Bertha came into my life when I was thirteen years old and just beginning junior high school. How well I remember that first day of school. The building was large with endless halls and rows and rows of student lockers. Most of the students had come on school buses from small farms and neighborhoods. This was certainly not a big city group, but we were still anxious to be popular and accepted. There were so many of us that we were going to be using a former elementary school across the street for additional classrooms. I alternated between excitement and panic at the thought of finding my way around from one classroom to another.
I had worked hard all summer baby-tending and getting up at 5:00 A.M. to pick strawberries and cherries so I could earn enough money to buy nice school clothes. But even in all my fine new clothes, I felt awkward and uneasy.
My friends and I grouped together, trying to act in a casual manner to hide the fear we felt but didn’t dare admit. We were in awe as the older students moved confidently through the halls laughing and teasing each other. It was a relief when the bell finally rang and we all gathered in the big assembly hall where it was announced that each new student was to be assigned for the day to an older “big brother or sister” to show them around. The name of each new student was called out, along with the name of his or her “buddy” for the day.
When my name was called along with Bertha Brown, I heard several of my friends gasp. I had no idea who Bertha Brown was, but it was obvious that some of them did. As soon as we were excused to go meet our “big sisters,” I was surrounded by girls telling me to hide quickly before Bertha could find me. It was clear that to be assigned to Bertha was the worst possible fate. I was so confused. Part of me said not to hide—that would be a mean thing to do. But another part of me wanted to be popular with the other girls, and that’s the side that won.
So the game began—the hiding, the giggling, and the running from imagined danger. We managed to escape from Bertha for the moment, but not before I caught a glimpse of her. It was true that she was not pretty. She was even a little scary to look at with her unkempt, dry hair. Her clothes looked like something a grandmother would wear, and her shoes were brown and ugly.
All day the big story was how poor little Sheron had to hide from Bertha. The one time that I really saw Bertha’s face she looked so sad. How could we be so mean to her? I thought. She hadn’t done anything to deserve it. There we were, a whole group of girls, running away from one lonely person. I knew that what we were doing was wrong. I didn’t want to play that awful game. What I really wanted was to talk to Bertha and tell her I was sorry. I knew that she must be embarrassed. But I wasn’t brave enough, so I let everyone else lead me. But oh, I was miserable!
Later that day I forgot about Bertha when I was called to Mrs. Jensen’s office. She had been my very favorite teacher in elementary school, and now she was a counselor at the junior high. I could hardly wait to see her. All the way to her office I imagined all kinds of wonderful things. Maybe she wanted me to be her special assistant. Maybe she had something important that she wanted me to do. I almost ran through the halls in my eagerness to see Mrs. Jensen. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
When I walked into her office, I could see tears in her eyes, and my heart nearly broke when she looked straight at me and said, “Of all the girls coming into seventh grade, I assigned Bertha to you because I thought that you were the one girl who would be kind to her!”
All the misery of the day came crashing down on me, and I sobbed as I realized that Mrs. Jensen did have an important assignment for me and I had failed her. I had failed Bertha. But, most of all, I had betrayed myself. The next day everyone else forgot about the game—and Bertha. I never did. I rarely saw her after that day. When I did catch a glimpse of her all alone, I wanted desperately to tell her how sorry I was. But I was too ashamed and too young in my understanding of compassion to know how much it would mean to her.
I never saw Bertha again after junior high, and yet she has been a very important part of my life. Even today I wish that I had found the courage to be her friend. How do you say you are sorry to someone that you have never spoken to and yet hurt so deeply that more than thirty years later you cannot forget?
I finally dealt with what I had done to Bertha one Easter when I was studying about the atonement of Christ. How grateful I am to the Savior for his sacrifice and for the realization that through his wonderful gift I can finally lay that burden down and find peace and forgiveness—not that I will forget, but that I can now use the lesson to improve my life and bless others.
Because of Bertha, I have never again knowingly been unkind to anyone, and I have tried to teach my children the same. I have a special place in my heart for those who don’t seem to fit in, for those who are lonely and forgotten. Because of Bertha, it is easier for me to see beyond the surface and understand the heart of those I meet. I have tried to make it up to her by the way I treat others, but I will always wish that I could see her and say, “I’m sorry, Bertha.”