Honey blonde hair matted around Chloe’s hesitant smile of unbrushed teeth. Chloe spoke so quietly I doubt but a few heard a word she said during the few months she lived in the school district. I remember her as the kid everyone teased or ignored — one of the invisible students. Yet, she is one of the people from my past that I wonder — whatever happened to them?
When the bus stopped in front of the worn down barn and farm house where Chloe lived, the raucous games of the high schoolers ceased. They turned to stare at the parade of children with matted, uncombed hair, mismatched lumps of woolen coats, mittens and numbed looks. Like peas in a pod, they silently ascended the steps of the bus. They did not expect anyone to save them a seat. They just looked for any spaced begrudged them when a kid shoved over because every rider must be seated. The poverty side of life had beaten the kids down and robbed them of the joy and enthusiasm other bus riders knew.
The rented farm did not feed them. The farm house only warmed them for a season. They stayed just long enough to reveal the way of kids from the painted farms, the kids whose dads – and sometimes moms – had a job in the city.
Chloe’s family scraped by in every way possible. Even the teenage brother seemed too stunned with the harsh realities of life to develop a tough guy attitude. No one invited them over for the night. They bore the brunt of subtle jokes and silent ostracization.
I saw it. I felt it. I knew it. Chloe often sat with me on the bus. We had the same teacher in fifth-grade. Every day the teacher walked around to check that his students had washed their hands and brushed their teeth. When I forgot to brush, I mumbled a humiliated “no.” She turned her hands over and said, “yes,” even though her teeth belied that statement every time.
She may have been as mismatched in her clothing, as the fictional Pippy Longstocking, but she lacked Pippy’s joie de vivre. I guess Chloe lived with her parents, I don’t remember ever seeing them. I just saw her those few months that we rode the bus together.
And I saw time and again the kids whose parents sent them to school in clean, fresh outfits lording it over her as they did other kids in less fortunate circumstances, including Gloria, the oldest daughter in another family. Smirking fifth-graders piled up their trays and signaled to the neat but humbly dressed girl to carry their trays to the dishwashing window. And she did — with a smile. The others enjoyed the service and their secret joke — they never intended to return the favor, the smile or invite her to sit with them.
Gloria’s family had a history in the area. I asked my mother once about my classmate’s family. Mom simply said that Gloria’s mother had been much better off, came from a nicer family, but had met and married the wrong guy — a man who drank. She had made a mistake and she and her stairstep family of children lived with the consequences.
My frequent seat partner on the bus through the years was another girl in my class, Naomi. She wore the fashionable poofy spring coat of the time. She arrived at school clean, combed and brushed. She played in the band. She smiled and others responded and asked her to join them.
Once she missed school for a while.
No one explained her absence. And when she showed up, no one asked any questions. We knew why she had not come. The fading green bruises on her face told a story without words.
The bruises faded. It never happened again during the years I lived there, but the memory remains of her silent abuse along with the miserable neglect of the transient child and the struggle against poverty of the other. Just three girls, I knew a very long time ago.
Sometimes I stop and think of them and wonder whatever happened to them.
(Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times. E-mail her at email@example.com)