I was raised to believe that around us were people with stories of struggle we would never guess. Empathy and compassion were part of every dinner conversation or trip to the grocery store. A homeless or disabled person was never to be mocked or giggled at. A student in our classrooms with a stutter or learning difference was to be respected and included in our playground games. My mother was a divorced mom fighting an illness of her own and would have none of any such childhood teasing nonsense. So when the Fatty Troll incident occurred, I knew I was in trouble.
Fatty Troll was the unfortunate name rhyme for a plumpish girl in my grade. She had a long, thin ponytail and an unusual nose. Her soft belly was probably well within reason, but someone in my third grade class noticed both her first and last name had a unique poetic relationship to the troll nickname. Small troll dolls with long hair in bright colors were popular in our classroom, and unfortunately, their hair could go in a long, straight ponytail, just like, well, you know whose. We’d put our troll dolls in our desks or coat pockets to take out on the playground. Eventually they were so distracting they were no longer allowed to come to school with us. Never mind, a group of boys soon made the troll connection and our classmate soon became fodder for rhymes and jokes. I would never join in the humiliating teasing, but I had not yet developed the courage to take them on. The struggling poet I yearned to be also had to admit it was a remarkable rhyme. So I shared the jokes with my sister, sixteen months older, at home, giggling incessantly while we played on the living room floor. I didn’t see my mother frowning in the doorway.
“Fatty Troll, Fatty Troll!” I sang a little ditty about the adventures of my poor classmate. I knew better, but I let myself roll out a song about as disrespectful and mean-spirited as I could make it. I’m sure every insecurity I had about myself, my own body and my swap-shop clothes went into that melody. My mother stood at the door for a moment and then swiftly removed me from the room and onto a dining room chair. I knew I was in trouble. It was the 11th Commandment: thou shall not mock thy fellow creature. Better to be in Dante’s Circle Nine of Hell than to break the compassion rule. I tried a weak defense. “I didn’t make it up. The other kids did.”
“You repeated it, so it’s yours now.” She wasn’t budging.
I had to admire her logic. In fact, I had plenty of time to admire it from my seat on the dining room chair. I also was too dug in to admit my wrong. So I sat some more. My sister tried to hide her giggling in the next room. Never had playing with her looked so appealing as it did from the seat of shame. Finally I called out in agony, “Okay, I’m sorry.”
“So, you’ve learned something.”
“Yes, can I go now.” I was almost back in control.
“You can go when you are ready not to do that again.” Again, I had to admire her logic. I sat a while longer.
“Okay, I won’t do it again. Really.” The rhyme played in my head like the world’s most perfect jingle, “Fatty Troll, Fatty Troll,” but I didn’t say it out loud.
“It’s not what you do but what you want to do.” My mother could always out-smart me.
I was a Sunday School and a prayers-before-bedtime girl. The issue came up again at bedtime. Yes, I was truly sorry. By then I was. I felt like I not only let down my mother and family line, I had also let down God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I was miserable for a few days, until my Heavenly Father found a way to deepen the lesson. My classmate’s mother invited me to her home to play and my mother accepted for me.
Her house was small, like mine, and surprisingly warm and friendly. No dark caves or under-bridge hideouts. She had a cute baby sister who followed us around and a lot of great toys. I had fun, despite being an incredibly shy child with fears of Heaven’s retribution. We even had a great snack, one my mother probably could not afford. My mother picked me up from an afternoon of play (I think we pretended we were teachers) in our old Buick with my brother and sister peering out the window. I didn’t say a word, but the feeling in the car confirmed my wrong-doing and my having found a better path for myself.
Years later an old friend sent me a creative writing student publication from junior high. I had moved to the Midwest from our Wilmington, DE, home just as I started high school. I did not remember seeing my pony-tailed classmate in the halls or classrooms in junior high. Our paths never crossed. But there among the short stories and poems was a lovely poem by my classmate, urging us to consider the brotherhood of all mankind:
“So reach out across each sea and shore
You’ll find a friend forevermore.”