Ricky came to school one day and immediately came to me and asked, "Do you like my new sweater?" I did. He told me he had five older brothers, always getting hand-me-downs. I said we did that too, when I was growing up. He was so excited to actually choose the first new sweater he ever had. Ricky was one of my fifth graders.
My advice to him was to enjoy it and take care of it because "sweaters don't really wear out." As I watched him that morning, he exhibited confidence and pride. The sweater was magical, I thought.
After two hours of math and reading it was recess time. We went outside for a breather and either walk around, run around, jump rope, or play catch or hide and seek. I enjoyed recess too, because I continually learned about children when watching them on the playground.
At recess Michael, who knew he was the most intelligent student in the class, was talking with Ricky. I sort of half-watched - there were 38 students out there, and I was trying to keep an eye on all of them. Michael and Ricky were both smiling and seemed to be having a positive talk. Then, Michael asked Ricky to turn around so he could see the back of his sweater. I remember thinking Ricky is using his "sweater magic" to do some things he was usually too shy to try - talking one-on-one with Michael. Go, Ricky!
When Ricky turned around with his back to Michael, Michael hacked up a huge glob of disgusting spit.
"That's what I think of your big new sweater," he said, laughing. Ricky's head went down; he was duped by Michael.
My heart sunk. I felt so sorry for Ricky, and I was livid with Michael. I went to Ricky and asked if I could borrow his sweater for just five minutes. He told me it was ruined and I could have it as long as I wanted. I helped him get it off, trying not to disturb the gross excretion from Michael. Ricky was almost in tears. I asked him to be strong.
I calmly walked up to Michael, asking if I could borrow his sweater for just five minutes. He asked me if he was in trouble. I asked if that was what he wanted - to be in trouble. Michael did not hesitate removing his sweater; he saw I had Ricky's in my hand.
I was a little scared about my next step, but outrage drowned my fear. I helped Michael get into Ricky's sweater and said, "You know, Michael, this is your spit; it came from your body. If you think it fashionable to expect someone else to walk around wearing your spit, I suggest you try it."
I said all he had to do is walk around the playground so everyone can see what his spit looks like. He was more devastated than Ricky. I told him, "Walk slowly and enjoy it as much as you did spewing it on Ricky". Head down, he walked the playground slowly.
The principal was outside and had witnessed this event. She came to me while Michael was walking his pride off, and said, "How did you think of that?" referring to the sweater trade maneuver. She wondered why I did not scold Michael and send him to her office. I responded that Michael would learn nothing in her office; in my judgment he needed to see how it feels to be embarrassed in front of their peers. As a matter of practice, I rarely yelled, since that might make a bad situation worse.
When Michael returned he went into the school and brought out some paper towels and a bottle of liquid soap. He went up to Ricky, with his head down and speaking softly, and offered Ricky his sweater for the day. Ricky wanted his own new sweater. Michael apologized for spitting on that sweater, offered to clean it off, and then, to my surprise, Michael and Ricky both thanked me. Amazing. Michael cleaned the sweater and helped Ricky put it on again.
Both boys learned a lot that day. The principal asked if I planned to call Michael's parents about the incident. I had no plan to do so because both boys grew up a little that day, did not really need to relive the humiliation again and lose, in the process, the notion of self-responsibility.
• Ann Bednarski of Carson City is a career educator and journalist.