We hadn't yet learned how to write in cursive, so my best friend Lisa and I carefully printed our words with a No. 2 pencil. We took turns writing down the sentences.
"Dear Miss Hanley," we wrote, "you like Kathleen better than you like us. That isn't fair."
Miss Hanley was our second-grade teacher. She was in her 20s, with short, dark, curly hair and lively hazel eyes. Her laugh was infectious. It was her first year teaching in our public school in the northeast Bronx.
I adored her. My first-grade teacher had been weary and frumpy. When she occasionally called upon me to answer a question, she pointed and didn't bother to say my name. Miss Hanley laughed at my jokes, and called on me often—by name—to answer questions and read aloud in class.
"You're a very talented writer," she'd told me, more than once. "If you want to be an author when you grow up, you will be." This thrilled me. I'd been showing her my autobiographical poetry and little stories. They were mostly about how sad I sometimes felt, especially when I was around my family. One poem was titled "Little Miss Lonely."
A few weeks into the school year, Lisa and I had co-authored a play based on our favorite novel, "Little Women." We performed the play in front of the class. Lisa was petite and had a ready smile. She played Meg, the nearly perfect "little woman," as well as Amy, who was often "petted" because she was the cute baby of the family.
I was taller and gangly. I played the strong and willful Jo. I also played Beth, mostly so that I could have a dramatic death scene, which I drew out and milked for all I could.
When the curtain came down (so to speak), the applause from the other students was light. But Miss Hanley clapped vigorously, yelling, "Bravo! Bravo!" Lisa and I ignored the other kids, and were high on her praise for days.
I wasn't jealous of Lisa's relationship with Miss Hanley. Sharing Miss Hanley was a bond between us. We had other, less positive bonds, as well. Lisa's older brother smacked her around regularly. My father did the same to me. Lisa craved her parents' attention because they never gave enough of it to her. I felt the same way with my parents, who were too caught up with their own emotional and financial woes to spend much time nurturing my older brother, sister, and me. As a result, we three constantly competed for what little attention we could get from them. We frequently hit, punched and tattled on one another.
Lisa felt more like a sister to me than my "real" sister. She and I had been best friends since our mothers wheeled us side by side in our baby carriages inside the grounds of the housing project in which we lived. Unsupervised, she and I loved making mischief. With pastel chalk, we wrote obscenities and drew wildly unrealistic male genitalia on the sides of buildings. We ran around the projects screaming and cursing at the tops of our lungs.
In Miss Hanley's class, however, we behaved ourselves, although we couldn't help comparing ourselves to Kathleen, whose demeanor and dress were perfect. Kathleen lived in her family's house a few blocks from the projects. Lisa and I lived in cramped apartments. We wondered if Kathleen's parents had a lot more money than ours.
Kathleen was fair-skinned and even more petite than Lisa. Her eyes were as huge as those in a Keane portrait. She spoke softly and politely. She never cursed. She wore crisply ironed navy blue skirts and white blouses. Her hair was waved and held in place by a shiny white plastic headband with sharp, little teeth.
Lisa and I wore clothes that didn't always match. I sometimes wore my sister's hand-me-downs. My hair was long, and I, too, wore a plastic headband with teeth, although mine constantly slipped off, leaving my hair loose and wild.
The funny thing is that I liked Kathleen. I enjoyed spending time with her outside school. Our mothers were friendly, and I was invited over to her house now and then. Kathleen and I played with her pretty, clean dolls (my own were filthy and often missing limbs) and watched TV, enjoying the same shows. I never cursed around her, or sang "Walking Down Canal Street," the Roaring '20s drinking song about "whores" and syphilis that my brother had taught me.
Lisa and I continued writing our note to Miss Hanley: "You call on Kathleen more than you call on us. You like her because she is a goody-goody. That's not fair! Just because we are not goody-goodies does not mean you should like us less."
My heart was pounding as we left the note before class on Miss Hanley's desk. We folded it in threes, so no one else could see what we'd written. I was sure Miss Hanley was going to be very angry with us. That's how my parents reacted whenever I was assertive.
It was a long, torturous day. I regretted sending the note, terrified of Miss Hanley's reaction. I couldn't concentrate in class, and kept sneaking glances at Lisa. She glanced back, looking equally upset.
At three o'clock, Miss Hanley asked us to stay after class "for a few minutes."
Lisa and I stood before her desk. Fists clenched, unable to meet Miss Hanley's eye, I stared down at my ripped, no-name brand sneakers.
"Girls," Miss Hanley said, gently, not beating around the bush, "I have no favorites in my classroom."
Her voice was so kind that I dared to look up, although not before stealing a nervous glance at Lisa. She stole a nervous glance at me. We turned our attention to Miss Hanley.
"You girls are very different from Kathleen," she acknowledged. "I appreciate all of my students for being exactly who they are—each one, unique." She paused and spoke more slowly. "I'll tell you what I find wonderful about the two of you. Your senses of humor, your imaginations and how passionate you are about life."
My fists finally unclenched. I inhaled deeply and knew that I was grinning. There was room in Miss Hanley's classroom and heart for me! I didn't need to change, or compete with anyone else. It was a far different message—a much happier one—than the one I was receiving at home. It was a message I immediately embraced and have never forgotten.