In 1966 I was 11 years old. My adopted family moved that summer to a rented farmhouse in Bruce County in southwestern Ontario.
Since being adopted in May of 1965, I had changed homes three times. I remember standing on the porch for the first time, seeing the empty fields around me and feeling lost and scared, and as empty as they are.
My teacher that year was Mrs. Lorraine Fricke. She was an older woman, nearing retirement and she looked grandmotherly to me.
Mrs. Fricke seemed to know me. I remember that clearly. When she saw me enter her classroom that first day she walked right over, smiled, and led me to a seat to the right of her big wooden desk in the front row beside the window.
“So you can look out at the trees,” she said.
There was a bully in that class named Jim Wendt. His family owned the jewelry store in town, and they were one of the wealthier families. Jim was also a hockey star.
In the small town ethos of Ontario, a hockey star was a big thing and he was made much of, and treated as special. Like all bullies he reveled in his status and used it to intimidate the kids around him.
There was another kid in my class named Dennis Edwards. Dennis was short, with big ears and a round face, and he struggled to keep up with the work. To offset his oddness, Dennis used wacky, off-beat humour to try and wrest some acceptance from the rest of us.
I found him funny, and something about the fact that he struggled so hard to fit in resonated with me.
But bullies always find cohorts. For Jim Wendt there were four other boys that looked up to him and supported him in his rudeness, and his meanness, and they were unavoidable in the playground.
When I showed myself to be a bright student, and Dennis showed his lack of quickness, Jim Wendt targeted the both of us for attack.
At first it was the usual name-calling, and spit-balling in class. Then it was tripping in the hallways and having balls bounced off our heads at recess and lunch hours.
Then, it grew to punches on the shoulders and slaps on the back of the head and higher degrees of intimidation.
Then they attacked Dennis Edwards. It started as a shoving match. Jim took umbrage at Dennis playing hopscotch with the girls. He called him a sissy. He called him a little girl. Then he pushed him and Dennis pushed back.
As soon as he touched Jim, the rest of the pack descended on him. I was walking in the playing field and didn’t see it happen. All I saw was Dennis’s bleeding nose and tears when the bell rang.
I was angry at that. Dennis had become my only friend in class and I felt like I needed to stand up for him, to defend him, to make things right. But there were five of them.
I sat at my desk and heard them chatting up the beating. When other kids joined in the laughter, I was incensed.
Mrs. Fricke asked me to do a problem on the board. As I stood there with my back toward the room, I heard them grunting and talking like movie Indians, and then an eraser hit me in the head.
I remember turning, picking it up and looking at it in my palm. Then, I walked to Jim Wendt’s desk at the back of the room with the other four all around him. No one said a word, not even Mrs. Fricke.
I put the eraser down on Jim’s desk. He sneered at me. When he stood up, the rest of them stood too. I stood there and looked at the five of them in the silence of that room and felt heat in my cheeks. “I’m not afraid of you,” was all I said.
They laughed and catcalled when I walked back to my seat but they never bothered me or Dennis again.
After school, Mrs. Fricke asked me to stay a minute longer before I caught the bus. She had something for me, she said. When all the kids had gone she handed me a picture of Martin Luther King.
She explained that he was a man of courage and a man of peace, and that what I had shown in class that day exemplified everything Reverend King stood for. Then she hugged me.
Well, I read everything I could about Martin Luther King after that, and I became the best student I could for Mrs. Fricke. I did extra work, I helped neaten the room, and I showed her the stories and poems I was beginning to write.
My adopted home life was a shambles and there was incredible friction and pain there, but in my Grade Five classroom I felt accepted, known and understood.
Mrs. Fricke took the time to ask me questions. When I showed a lack of knowledge about my people and my heritage she brought me books to read, and discussed them with me.
I responded to that by getting As and Bs on my first report card. When I read it on the bus on the way home, Mrs. Fricke had written in the space for the teacher’s comments, “Richard is a very honourable boy.” I never forgot that.
When my adopted parents read it at the dinner table that night, the only comment they had was that she must have been referring to another kid. I never forgot that either.
Mrs. Fricke left school halfway through that year for health reasons, and I never saw her again. My marks tailed off sharply. Two years later when Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, I mourned the loss — and I remembered Mrs. Fricke.
There are angels in this life. They arrive when you need them most, to encourage you, remind you that heaven is within you, as it always was, and always will be.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.