THE RAG MAN

By John Thomas Tuft

It all started when Petey Peterson was sent to the principal’s office. Seems he led a revolt in the elementary school cafeteria, first lunch period. And, well, if it wasn’t nipped in the bud, the rest of the lunch periods might be full blown anarchy. Mr. Christopher, the principal, listened to the lunch ladies pour opprobrium on this unlikely 11 year old reprobate. Petey, for his part, sat quietly with a faint smile playing across his lips. “We have rules! And there’s a purpose for these rules. Children have to know that they have to take responsibility for their actions,” thundered the lunch ladies’ supervisor.

Mr. Christopher sighed, before interrupting, “What exactly did Mr. Peterson do?”  Mrs. Kowalski drew in a big breath: “He tried to help Meghan Fields get lunch. Her family is in arrears for $26 on her lunch account. Rules are rules, Mr. Christopher. If we let one child get away with it…” The principal matched the lunch lady’s deep breath and raised her one, blowing it out through pursed lips. “What did he do exactly?” “He tried to give her his lunch. That’s not the way this works, as you well know. Then, when we stopped him, he dropped his tray on the floor. Right in front of me!” One hand on her hip, she continued, “Then the other children stood up, marched over, and one by one, one hundred and fifteen of them, mind you, dropped their trays of food on the floor. Every last one of them!” The harried man turned to Petey, who was still calmly smiling. “What do you have to say for yourself, Petey?” Petey gave a shrug. “She was hungry.  If she doesn’t eat, none of us eat. The rag man said, Be Bold. And Be Brave.”

Next up it was Carla Whitehead, a tiny for her age third grader with a beautiful smile, and a soft voice. Carla disappeared during an active shooter drill. One minute she, along with everyone else, was scrambling to get hunkered down in the closets, being perfectly still under the desks, or cowering beneath the bleachers in the gym. The next moment she was gone. Nowhere to be found. Teachers and administrators frantic. Distraught parents besieging the principal’s office. Scary and solemn police officers turning the school upside down.

While the children gathered in the gym and held hands and sang songs, the superintendent tried to calm the parents’ fears. “She’s only a child,” exclaimed a mom. “How could you let this happen?” “If you can’t keep even one little girl safe,” shouted an angry father, “maybe we should just keep our kids home.” As the police were radioing headquarters for more help, the front door opened. In walked Carla,

nonplussed and smiling beautifully, as she spoke softly to the teenage boy all dressed in black, who held her hand. In his other he held a long gun case. Carla stopped in front of Mr. Christopher, who was beside himself. “What do you have to say for yourself, Carla?” She smiled and said in that soft voice of hers, “He was scared. If he’s scared, we’re all scared. The rag man said, Be Bold. And Be Brave.”

Things were getting back to normal when Miss Rush, a kindergarten teacher, showed up at the principal’s door. “Mr. Christopher, you’re going to want to see this.” The intrepid principal took a couple of aspirin and followed her out to the playground. All the school children were outside. But instead of laughter and shrieks and squabbles, the playground was silent. Completely and utterly silent. As if on an unspoken command the children separated themselves into two groups on opposite sides of the playground. With a minimum of noise the two groups lined up facing each other, one group in the sun, the other group in the shade.

A fifth grader stepped out of line and, using a big, pointed stick, drew a line right down the middle between the two groups. Petey and Carla stepped away from the group in the sun and approached the line. When they reached the makeshift border they stopped. And lay down in the dirt. Petey put his arm protectively around Carla’s shoulder, as though shielding the small child, holding her close, while swimming a river of desperation. If you simply glanced at them, one might mistake them for a pile of discarded rags. A first grader in the sun group spoke up, “They were seeking a home.” A fourth grader from the shade group said, “If they don’t have a home, none of us has a home.”

And the rag man said, Be Bold. And Be Brave…

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.