Jeanie was in my first grade class. Jeanie was just like any of us in the first grade except she was shorter. She was the smallest first grader at our school and smaller than a lot of kindergarteners. That’s it. She was just short. She wore pretty dresses, her hair in curls, and had a nice smile. She wasn’t retarded and she didn’t misbehave. She was in a couple of my groups for working on projects. I liked Jeanie. She was OK.
She was short because one leg was shorter than the other, or because her back was almost completely hunched over, or because one arm didn’t move very well, or because she really couldn’t hold her head up very well. None of that stuff seemed to matter to any of us. Jeanie was just Jeanie.
Sometimes she had a little trouble getting in and out of her desk, but that didn’t slow her down. I don’t remember Mrs. Lideck singling her out in any way. There were no speeches about how Jeanie might be different, or require special assistance from any of us. To us, she was just Jeanie.
Maybe we were too young to be inconvenienced by the thought of someone who might be different. It didn’t seem to matter. We didn’t leave her out of any games. She knew how to laugh. She got Valentine’s cards, she got invited to birthday parties, and she got to do show and tell in front of the class just like everybody else. Maybe that’s because, in the first grade, she was just like anybody else.
Prejudice isn’t natural. It is not innate. We don’t seem to be born with it. We don’t start filtering people who aren’t like us out of our lives until we are taught how to do it by our teachers, or by our parents, or by our friends who think they know better. (That doesn’t happen until later, but it doesn’t take long for us to get good at it.) I don’t know how it is now, but back then kids generally didn’t start getting cruel to each other until sometime after the first grade.
Having accidents is rather common place both in kindergarten and in the first grade. Kids are always throwing up in class and the janitors have to be called in to sprinkle the deodorizing barf dust around and sweep it up. Some kids wet their pants. Stuff happens. Teachers handle this sort of thing as a matter of course. When they can, they are quick to get the rest of us out the room before the sympathetic queasiness starts to set in among the most sensitive and the vomiting becomes epidemic.
One day Jeanie had an accident. She was obviously in distress, but quietly and while still at her desk voided her bladder and bowels. This was not good for her. She sat there crying. Marilyn who sat next to Jeanie and was a little Miss Prissy raised her hand and announced that Jeanie had a problem. Accidents happen. No big deal, except maybe for James who had already been taught something the rest of us had been spared and found the situation funny. Mrs. Lideck looked more concerned with James than usual. James was promptly sent to the principal’s office. Mrs. Lideck got the janitors in quickly and took care of things. Jeanie’s mom came and took her home.
That was the last time any of us saw Jeanie. We later heard rumors from some of our classmates that she was in the hospital -- something about kidneys. Jeanie was the topic of conversation for several days. We got to work individually at our desks to make get well soon cards for her. Then there was nothing.
Finally, someone remembered to ask, “Will Jeanie ever be coming back?”
Mrs. Lideck said, “No, Jeanie’s gone.” It was not a satisfying answer, but it was the only one she had.
Jeanie’s name comes from Hebrew. The root source isYochana, from which was derived the later Latin variants of Joanna and Johanna. Those were taken by the old French and loosely pronounced “Jehanne.” The name means "God's grace," or alternately, “the Lord is Gracious." Shakespeare felt that names were not particularly significant and had Juliet expound on names with “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
But by any other name, she wouldn’t have been Jeanie.