Most people felt awkward and uncomfortable around her. Maybe it was the way she dressed. Though her clothes were clean, they always looked as though she got them from the thrift store and didn’t bother about whether they were in style or if they even matched. It was obvious that she didn’t put much thought into what she wore…
Or maybe people felt it was painful to be around her because of what she said. She was never one to shy around speaking what was on her mind, no matter how unpopular her position might be. She often spoke what others were thinking, but were too afraid to speak aloud, and she always talked about Jesus, and quoted scriptures…
Or perhaps, it had nothing to do with what she said or what she wore. She had a certain knack for looking a person straight in the eye, and it was as though she could see right into the very depths of your soul. People don’t like that. It makes them nervous…
Maybe it was all of those things together, or maybe it was none of those things. Most people just didn’t like Cora Simms, and if you asked them why, they couldn’t really tell you. They just didn’t. I didn’t like her either… but that was before I got to know her.
We were both fourteen the spring of our freshman year of high school, sharing the same history class. And though her desk was next to mine, we never spoke. You see, while I wasn’t the most popular kid in school, I didn’t want to risk losing what little bit of popularity I did enjoy, by talking to Cora. The sad thing was, if it wasn’t for her weird clothes and crazy hairstyles — oh! I forgot to tell you about them!
You never knew what Cora’s hair would look like from one day to the next. When we were in kindergarten and first grade, she used to come to school with bangs cut almost two inches above her eyebrows. The other kids used to laugh and make fun of her when she came to school sporting those bangs, and even though I laughed too, there was something sort of sad looking about her. It was like all the weight of the world was on her shoulders, even at that young age, and those ridiculously short bangs, exposed big blue eyes that looked much older and sadder than a child that age should feel. Even the teachers were nervous around her.
Anyway, as she got older, she grew her bangs out, and she would come to school with all sorts of odd looking hairstyles. She came to school with dreadlocks, when we were around ten years old, and everyone laughed so much at her I thought they would wet themselves. I don’t want you to think I was a perfect angel when all this was going on, because I laughed too, but inside, it made me feel dirty, you know? Like I said, those eyes of hers could see right through you, and I always felt bad when people laughed at her. Mind you, I never felt bad enough to defend her (after all, I had my own image to protect), but I knew it was wrong, and I felt really sorry for her…
So there we were, in the same history class, sitting next to each other, yet we were worlds apart. It was as though we were from different planets, until that fateful day when our worlds collided… “You and your partner will have six weeks from today to work on this project, which will account for 1/2 of your final grade. You and your partner must research one of the topics on this list, write a one thousand word report, and prepare a visual presentation, as well as a fifteen minute oral presentation to be shared with the class. This will take the place of a final exam.”
Mrs. Stiegler seemed quite pleased with herself, while the rest of us groaned, and then she did the unthinkable! She announced that she would be choosing our partners, rather than leaving it up to us. At the time, we all thought she was heartless, for not allowing us to choose our own partners, but I have to smile now, as I look back on that day. By choosing our partners for us, she was allowing us to escape from the idiotic social cliques we limited ourselves to… but the funny thing was, she didn’t break every faction. She paired my best friend, Jimmy Gray with Saundra Brown, the girl of his dreams. Man, you should have seen the look on his face, when Mrs. Stiegler teamed them up. Ha! You should have seen the look on Saundra’s face!
There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to her pairings. Best friends Amy Green and Shelley Long were assigned to work together, possibly because they would have made anyone else miserable, had they been assigned to work with either girl. Anyway, as she worked her way down the class roster, she came to my name, “Ben Franklin,” okay, you can stop laughing now. I didn’t pick my name. My parents did. Apparently, Benjamin Franklin was my ancestor, a fact that my parents were very proud of, hence my name… Of course this fact was also the source of great amusement among my peers, and I’ve heard all the stupid Ben Franklin jokes in existence.
“Ben Franklin,” Mrs. Stiegler continued, “your partner is Cora Simms.” The class erupted into laughter until they were silenced by the firm voice of their teacher, who threatened to sentence every one of them with a week of detentions. After assigning partners, Mrs. Stiegler instructed us to spend the remainder of the period with our partners, and choose one of the topics from the list, then begin planning our projects.
Many of the students groaned, as they moved to sit next to their partners, and since Cora and I already sat next to each other, I simply moved my desk right up to hers. Then groaning with the rest of the class, I looked at Cora for the first time since being ordered to partner with her, and was startled to see her looking at me — actually it felt as though she was looking through me and into me. I felt my face getting hot, and my ears were burning. I knew without looking that my face and ears were beet red, as Cora’s intense soul searching look began to change, and her serious expression was replaced with an amused grin. As I watched her countenance change, I couldn’t help but join her in amusement, as we both burst into laughter, before settling down to choose the subject of our project.
Cora already knew the subject she wanted us to study and present for our project, and since I really didn’t care, I went along with her, signing up to do a project on The Lost Colony of Roanoke, North Carolina. Such a large project would require spending a lot of time together outside the classroom. Therefore, we agreed to meet each other that evening at the local library, so we could get a jump on things.
When I got to the library that night, I saw that Cora had already arrived and gotten a table for us — a table with five or six books piled on it. She was sitting there at the table, reading and writing notes in a spiral tablet. As I walked over to the table with my back pack in hand, I smiled as I saw her bent over the books, twirling the hair from one of her fifteen ponytails around her index finger, while she read. Whoever heard of a girl with fifteen ponytails back then?
Cora was one of a kind. And as we spent time researching The Lost Colony, I discovered that she was really interesting. She was funny and witty, and really smart too. We talked a lot that night — not just about The Lost Colony, but about the things that interested us, the things that irritated us, and the things that made us laugh out loud, and I discovered that I really liked her. After spending some time with her, she didn’t seem as weird as I’d thought she was, and really, if you looked past the funny hairstyles and all, she was actually sort of pretty, in a weird and quirky way.
I invited her to come to my house Saturday morning, so we could figure out how we were going to present our project. I’d never talked to a girl and shared as much as I did with Cora, and as I talked, she looked at me with those deep blue eyes that seemed to see so much, and she listened, without interrupting, without laughing at my secret thoughts, without judging me. I’d never met anyone like her, and when I asked her to share her thoughts, I was amazed at how deep they ran.
We talked about Amy Green and Shelley Long, and how snobby and cruelly they treated others, and though neither of us spoke the obvious, Cora was their most frequent victim. I told Cora how angry they made me, (and they did, though truthfully, I never told them so, for fear I might become one of their victims). Cora’s thoughts were much kinder and more mature than mine were. She actually felt sorry for them, explaining that they didn’t know what they were doing, and telling me, “Instead of being angry with them, Ben, you should pray for God to have mercy on them, because they are in danger of going to hell.” Now, how does a young man, (okay, a boy) of fourteen respond to something like that?
After spending the whole day together, Mom invited Cora to stay for dinner, but with what seemed like a look of sheer panic, she quickly excused herself, grabbed her books, and headed toward the door. I offered to carry her books for her and walk her home, but she adamantly refused, insisting that she was strong enough to carry her own books. Mom stepped in, and taking my side, she won that battle, telling Cora that she must allow me to escort her home and carry her books, because the sky was darkening, and Ben (uh me, that is), needed to learn how to be a gentleman.
Cora didn’t stand a chance, ’cause Mom wouldn’t back down. The truth is, I didn’t mind walking her home. I’d really enjoyed our time together, and I wasn’t in a hurry for it to end. Besides, I wanted to see where she lived and to meet her parents. I wondered if they were as quirky and interesting as Cora was.
“Ben please,” she grabbed my arm, and I was surprised to note that her hand was trembling. I looked down into her eyes, those deep blue eyes that seemed to see things much too far, and I was shocked to see tears swimming in her eyes.
“Cora,” I said gently, suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to hold her protectively in my arms, though I didn’t yet know what to protect her from. “What’s wrong?” I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but the next thing I knew, Cora Simms, burst into tears and began sobbing. loudly, right there, on the sidewalk, in front of all those houses. I was just a fourteen year old boy — I didn’t know what to do when a girl starts crying for seemingly no reason. “Please, Cora,” I pleaded, “Tell me what’s wrong, so I can help you.”
“Y-y-you can’t come to my house,” she cried, totally disconsolate, as her tears flowed unchecked. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. “My house isn’t like yours,” she said miserably, sniffling, as she sat down on the sidewalk, refusing to walk any farther. “My family isn’t like yours.”
“Well, of course they aren’t,” I said ignorantly, not understanding what she was trying to tell me. “All families are different. That’s okay.”
“No,” she said vehemently, sniffing and wiping her nose on her sleeve. “It’s not okay. Your family loves you. They care about what you do with your life. Your mom cares whether you’re a gentleman or not. They want what’s best for you. Ben, not all families are like that. Please, try to understand– I – I just can’t bring you to my home. I just can’t,” she finished despondently, her eyes avoiding mine, as she looked off into space somewhere.
As I sat down beside her, something weird happened. I stole a glance at her, and she looked so little and pretty in an odd sort of way, and my heart just flopped inside, and suddenly, as I sat there with her, I didn’t think she was so strange anymore. She had somehow changed into someone very precious to me. I wanted to protect her and do whatever was necessary to help her and make her life easier. “It’s okay, Cora. I care about you.” Her head snapped around, and she gave me a hard stare, with those eyes of hers searching the depths of my heart and examining my soul.
Whatever it was that she found there, must have satisfied her, because she sighed softly, then gently laid her head against my chest. I know I was just a fourteen year old boy then, but right then, a part of the man I would one day become, was birthed in that moment, and I knew that no matter where life took us, I would always be there for her. With those beautiful, soul searching blue eyes of hers gazing deeply into mine, she spoke softly, “It’s not okay, Ben. If my parents find out about you, they won’t allow me to work on the project with you, and they’ll make my life worse than it already is.”
“Then, we won’t let them find out,” I replied. That night, she walked the rest of the way home alone, or so she thought. I followed from a safe distance, to make sure she got home safely, while staying back far enough so she and her family wouldn’t see me. We met regularly at the library, and this raised no suspicion from her parents, who were used to her visiting at the library on a daily basis, and sometimes, we’d leave the library to work on the project at my house.
My parents liked Cora a lot, so much, in fact, that they began to talk about inviting Cora’s parents to our home for dinner. Cora almost panicked, and we decided not to hang out at my house anymore, to prevent my parents from contacting Cora’s. We both agreed that it would be best to confine our time together to the time we spent in the library working on our project, and my parents, believing that Cora and I were nothing more than study buddies, abandoned their idea of inviting Cora’s family to our home, much to Cora’s relief.
The final four weeks preceding the presentation of our project flew by, and Cora and I worked very hard on it. I knew, without a doubt, that this was the best I had ever done on a school project, and it was all because of Cora. She was so smart, and so serious about learning, yet, she had this way of making research fun and exciting. Cora was so different from every other girl I’d ever known, and I couldn’t help myself. I loved her with all of the love a fourteen year old boy has, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
The day of our presentation dawned brightly, and I awoke with a bittersweet feeling in my chest. On the one hand, I was excited, because as I said before, this was the best work I’d ever done. Also, I was eager for everyone to see that Cora wasn’t really strange… I wanted them to see just how special and smart she really was. My heart was pounding really hard when I got to the classroom and took my seat. Cora wasn’t there when the late bell sounded, and I knew that something was terribly wrong for her not to be in class to present this project that we had worked on so hard together.
I worried and I wondered what had happened to Cora all day, but because I had promised never to go to her home or call her, I had no way of contacting her. So, I went home, feeling confused and forlorn. “Why wasn’t she in school today?” I wondered for the umpteenth time that day, as I pushed my dinner plate away, unable to eat, because I was sick with worry about her.
“Ben, get in here, now!” my mom shouted from the living room, while I was putting the dishes in the dishwasher after dinner. Startled, I ran to the living room with a knot in the pit of my stomach, as a premonition of dread washed over me.
In disbelief, I saw a picture of Cora on the television screen, and then a picture of a man and woman in handcuffs, coming out of Cora’s home. According to the news report, both the man and the woman, Cora’s parents, in a drunken rage, had allegedly beat her to death.
Like a little child, I burst into tears, as I told them about how Cora wouldn’t allow me to walk her home, because my family was not like hers. I was overcome with guilt and shame, as I shared the little that I knew about Cora’s home life with my parents, who in turn, called the police, so that I could share what little I knew with them.
The police also discovered several journals that Cora had kept, which detailed the many cruelties she had suffered at the hands of her abusive parents. Her most recent journal chronicled our relationship, and the joys we had shared together, as we researched The Lost Colony of Roanoke. It was comforting to know that I had brought some joy into her otherwise painful existence.
I didn’t think I would ever recover from the pain of losing Cora, but I was young, and God had blessed me with good and caring parents, who loved me and prayed for me. Because of the wisdom and love our Creator bestowed on my parents, they were able to help me overcome my grief. It was also through the love and wisdom lavished on me by my Father, God, that I came to the realization that Cora Simms, a girl dubbed as odd or weird by many, was just peculiar. Simply put, Cora Simms was not of this world.
If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. ~ John 15:19 — NKJV ~
Now, twenty years later, I’m a father of two sons and three beautiful daughters. Because of the pain and abuse my friend, Cora suffered, I’m now a children’s advocate in the fight against child abuse of all kinds, and also against domestic violence. I also minister not only to abuse victims, but also to abusers. It is through this ministry, that God is using the tragic death of Cora to help put an end to the cycle of abuse.
Cheryl A. Showers