Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Part one

My history with school is long and complicated, and I have so many mixed feelings that I feel I need to sort them out somewhere. Seeing the whole story unrolled in front of me like a parchment may be the only way to do this. It goes without saying that these posts are written for me, though I don't doubt that parts of them will echo in the hearts of others. At the very least I hope to untangle some of the crossed wires in my own. This is the beginning of a series of essays about how I got where I am regarding school and in spite of school.

Everything I Need to Know

When I was very little I loved to learn, and I was excited to go to school and sit in the big-kid desks. My parents and grandparents had talked it up. "You're so smart!" they said. "You'll be great!" In the mail came a school bag full of coloring books, gifts from a great-aunt which were meant to teach me about shapes and colors and numbers that I already knew. I did them voluntarily anyway, because they were new and a gift, and because it's not every day that a five-year-old gets special mail just for her. I learned the word "semicircle", which I read myself. Everything else was old hat.

I was psyched up for kindergarten from the first time I heard about it right up until the moment my mother left me there. Somehow I hadn't thought about that part before. Suddenly I was little and scared, and big-kid desks and shiny apples didn't matter anymore. They didn't give us big-kid desks anyway, except for one kid who by the second day of school was already Labeled and had to sit by herself. I don't know what her Label was, but it must have been official and scary since she never got a chance to decide whether she was good or not like the rest of us did. I decided I was bad by crying on the first day. At home when I cried I got a hug or at least whoever was yelling would cut it out. Now I got my name on the board with TWO checks and I was going to the principal's office if I didn't stop right now. I had never been to a principal's office before, but I was pretty sure it was where they sent Really Bad people who were too young to go to jail.

At home I had nightmares about going to jail for not doing well in kindergarten. At school I would throw up on the playground from nerves. "She's doing it on purpose," said the teacher. "She just wants to go home." The teacher was difficult, but the work was easy. I could already read and count and add a little, and that was all there was. Still I remember much anxiety over coloring. I didn't see the point of coloring someone else's pictures; I wanted to draw my own. Math papers came home with all the answers right and a grade of C because I didn't color the puppy at the top. Another child's mother brought cupcakes and I didn't get one because I was daydreaming instead of using my crayons to Take A Bite Out of Crime. "You can have one when you're done," the mother said sweetly. "Yeah - when and if" my teacher snarked.

I got head lice from another girl in school. When my parents came to pick me up, the teacher scolded them. "You have to wash her hair more," she said. "At least every other day." The teacher had a perm. I had wavy, troublesome hair that I inherited from my grandmother, who washed hers once a week. But teachers know best, so I was switched to every other day. By second grade my hair resembled a tumbleweed - a dried-out, dusty knot, albeit a clean one. I still got lice again. I did not learn good hair care, but I did learn that my parents were inferior and if they and my teachers didn't agree, the teachers were right. My parents said I was good and smart, but teachers didn't seem to think so. And teachers knew best.

There was fun in kindergarten too, of course. There were dinosaurs and pink Play-Doh and the letter A spelled in Apple Jacks. There was Hot Potato and Red Rover and a record that told us to tiptoe and gallop and skip. I got to bring my dog to school for the other kids to play with, and on the last day we all got to throw a giant beach ball around. I glowed with pride when I found out I had passed kindergarten, and with All S's too. I was good at this school thing after all.

When I stepped into the first grade classroom the next year, I barely glanced back at my mother. Another girl was crying and begging hers not to leave. "Sheesh," I thought, "this is first grade, and she still wants her mom. Didn't she learn anything from kindergarten?

She must not be as good at school as I am."

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