Righteous Indignation

In a Paris Review interview with Louise Erdrich, she mentions having once wrongly been put in the “naughty box” at school for something she did not do, describing her righteous indignation. It brought to mind a similar event that happened to me when I was in junior high school.

It took place in the very first days of class in September, when we were all still an unknown quantity to my history teacher, a serious white-haired man, nearing retirement. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name. I had chosen a desk by the window two or three rows back. As Erdrich had described herself, I was also “a model child,” although the teacher did not yet know that. (Not the annoying kind that everyone hates, just one who kept to herself most of the time and did her work).

On this particular day, there was a boy sitting behind me who took delight in kicking the back of my seat surreptitiously as the teacher was talking, making it look as though I were some sort of deranged Mexican jumping bean, hopping up and down in my chair. The teacher reprimanded me, and, embarrassed, I sheepily protested it was the fault of the boy behind me. A minute or so later, the same thing happened, at which point the teacher ordered me to go sit in the back of the room. I was stunned at the injustice. He did not want to hear any arguments that it was not my fault—that I had been set up by the vicious boy behind me.

Within a few weeks it was obvious who had been at fault. I had begun to prove myself the model student and this boy had frequently been found smoking weed behind the gym, often skipping school for days at a time. I have rarely felt pure evil emanating from anyone, but this was the sense I got whenever I passed by this boy in school. I avoided hi whenever I could, though he actually took no notice of me whatsoever after that first day in class.

Still, I never quite got over that sense of indignation at being wrongly accused after being humiliated in class. Junior high is the worst age for those kinds of feelings. And for a long time I was bothered by the fact that I did not stand up for myself as I should have. Some months later, however, justice was finally served. Someone had found this boy in an abandoned house, drug paraphernalia scattered throughout, having hanged himself. Most of my fellow students were stunned. I suppose I should have felt some snippet of compassion for him, but all I could feel was a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that the little fucker had finally gotten what he deserved.

Erdrich said in her interview, “This was just the first of the many humiliations of my youth that I’ve tried to revenge through my writing. I have never fully exorcised shames that struck me to the heart as a child….” Isn’t that why everyone becomes a writer?

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