For almost 40 years, Margaret had lived with the memory of one soul-scarring day in the one-room schoolhouse she attended. From the first day Margaret came to class, she and Ms. Garner, her bitter and harsh teacher, didn’t get along. Over the years, the animosity between them only worsened until one fateful day when she was nine years old, Margaret’s life was forever altered.
That day, Margaret frantically raced into her classroom after recess, late again. Ms. Garner was furious. “Margaret!” she shouted, “we have been waiting for you! Get up here to the front of the class, right now!”
Margaret walked slowly to the teacher’s desk, was told to face the class, and then the nightmare began.
Ms. Garner ranted, “Boys and girls, Margaret has been a bad girl. I have tried to help her to be responsible. But, apparently, she doesn’t want to learn. So we must teach her a lesson. We must force her to face what a selfish person she has become. I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this experience will motivate her to become a better person!”
Margaret stood frozen next to Ms. Garner. One by one, the students began a silent procession to the blackboard. One by one, the students wrote their life-smothering words, slowly extinguishing the light in Margaret’s soul. “Margaret is stupid! Margaret is selfish! Margaret is fat! Margaret is a dummy!” On and on they went, until twenty-five terrible scribblings of Margaret’s “badness” screamed from the blackboard.
The venomous sentences taunted Margaret in what felt like the longest day of her life. After walking home with each caustic word indelibly written on her soul, she crawled into her bed, claiming sickness, and tried to cry the pain away, but the pain never left, and forty years later, she slumped in the waiting room of psychologist’s office, still cringing in the shadow of those twenty-five sentences. To her horror, Margaret had slowly become what the students had written.
After decades of depression and anxiety, she had finally sought help and was having the last meeting with her psychologist. Two long years of weekly counseling helped Margaret to finally extricate herself from her past. It had been a long and a difficult road, but she smiled at her counselor (how long it had been since she’d smiled!) as they talked about her readiness to move on.
“Well, Margaret,” the counselor said softly, “I guess it’s graduation day for you. How are you feeling?”
After a long silence, Margaret spoke. “I…I’m okay.”
The counselor hesitated, “Margaret, I know this will be difficult, but just to make sure you’re ready to move on, I am going to ask you to do something. I want to go back to your schoolroom and detail the events of that day. Take you time. Describe each of the children as they approach the blackboard, remember what they wrote and how you felt – all twenty-five students.”
In a way, this would be easy for Margaret. For forty years she had remembered every detail. And yet, to go through the nightmare one more time would take every bit of strength she had. After a long silence, she began the painful description. One by one, she described each of the students vividly, as though she had just seen them, stopping periodically to regain her composure, forcing herself to face each of those students one more time.
Finally, she was done, and the tears would not stop, could not stop. Margaret cried a long time before she realized someone was whispering her name. “Margaret. Margaret. Margaret.” She looked up to see her counselor starring into her eyes, saying her name over and over again. Margaret stopped crying for a moment.
“Margaret. You…you left out one person.”
“I certainly did not! I have lived with this story for forty years. I know every student by heart.”
“No, Margaret, you did forget someone. See, he’s sitting in the back of the classroom. He’s standing up, walking toward your teacher, Ms. Garner. She is handing him a piece of chalk and he’s taking it, Margaret, he’s taking it! Now he’s walking over to the blackboard and picking up an eraser. He is erasing every one of the sentences the students wrote. They are gone! Margaret, they are gone! Now he’s turning and looking at you, Margaret. Do you recognize him yet? Yes, his name is Jesus. Look, he’s writing new sentences on the board. ‘Margaret is loved. Margaret is beautiful. Margaret is gently and kind. Margaret is strong. Margaret has great courage.’”
And Margaret began to weep. But very quickly, the weeping turned into a smile, and then into laughter, and then into tears of joy.