It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.

I was a below-average student. A mediocre baseball player. I tried out for the football team twice. Rejected twice.

I was chubby—built like a summer squash. I talked too much.

I failed fifth grade.

It was my first major failure, and it was a crushing blow. On the last day of class, the teacher kept me late.

She called me to her desk. “I’m really sorry to tell you this…” she said.

The liar. She was a hateful woman who disliked me from the moment she laid her beady little turkey eyes on me.

I sat on the school curb and cried.

I’d decided I would join the circus, or perhaps get certified to empty Port-a-Johns. Maybe then, I could avoid begging outside shopping malls.

The school janitor found me sitting. He was a young man. Tall and lanky. He was a different bird. Some kids made fun of him.

They said things like: “He’s three aces short of a deck.”

Others called him worse.

He sat beside me on the pavement while I waited for Mama to arrive.

“It’s the last day of school,” he said. “You oughta be happy.”

I told him what happened.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he showed me a magic trick with a quarter.

I was in no mood. I’d seen tricks like that before. I was far too old to believe coins came from behind my ears, anyway.

So, he quit trying and said, “You ain’t stupid.”

I asked him, kindly, if he’d leave me alone. Besides, the jury had spoken. I had the intellect of an Allen-wrench.

He wouldn’t leave. He only did more magic tricks.

Finally, he said, “You know, I’s born with my birth cord wrapped ‘round my neck. My old man called ME stupid.”

He went on to explain he was partially deaf, and how school had been a struggle. He’d dropped out after eighth grade. He admitted he could hardly spell his name.

God, was he a happy joker.

“Every day,” he went on. “I tell my own self that my dad was wrong about me. I ain’t dumb. I’m like that one duckling that turns into the eagle, or dove, or something.”

Yeah.

It’s been a long time since that black day. And I wish, for the life of me, I could remember more about him, but I can’t. All I’m able to recall is my mother pulling to the curb.

I remember crawling into the vehicle, feeling two-inches tall. Because I knew she’d ask about school. And I knew my answer would disappoint her.

I also remember that janitor. He watched our car drive off. I remember his light-blue work shirt, the ring of keys on his belt, and how he waved goodbye.

And I remember how on a very bad day, one of the worst of my childhood, he sat beside me and made quarters fall out of my ear.

And told me I wasn’t stupid.

20 comments

  1. Cherryl Shiver - April 4, 2017 11:09 am

    What a heart that man had. He must have touched yours, or you would not remember, he taught you to care, and that stuck, we know that for sure.
    Sgt. Henry Gant and his wife Ann lived down the street from me. They had no children. The summer after my brother was killed, we would sit outside and they would just listen to me ramble on.
    Now that I am an old lady I wish I could hug both of their necks and just thank them for being there.

    Reply
  2. Lilli Ann Snow - April 4, 2017 11:28 am

    Sean…
    Sean, Sean, Sean…
    Where have you been all my life?

    Your writing grabs my heart like no other writer ever has…and I’ve been reading since I can remember.

    You were meant to fail fifth grade, I believe, because of the gift you would turn that experience into today. Your gift is a diamond formed from crushing. Your gift required more than I would ever wish a boy to suffer, especially if I were your Mama. If I were your Mama, thiugh, I would look into your eyes today and thank you for being mine. For teaching me, your Mama, just what courage and grit and soul can create when suffering is endured and triumphed over.

    If I were your Mama, I would tell God “Thank You!” for every single day of your life.

    I’m not your Mama, Sean…but I tell God “Thank You!” every single day I get to read your stories.

    Thank you, Sean.
    You are stretching my heart…
    Every single day.

    Reply
  3. Mary birnbaum - April 4, 2017 11:48 am

    God sent you the angel
    That you needed that day. Praise the Lord.

    Reply
  4. Laura Young - April 4, 2017 12:02 pm

    I had a brother like that janitor. A birth injury kept his mind that of a child, yet he touched so many hearts as he grew up. He made you laugh and showed so much love. Without trying he helped people feel better. Your story brought to mind the times this brother was called “retard”. I think he didn’t understand what they meant (a mercy), but he would just go on with what he was doing, usually grinning at the rude guys. My other brothers would go after those guys to teach them manners. My baby brother never reached full adulthood. He unfortunately was killed in a drowning accident at age 18 with my then almost 21 year old brother. Folks still tell me though how they remember Mark and how he cheered them when they felt low. Your janitor had that same talent.

    Reply
  5. Brenda Laurence - April 4, 2017 12:49 pm

    My mother told me that I was stupid. I’m almost 74 and still trying to prove her wrong.

    Reply
    • Joann Wilson - April 4, 2017 1:09 pm

      I gave birth to 2 wonderful and amazing people. The older one never faced a challenge scholastically or socially. Never struggled for a a good grade; in fact, just the opposite. A’s fell in her lap with precious little effort. Involved in everything, succeeded, teachers loved and praised her. My second one, following in my footsteps, found A’s unattainable and teachers cruel with remarks like, “what happened to you? Your sister was so smart and you are SO not!” How could anybody be so cruel to a little boy in the 3rd grade?

      Reply
  6. Sam Hunneman - April 4, 2017 3:17 pm

    A prince of a man, Sean. Both of you.

    Reply
  7. Meg - April 4, 2017 4:28 pm

    I’ve seen debates on social media about the delicate balance between the “everybody gets a trophy” crowd and the value of words of affirmation. and it is all about balance.

    Reply
  8. Susie Munz - April 4, 2017 4:38 pm

    Anybody who referred to you as stupid, was stupid. If there was a Mensa-like group for hearts, you’d be a lifetime member, and to be able to express things the way you do proves you are far from “stupid”!

    Reply
  9. jayson knox - April 4, 2017 6:29 pm

    god bless you , and thanks for your writing.

    Reply
  10. Amanda Isalee - April 4, 2017 9:29 pm

    Thank you for officially making waterproof mascara the JOKE OF THE DAY!

    Reply
  11. Michael Hawke - April 5, 2017 2:14 am

    Thank you.

    Reply
  12. Laura Braswell - April 5, 2017 3:47 am

    I am a retired teacher and it hurt my heart to imagine the scene you so beautifully described for us.

    Have you read the story about Thomas Edison’s mother and the letter she received from his teacher? It said he was not intelligent or teachable so he would no longer be allowed to attend the school, she would have to homeschool him.

    When he got home that day she told him she received a letter stating he was too smart and advanced so she would have to homeschool him. The story goes that he only found the truth years later after her death when going through her things.

    ❤that’s a great mom and teacher all in one-oh and her son turned out great as well.

    Reply
  13. Kay Keel - April 5, 2017 3:04 pm

    I lover your stories and your heart! Thank you!

    Reply
  14. Ann Landers - April 5, 2017 9:01 pm

    I hope that awful 5th grade teacher knows what a success you are today!

    Reply
  15. Deanna J - June 3, 2017 1:19 pm

    You are a tru blessing!

    Reply
  16. bob lang - June 3, 2017 1:39 pm

    God has put a lot of people in your path. Your gift is your ability to notice that.

    Reply
  17. Olivia Grizzle - June 3, 2017 3:59 pm

    You write the most beautiful stories. I love reading them, and I know they bring joy and laughs and tears to many. I would like to know what that teacher thinks now. You are a great writer and nothing stupid about that. You have an amazing way
    with words.

    Reply
  18. Mary Anne Tomlinson - June 3, 2017 8:17 pm

    Sean, I just recently discovered your writing and I’m so thankful. It’s like getting a daily gift. A daily dose of humanity. Thank you for your golden heart that is evident in everything you write.

    Reply
  19. Laurie Kish - June 3, 2017 9:02 pm

    Sean,
    I hadn’t read any of your writing before today. A random draw on FB. Thank you for sharing your stories. Each of us have them, sad or heartwarming, snippets or life altering mountains of a story. You write them beautifully.
    I won’t say what happened was a gift from the heavens, or this made you who you are today… I don’t know that and I won’t assume to know, you may not even know.
    When I was young (now 60), I never felt accepted, or popular, or even liked, when it came down to it. I remember one teacher shaking her cane at me when I failed yet another weekly spelling quiz. I studied, but back then being dyslexic meant I was stupid, not different in how I processed information. The tiny grey haired woman will forever be in my head.
    Right now I have a bit of tears leaking their way out, as I type… and I’m sixty! I know I’m not stupid, but I’m still not the popular gal, I doubt that will ever be who I am. Yet, I know everyone is unsure, unhappy at times, and doubt if they are loved or even liked for who they really are. I’m grateful for the who I am because I can see the good in people and I’ll always be a softy for the underdog, and most of all because I know I am a good person.
    Sorry, a bit of rambling there. You made me consider the world for all its good and not so perfect pieces. Thank you again.
    Sincerely,
    Laurie Kish

    Reply

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