Dana was that girl in my sixth-grade class, taught by the sleek, chic Mrs. Engen.
I thought of Dana again yesterday when I read the post about the father who was inspired by his 10-year-old daughter to apologize to a boy he once tormented decades ago, back when he was in junior high school.
I, too, owe such an apology to Dana, although I’m not sure she’d want to speak to me now, or to some of my friends from that time. Since I can’t remember her last name, I’ll simply call her Dana, a pseudonym to fully protect the innocent—which I now understand she so clearly was.
Mrs. Engen and Dana circled the same bright sun—our shared homeroom—but were polar-opposite planets. Mrs. Engen was Venus to Dana’s Neptune. Where our teacher was bubbling with warmth, Dana was silently cold. Where our teacher was air and light, Dana was dense and dark. Mrs. Engen wore Diane von Furstenberg knockoff wrap dresses in dazzling prints paired with colorful Candie’s heels. Dana wore the same navy blue sleeveless shirt and dingy white jeans for four days in a row out of five. Mrs. Engen had a perfectly coiffed, Toni Tennille bowl cut, the chin-length style that cutely curled around her symmetrical face. Dana’s brownish locks were greasy and had not seen shampoo in days or maybe weeks, maybe longer.
Dana reminded me of someone, which is why I despised her so. She reminded me of myself a year earlier, before my mother remarried and we finally had enough extra money that I could stop wearing a hodgepodge load of hand-me-downs from distant family friends. With my new wardrobe purchased from Kmart in the days before sixth grade began—a stunning collection of cotton peasant blouses, corduroy vests, even a newspaper boy’s cap for added élan, and all with price tags to prove they’d never been worn by anyone other than me—I could finally pass for any other kid in the room. I no longer stood out as a woeful misfit, a child of divorce with a decidedly downward financial trajectory.
That sad role, to my great relief, had been assigned to my new classmate, Dana. And there was no way I intended to play her understudy. Not this year.
It surprises me how often as an adult I’ve thought about Dana. Her face remains a photographic negative imprinted onto my brain: the oily, almost olive skin, the scattered zits that all but begged to be popped, the drooping brown curls that hung, unwashed, around her temples before skimming the sharply sloping line of her chin. She had soulful chestnut eyes that nervously darted here and there; she never returned a gaze. And then there was the rest of her: the runty arms that swam in sleeveless shirts, the skinny legs that looked lost in her baggy, stained painter’s pants, the hunched shoulders, as if she was trying to shrink down into herself, maybe disappear.
Was she painfully shy? I now wonder from 35 years’ distance. Just dirt poor, shy and introverted, a dark replica of the girl I was afraid others might see in me? Or was it something else, something more sinister? Could she have been cowed? There was something about Dana that was a bit like a broken beast. Why were things so hard for this child? Why couldn’t she connect? Why couldn’t Dana do what I had learned to do—study the herd, mimic it, adapt to it, then run with its frantic pace, even if at times the gait felt forced, unnatural?
But she couldn’t. She didn’t. And we kids disdained and ignored her for it. Newly “in,” I piled on to protect my status. We called Dana names. We called her “Greasy” with a capital G. We openly made faces at her so she could see us do it, faces that said: We think you’re nasty. Worst of all, we turned our backs. We pretended she wasn’t there when we played outdoors in the schoolyard at recess. We denied her a place on the monkey bars, her space on earth, her right to be seen, to be known. Dana was all but invisible to us. In fact, if we kids had had a choice, we might have banished her altogether, so very uncomfortable did her dejection make us all feel.
Recently my sister posted an official school photo from that year on Facebook. It depicts every student enrolled in the third through sixth grade. In all, there are fewer than 70 students in the shot, all dressed in plaid shirts and bell-bottomed cords and gaucho pants and cheerful overalls. Thanks to the tagging feature, nearly every kid is identified—every kid but Dana, that is.
Where is she? I asked myself when I first saw it, frustrated as I scrutinized each child’s face. I wanted to find her again. I wanted to say: I’m sorry we treated you so badly with our indifference, our derision, even if the apology would be to a ghost-like image filtering out from a computer screen. But much like her presence in the classroom, the cafeteria and the playground all those years ago, Dana was invisible, not there.
I did spy one unidentifiable child in the third row whose entire face is cut off by someone else’s raised arm, and while I’d hazard to guess it’s a fifth-grade boy, I can’t be entirely sure. So on the outside chance it might be Dana, I touched my index finger to the computer and, pointing like E.T. in an attempt at otherworldly communion, I traced the outline of this child and imagined, for the moment, the child to be her.
I see you now, I said to Dana, speaking out loud to my laptop screen—even if this mea culpa was more likely directed at one of the very brats who mercilessly berated her all those years ago, a sad fact that, unfortunately, at this late juncture can’t be fixed. For good measure I repeated it: I see you now.
Dana, if you’re reading this now: I’m sorry I never did then.