One of my English teachers in twelfth grade told us point blank that if high school made up the best years of our lives, we probably couldn’t expect to have much of a life. I think several teachers said this in some way, but the one I remember actually uttering the words was Mrs. Powers.
When she let this idea slip out, it felt as if she’d just ripped the veil off of a well kept secret. I was enamored by the fact an adult would let classified information like this just spill out. If these weren’t supposed to be the best years of our lives, why were John Hughes movies so fucking popular? If these weren’t the best years of our lives who was going to tell all the football players and cheerleaders their lives were destined to be crap, seeing as how delighted and fulfilled they made life seem as they toilet papered each other’s houses while riding around in cars their Dads bought for them. As empowered as I felt by Mrs. Powers’ words, I sure wasn’t gonna be the one to sidle up to any of their lockers and say, hey, why don’t you invite me to that kegger seeing as in about ten years you’ll have realized I am worthy of being acknowledged as a human being.
I’ve been thinking of Mrs. Powers a lot as I listen to famous people’s Youtube posts about how life will get better. The posts make me both gleeful and uncomfortable.
I was not bullied. I was one of those kids who was benign enough to occupy the outskirts of many social groups enough so that I could not really be considered popular, but I was definitely not chosen as a target, either.
But Sarah Berkowitz was.
Sarah Berkowitz was part of my combined third and fourth grade class at the Quaker school. And she was odd. Or, even in this community that prided itself on being opening and diverse and warm, this girl stuck out as poison ivy personified.
Which is just the sort of person my mother, the not yet social worker, loved for our family to reach out and embrace. The woman was no joke. She’d done it before with Chris Ziembab, the class spaz, in second grade when I was in public school. He'd been kept back twice already which really just indicated to me that even his twin sister had had more than her share of him in the womb and there was reason she'd left him in the dust. My mother even made it a point to bring that kid along with us to Walden Pond to go swimming, since he told her he loved it there. The key to this exchange was he told my mother. He'd figured out the way "in" was through her, not me. At his house one afternoon I discovered his love extended beyond the innards of Concord when, during one of his freak outs, his mom calmed him by saying “Kirsten won’t love you back if you can’t control yourself.” Wait, wait, wait, my seven year old self said. This cat is crazy. My association with him is ridiculous and my mother is completely to blame, with her take -in -the -strays way of behaving all over the place. From then on I made sure I threw my own tantrums when Mrs. Ziembab called for me to come over. My mother never realized the better punishment would have been to cart me over to the Zeimbab's than to make me stay home with my little sisters.
So in third grade, when she heard my friend Michelle and I giggling about Sarah Berkowitz, she was in the mood for laying out the free cat chow, since it had been a long time since she’d gotten to go into very embarrassing parent mode. And to be sure, these were the nervous giggles of the only black girl and the only Korean girl just happy to be the gigglers, not the giggled at.
Nevertheless, when she heard them she sprang in to action.
First she called Sarah Berkowitz’s mother.
“…OH. OKAY. I CAN DO THAT.” My mother’s voice was booming in the way it did when she was slightly uncomfortable. She hung up the phone and my heart raced. Could she work that fast? Could Sarah Berkowitz be on her way to our house that quickly? If so, what might work best as a deterrent? A sudden stomach ailment or a spontaneous fight with the baby wherein I knocked her down the stairs or something? Not enough to really hurt her, I could catch her, but enough to stop the madness.
“Is she coming over here?”
My mother consulted the student phonebook again.
“Her parents are divorced,” she said in a hushed and excited voice. Despite considering herself more open than the average wife and mother on the block, divorce! was still a predicament that was out of the ordinary for our particular block back then, especially if any kids in such a family hadn’t gone to college yet.
My mother got a hold of Sarah Berkowitz’s dad, who was the one who would have her over the weekend, when my mother was proposing what is now referred to as a playdate but which at that precise moment in time I was thinking of as a few select hours in the pit of darkest hell.
We went to the movies.
Something animated that I can’t remember because the entire time I was wondering if someone from school might be in the theatre, too.
It didn’t matter because Sarah Berkowitz seemed more interested in my sister.
And that felt right to me. Stay away. No sense in forming a friendship. What happens in the Burlington Mall Cineplex Stays in the Burlington Mall Cineplex.
After the movie we went back to my house, where whichever parent who hadn’t dropped her off was going to pick her up.
I got the impression Sarah’s parents weren’t too keen on each other, but it was just a hunch.
It turned out, from what I could tell after the movie, that maybe Sarah Berkowitz liked some of the same things as my sister and I. Maybe. It was hard to tell for sure because when we got home, Sarah Berkowitz slid herself under our large dining room table and wouldn’t come out.
“PLAY!” My mother commanded.
“I’m trying,” I said under my breath, so as not to call attention to the obvious, which was that Sarah was coming in a close second to Chris Ziembab as one of the worst comer overs in the universe.
“May 21st!” Sarah Berkowitz called out from under the table, which was draped with white lace and plastic. “Let me think, let me think: November 21st! NOVEMBER 21ST!!!!!”
My sister Kerri peered out from under the table with her large, glassed in eyes. “It’s my half birthday!”
“Let me do yours!” Sarah Berkowtiz practically screamed.
“Then Martin Luther King's?”
Kerri and I looked at each other. This was obviously commentary on us being black.
“Why don’t you come out of there?” I said it the way my mother told us we were only embarrassing ourselves when we acted out in Stop and Shop.
But she didn’t.
Under there Sarah Berkowitz stayed until the other parent came and got her.
As our parents talked, as Sarah Berkowitz got her coat on, I squeezed out, under my breath: “Don’t tell anyone about coming over here. It’s a secret.”
Going under people’s tables is weird. Calling out Martin Luther King’s half birthday is also weird. Over my dead body was she gonna let it spill out that she’d been inside my house or with me at the movies.
A little part of me felt badly I could not be nice, but a larger part of me realized what little popularity I had was being severely compromised by Sarah Berkowitz standing in my living room while our parents shot the breeze. Why was my mother being so nice to these people anyway?
Monday Morning Share Time came and went and Sarah said nothing.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that that little part of me began to start to feel something more than extreme fear.
Nobody liked Sarah Berkowitz. Her hair was stringy and dishwater brown, he skin pale with green veins around her eyes and forehead. She wasn't cute or funny. She was sad and annoying.
As the year progressed, girls in our class began to talk more openly about just how much Sarah Berkowtiz got under their skins. She had to be stopped. From what, we weren’t sure. And how? We still weren’t sure. But soon.
The plan became that each of us would bring in to school a little of that very cheap little girls perfume drug stores used to sell. Michelle and I had the Holly Hobby kind. During snack it would be so easy to pour little bits of our perfume into Sarah Berkowtiz’s unsuspecting paper cup of milk.
And it was.
Although I never brandished mine—I believe my mother saw me put my bottle in my school bag and told me the glass would break and to leave it in my jewelry box and why was I bringing perfume to school anyway only big ladies wear it so put it back, I watched in sick fascination as more than one girl snuck out hers and poured teeny amounts into Sarah’s milk.
I watched, too, as the cup sat there on the table, waiting.
“That milk doesn’t look very good,” I said.
Sarah Berkowitz didn’t seem to care.
But she listened.
And she didn't drink that milk.
And I was relieved.
At not only the fact she did not die by ingesting Holly Hobby perfume, but at what I realized I had after all, after the movies and my ugly threat: that my conscience was not as thin and measly as I thought, that somewhere, although I did not want my mother calling either Berkowitz household in the near future, I was not, in my eight year old mind, a murderer, and I did have some compassion for Sarah Berkowtiz, whose parents pulled her out of our school after that year, and we never saw again.
When I mention Sarah Berkowitz now my mother always says “that poor girl, her parents going through that divorce like that, she couldn’t even come out from under our dining room table that time, that poor, poor girl.”
So this week I have been thinking about the Sarah Berkowitzes, the people other people think it is okay to “do things to”. And I think about the capacity for cruelty, and my mother, and how she acts as though we are each capable of helping better come sooner than later.
To each Sarah Berkowitz, I hope your better comes sooner.