I knew from the very first day of school that Jaimie-Lynne was different. Children have a subtle, almost mystical ability to sense differences in others, and it was obvious to everyone in the first grade that Jaimie-Lynne had problems.
Our first grade class was a typically boisterous, rowdy group of 18 kids who did things first graders everywhere do. We built sand castles at recess. We grew potato plants in jelly glasses for mother's day presents. We read about Dick and Jane, and the adventures of Captain Jack and his boat the Sea Owl. We were the noisy, active kids you find in small country schools everywhere in the deep south. Through it all, Jaime-Lynne was a quiet, still little eddy in our swirl of hyperactive childish activities.
My enduring mental image of Jaime-Lynne during that period is brown. She was a skinny, knobby-kneed, brown-skinned girl with dark brown hair, brown eyes and non-descript brownish clothing. She never joined in our recess games, never played with anyone else, never interacted with us in any way. During lunch when we all sat together chatting and laughing and eating cafeteria food, Jaime-Lynne sat alone at the end of a lunch table, eating bologna sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. She looked straight ahead as she ate quietly, her brown face grave and solemn.
Someone told us she'd been in a car accident when she was just a year old, and had to have a plate put in her head. This conjured up visions to me of a gaily decorated, delicately flanged dinner plate, and I couldn't for the life of me see why a doctor would do that to someone who'd been in an accident, but as a gullible 5 year old, I accepted it as just another confusing fact in a rather puzzling world. I never associated her behaviour with the fact that she had this plate in her head. I just thought she was kind of strange.
It became obvious early on that Jaime-Lynne was mentally slower than the rest of us. While we were learning ABC's and how to do simple counting, she was struggling to keep up. We had to stand one at a time every day and read aloud from our reading book, and whenever Jaime-Lynne's turn came, she simply stood there, haltingly spelling out the words, words she was unable to read. Our teacher, Mrs. Tarp, finally stopped calling on her when it became apparent that she couldn't do what the rest of the class was doing. Jaime-Lynne couldn't seem to remember things we'd learned in class from one day to the next, and every six weeks her report card was filled with Unsatisfactory marks. In our back-woods country school there was no such thing as special education, so she had to stay in class with us. She worked hard, but simply couldn't maintain the pace the rest of the class did.
During that first year a nurse came by our school to inoculate us for something, and Jaime-Lynne threw a fit when the nurse tried to give her a shot. She twisted away from the nurse and threw herself down on the floor, screaming and beating her head against the ground. She was so hysterical that the school finally called her mother, a harried-looking, nondescript mousy woman, and we didn't see Jaime-Lynne for a couple of weeks after that.
Jaime-Lynne was promoted to second grade somehow; I guess they didn't know what else to do with her. Her second grade experience didn't seem to be any better than her first grade experience. She still couldn't read, couldn't count and couldn't tell time, and sometime during that second year Jaime-Lynne quietly vanished from school, never to reappear. I can't remember anyone ever mentioning her name after that, and I never gave her another thought until many years later.
We all grew up eventually, graduated and started careers and families of our own. We became farmers, store clerks and teachers. We laughed and loved and married and divorced, as people have always done. I floundered for years after graduation, directionless and ambitionless. One menial, low-paying job followed another, and it happened that 10 years after graduation I found myself working at a farmers co-operative as a clerk.
Actually, clerk was a polite term for store flunky. I sold farm implements, hauled 50-pound sacks of chicken feed and fertilizer out to peoples cars, and pumped gas. Basically, I was in a meaningless job and headed nowhere.
One Saturday morning I was busy sweeping when a rusty Dodge pickup rattled up to the gas pump. A red-faced heavy-set man in dusty overalls slowly got out. "Fill 'er up, please."
"Yessir." I walked to the pump, turned it on, stuck the nozzle in the truck and began pumping gas. I noticed someone sitting on the passenger's side of the truck, someone who looked vaguely familiar. As the truck fueled, I walked over to the passenger's window, and there sat Jaime-Lynne. She looked exactly the same as I remembered her over 20 years ago -- painfully thin, brown-skinned, with long dark hair that trailed down her back. Her dark eyes looked at me and she gripped the handle of the truck door as if she were afraid I'd reach in and grab her. She was still and quiet as a deer is right before it bolts and disappears into the woods. Her eyes never left my face as I stood there smiling reassuringly. "Good morning. How are you?" I nodded my head at her in a friendly manner. She sat there looking at me, carefully poised on the edge of the truck seat, then she nodded gravely. The gas pump dinged, signaling that the truck was full, and I replaced the nozzle on the machine and walked inside to write the ticket.
Her father bought a can of insecticide, paid for the gas, and tromped slowly back to his truck, his dusty brown farmers boots clumping on the concrete. He got in, started his truck, and as he started to pull away, I impulsively said,"Bye Jaime-Lynne. Come back to see us." She looked at me for a moment, then smiled ever so briefly, a surprisingly lovely, sweet-looking smile. "Bye Basil." I blinked. She had not seen me in over twenty years, yet she remembered my name. The truck started, and they clattered off in a cloud of dust and blue truck-exhaust. I stood with my hands in my jeans pockets and watched as they turned the corner and vanished down the shady, tree lined road.