald McDonald. I was not happy about that.
In eighth grade, I got into a fight with a kid named Bruce. He had been harassing me for quite some time and I finally had it. I closed my eyes tightly and punched the bully in the stomach just as the teacher came out. She sent me to the principal, who congratulated me for standing up for myself.It was around this time that we started attending Evangel Temple Assembly of God in Columbus, Georgia. I started carrying my Bible with me to school, pretty sure I never actually read it, but I did use it for self-defense once. I recall standing out in front of the school when some kids came up and threatened to hit me. I held my Bible to my chest and said, “you wouldn’t hit a guy with a Bible would you?” It worked. I guess that’s why they call it the “Sword of the Spirit.”
When I was at St. Patrick, I befriended a kid named Flint Sharp. Flint was good at everything. He was a standout athlete and always earned trophies for his excellence in every sport. I remembered him being a bully. The crazy thing is he remembered us being good friends. He reminded me about him coming to my birthday parties and swimming in our pool. I had no recollection of that.
A few years ago, Flint’s daughter competed in beauty pageants, and that brought their family out here to California. Flint had already sent me a friend request on Facebook, and I remember at the time really wrestling with if I should accept or not. At one point during my visit to Columbus, I looked his address up and went and knocked on his door. He did not answer. I don’t know what I was planning on doing. I think it was some noble endeavor to forgive him.
Flint contacted me a few years back, and let me know he was going to be in town. We decided to make a day of it and drive around Hollywood before dropping him off at the Rose Bowl. As we were driving the minivan on the 101 freeway, Flint asked, “What do you remember about me in elementary school?” I plucked up my nerve and said, “Flint, you were a bully! You did horrible things to me” He looked at me like I was from another planet. “I never did anything like that.” I was befuddled.
I had totally remembered him as the guy who humiliated me in eighth grade. I remember being in class with a teacher out of the room. The class became very loud and obnoxious. Flint, the way I remembered it, jumped on my desk and shoved his crotch into my face as he called the class to attention. I was devastated. As I relayed this story, he looked at me, puzzled. “We didn’t go to the same school in eighth grade! You transferred out.” Then I came to the realization that it could not have been Flint who had done that. I had been projecting this horrible memory on him for all those years. I asked him for forgiveness, and we had a good laugh.
A few years later, Flint was killed in a head-on collision with a semi-truck. I am so glad that I was able to find reconciliation with him. He was an honorable man and a person of faith. Golden Acres Baptist Church lost a fantastic volunteer. He touched the lives of many young athletes.
I will never forget the lesson I learned that day. Don’t trust your memory completely. Your mind can play tricks on you. Ask God to give you focused memories and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you reconnect with friends.