She wasn’t just seventeen. She was only ten, eleven at best. It’s hard to tell now
because back then she had already been left behind one grade that I know of: first grade,
and I’m assuming it was just that one time.
Her name was Billie Bell. Stop for a second and try to picture a ten-year old girl
named Billie Bell. What do you think she looks like? I’ll start you out. Dirty blond hair in
pixie-cut bangs. Skinny. What did Holden Caulfield call it? Roller-skate skinny? Oh
yeah. She was poor, not the poorest in our class, but definitely challenged in holding
clothes together enough to keep her warm in winter. Dresses that were never patched or
worn through, but getting there. If she had a heavy coat, all I see now is something beige,
maybe with a thin, fake-fur top. But mainly I remember her sweaters. Nothing bright,
nothing pullover. Just those thin off-white ones that she never buttoned, although she
always seemed cold to me. Her hygiene wasn’t the worst either. Some of the more
downtrodden grammar school kids smelled bad, and some showed visible dirt patches on
their upper arms. Billie was never like this; I never smelled anything bad coming off of
her, but that still didn’t stop most of the boys from yelling “Cooties” if one of us ever,
purely by accident, touched her.
I remember her for several reasons. One is that when she was determined—
solving a math problem at the chalkboard, defying an attempt to be bounced out of a
dodge ball game (she never succeeded but would always grin after being hit with that
oversized red rubber ball)—her tongue would protrude from her mouth and she would
bite down on it. Her way of showing how earnest she was; how great her effort was.
When she did this, she looked like “Nanny,” my maternal grandmother. So yes, even now
when I see Billie Bell, I see my Nanny.
Another reason I remember her is her teeth, or rather, her upper gums. While her
front teeth were mismatched and irregular (They weren’t so bad and years later I saw the
same teeth on my Rock and Roll idol Neil Young), Billie Bell would never wear braces.
Her family would never be able to afford braces. Of course, neither could mine for that
But those gums. The way they looked was way beyond compare.
She didn’t smile easily or often. Given her academic and social struggles, why
should she? Given a home life that, admittedly, I knew nothing about, why would she?
But when she did—perhaps after hearing the teacher say something warm; perhaps on
seeing one of her few friends; perhaps on seeing that year’s Christmas cookies displayed
for all to enjoy—it was her gums that truly smiled.
Big red gums that overwhelmed those misshapen teeth.
Gums that I am afraid no young lover would ever want to make contact with.
As I said, Billie didn’t smile that often. But, and here she was thankfully and
relievedly normal, her smile was eminently preferable to her cries.
I remember seeing her cry only once, but I remember it so vividly because, of
course, I was the boy who made her cry.
On the occasions when our enormous, elderly, and deaf fourth-grade teacher,
Miss Navie Ball, left the classroom—most likely to head to the cafeteria to supplement
her mid-morning or early afternoon snack—she’d appoint one of us as class monitor,
which was nothing but a sanctioned method of allowing kids to tell on each other. The
monitor would compile a list of anything wrong or felonious that his or her classmates
did, and in this process most of us learned, whether we understood it or not, what life in
old Bavaria was like in the mid 1930’s. Really, if you even whispered one syllable of a
word loud enough and the monitor heard it, you went down on the list. And when Miss
Ball returned and saw the list? Actually, I don’t remember the exact penalty, though it
was likely a journey to the principal’s office or a note to your parents. Once, however, I
did see her physically lift a boy named Don Franklin right off the ground and fling him
across the room as if he were a paper Frisbee. What had been his offense? Simply being
out of his seat, looking at what one of his friends had drawn. But, as you’ll see later, he
deserved something of this sort for his future crimes.
We all wanted to be class monitors. For nothing seems more crucial to a fourthgrade
child than being in charge, being able to give orders. Being the source of fear.
My turn finally came on a sunny day in late winter. Our classroom emitted steam
heat so we were all comfortable, if not a bit glowing. I sat at Miss Ball’s desk, my beadyblue
eyes taking in all. The monitor doesn’t have to let the offender know when he or she
has transgressed, and so the power seems infinite and unchecked. Most monitors seek out
those who have bothered, annoyed, or actually hurt them in previous months. Next, are
the previous monitors who deserved their own date with the principal.
Much later, I saw what our monitors really were: Kapos. The most hated of the
But back then, in my classroom monitoring time, I must have written down ten or
eleven names in the seven minutes Miss Ball was away, likely devouring more corn
muffins. And when she returned, she simply took my list and began calling out the
Keith Clark (one of my former best friends)
What any of them did, I knew even then, was nothing really. Passing a note;
getting out of their seat; laughing at something foreign and unknown to me. Billie, I
think, simply asked her tablemate a question. Softly, quietly, she disturbed nothing and
no one. She never did.
I don’t remember the other offenders’ reactions now. Perhaps red faces or steely
But I do remember Billie’s.
She looked at me, and I, I could see.
And then she started crying, and as Mrs. Ball took her out of the room, I heard
her. We all heard her:
“But what did I do? What did I do?”
I didn’t know what the word “inconsolable” then.
But right then when she crossed that room, my heart went boom. And so I
rejoined the world of my peers, sitting there in a world of my own. In some ways, I think
I’m still sitting there.
Still, that wasn’t the worst thing I ever did to her. Thankfully, she never knew this
other thing. This thing that I did that was so horribly normal and therefore, much much
It was the Christmas party back in mid-December. Or rather, two weeks before
when we all drew names for our “secret Santa.” I originally drew “Samuel Ware,” not
one of my close friends, but a solid guy, unusual only in his Hawaiian background: dark,
exotic, very Polynesian-looking. He was a safe “get,” though, and I had a few minutes to
ponder what I might buy him. And then:
It was Don Franklin, sidling up in a gesture of, I now see, desperation.
“I got Randy Ford’s name, but I’m already buying him something because our
families always swap gifts. So do you wanna switch with me?”
Randy was also a good friend of mine and given the harmless nature of this
request along with the benefit of bestowing my friend with a new game or Hot Wheels set
of cars, I thought, why not?
“Great. Here ya go,” and he grabbed Samuel Ware right out of my hand and
replaced it with…
Don squirmed his way back across the room, and I couldn’t yell out, “Hey, you
lied! You stuck me with Billie Bell!”
Thank God I didn’t do that, though I know a few who might have.
But what I did do, naturally, was follow Don’s model.
I don’t think I have to explain why the thought of giving Billie Bell a Christmas
present was so abhorrent to Don Franklin and to me. But I need to. It had something to do
with our names forever being associated; with the rest of the class linking us; and with
Billie somehow getting the impression that he, that I, actually didn’t mind her.
That we, I, liked her.
So I sought out three, four, five classmates, pulling Don’s trick, until finally
someone just as gullible as me responded and made the illicit trade. I got “Jennifer
Jones,” an athletic and tall girl who, as fate played it, got my name too. Whatever I gave
her is lost to me. What she gave me was a Dr. Ben Casey jigsaw puzzle. My family and I
spent that Christmas working on it, the green surgeon’s scrubs driving us all crazy. And
when we got to the end, what drove us even crazier was that three or four pieces were
Maybe it was Elise Harris, or Marie Ashley—a gorgeous, slim girl with long
blond hair—whom I suckered in for Billie’s name and for a gift that virtually no one
wanted to buy for her and give her. But in the end, someone did: Elise or Marie.
Whatever it turned out to be—a pencil set or pair of gloves–Billie accepted that
present on the Christmas of her fourth-grade year, never knowing the truth of what went
on behind her scenes. She ate the iced sugar cookies that Randy’s mother brought and
sang the Christmas carols with Miss Ball and the rest of her classmates, as if nothing
were wrong. As if everything was beyond compare.
Which maybe it was at our fourth grade Christmas party at 2:00 on the last Friday
before Christmas. After that day we had a two-week holiday, returning just after New
Year’s, most of us adorned in new clothes, comparing all our winter gifts.
And Billie looked the same of course, no worse for the wear really. Never
knowing or suspecting or feeling jealous or hurt.
Now she’ll never dance with another. OOOOOOOh.
At least that’s what I thought. But then, in this as in so much of life, what do I
really know about any of it?
What I do know now, though, after years of studying and teaching great works of
literature is that the original definition of tragedy is based on the classical model of
Shakespeare and the ancient Greek dramatists. In these there is a tragic hero, a highplaced
figure brought low through his peculiar tragic flaw: jealousy, over-weaning
While it takes an older, or at the very least a high school kid to begin to “get”
such a definition, I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit for understanding the
nature of tragedy at a much earlier age. Again, I wouldn’t have used that word at age
nine. I wouldn’t have known anything but “sad” or maybe “pathetic.” But when I looked
at Billie’s gums, when I saw her standing there crying because of me, and worse, when I
saw her standing at our party, happy and innocent and ignorant of what I had done to her,
somewhere inside me—right in the very heart of me—I knew what tragedy was.
And I knew what my role in this multi-act play had been.
Terry Barr’s work has appeared in Construction, Full Grown People, Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Tell Us A Story, and is forthcoming in Sport Literate, Blue Lyra Review, and Melange Press. He is a regular contributor to culturemass.com, and lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters.