August 18, 2018

it felt like the first day of school

The same song that gave me full-spine chills the first time I heard it, the song that played on the radio and in my head after I dropped my son off for his first day of kindergarten with a new backpack and pencil box and name tag and spent the drive to work afterward singing along with a clenched throat, is with me again.  It's something to do with the slant of the light and the upcoming bustle on my calendar and the construction paper on sale at the grocery store:

"I had a dream that blows the autumn through my head
It felt like the first day of school
But I was going to the Moon instead
I walked down the hall with the notebooks they'd got for me
My dad led me through the house
My mom drank instant coffee
And I knew that I would crash
But I didn't want to tell them
There are just some moments when your family makes sense
They just make sense
So I raised up my arms and my mother put the sweater on
I walked out on the dark and frozen grass
The end of summer
It's the end of the summer
When you send your children to the moon."

--Dar Williams, "End of the Summer"

I don't remember my first trip to the moon, only the mimeographed red apple sheet that I colored with new crayons while my mother talked with my kindergarten teacher and assessed my readiness.  I've already discussed what kindergarten was like for me.  I was a plaything across the school.  Instead of learning those fumbling first steps of making and keeping friends, I was whisked from the class so regularly that I knew the halls of the elementary school, passed around among teacher after teacher and asked to read difficult passages from middle school reading textbooks, perform multiplication and division problems, type stories on their newly-acquired IBM PC, absorb Spanish numbers and colors and phrases, solve pattern problems with blocks and weird little kits.  Other times, I was confined to my cramped desk in my kindergarten classroom, being treated like a kindergarten student.  I sometimes sat on the floor under my desk to hide, though plainly visible.  And I sometimes left my seat and asked my teacher for a hug.  She gave them freely.

My kindergarten teacher wrote me letters until I was in my twenties.  Every few years, she would check in to see how I was doing.  This tells me my experience was not a typical one at that school.  It also tells me that she knew they didn't do quite right by me.  I suspect most of how I fared there was not left up to her.

First grade was more of the same, until my family moved to the next town and I had to transfer schools.  I was uprooted and planted in different soil, and exposed to an entirely new approach.  My first grade teacher called my parents in to discuss, not my intellectual development, but my social deficits, after I showed her the Pythagorean theorem on the chalkboard one morning and she spent the rest of the day observing my aura of solitude.  I remember the first day in her classroom.  The girl named Danielle with frizzy blonde hair stared at me, and she seemed to have command of the group of children who surrounded my seat, and I knew with a child's simple, tribal understanding that I would be alone in that room, no adults to fill in for the children who would never accept me.  So it goes with all new kids arriving mid-year.

My parents agreed to stop teaching me things at home, and I was away from teachers who did the same thing, so the rest of the year brought boredom, and cautious accolades from the teacher for completing my math worksheets in record time, and watching Ricky the skinny kid with long hair do the worm and several other break-dancing moves during recess.

In second grade, my teacher loved me, and did a poor job of treating me the same as the other students.  She was a thimble of water in a desert.  I adored her.  I adored the perfume she wore.  I sat beside her desk and basked in it.  I spent that year engaged in reading as many books as possible in competition with others and in re-learning much of the math I had lost.  Sometimes the principal of the school would come watch me do long division.

I wonder if they ever discussed me in meetings.

In third grade, my teacher may as well have been a robot, for all her cool, impassive presence.  I cannot recall a single kind word, only emotional inaccessibility already well-known to me at home.  It was a split classroom, half third-graders and half fourth-graders, and we lower citizens were expected to complete worksheets while she taught the older students multiplication.  I would call out the answers before any of the other kids could, and she would rebuke me and tell me to mind my own business.  The girl named Danielle would stick her tongue out at me when the teacher wasn't looking.  But I remember when we drew names at Christmas and brought in wrapped gifts.  I got a pack of magic markers from Leslie that smelled of fruit scents.  The black one was licorice.  I treasured them.

Fourth grade was the year when we all began to develop the social awareness that would follow us for life.  One girl already had to wear a bra.  Many of us were already discovering bad breath and deodorant and cliques and baseball cards and a thousand other ways of finding safety in a tribe.  My teacher is at fault for at least two-thirds of the nails in my social coffin.  She would stand me in front of the class with her hands on my shoulders and tell everyone how they should be like me, making perfect marks on classwork and working so very hard and being a model student.  I could almost hear their fangs filling with venom to be used later.

I was lucky.  I only got a black eye once that year, only endured verbal pummeling from two fifth graders in the car rider line after school, under the symbolically protective gaze of several teachers, and I was more or less unmolested when I played on the playground monkey bars by myself.  I did make a friend named Louise from another class.  We liked to be alone together at recess and pretend that we had psychic abilities, but I can't remember if we used them for anything other than describing made-up visions and predicting when persimmons would fall to the ground from the tree next to the swings.  I would go home at night and read in our 1971 encyclopedia set about the differences between telekinesis and clairvoyance and mental telepathy, then go to bed and fall asleep trying to close my bedroom door with my mind.  I never even budged it, but I kept that from Louise.

My fourth-grade teacher did do something right, though.  I had a purple bracelet with my name spelled out in beads.  I had bought it from Zayre after saving up weeks and weeks of allowance money, my heart set on it.  The other girl in my class with the same name nabbed it one day, and put it on, and claimed it was hers.  I brought the case before our teacher in considerable distress, the judge, and each of us said it was hers.  Our teacher said she could not prove either of us was being truthful, so she confiscated the bracelet.  After school, she came to me and said she'd seen me wearing it before, and gave it back, and asked me to take it home, but to never wear it to school again, because it would cause trouble.  I can think of three better ways now that she could have managed this predicament, but at the time, it felt like mercy and validation, and I did as she asked.  I have no idea what became of the bracelet.

I had a male teacher in fifth grade, something new to all of us, and school became a lot more academic that year.  I failed my first test.  I also became the butt of a thousand practical jokes played by a group of boys, the ones destined to be the popular kids, and had the girls form a club for the purpose of tormenting me.  One day, without permission, I made my seat in the back of the room by  dragging a school desk alongside two discarded stacked teachers' desks draped with a cloth, just-so in the corner, turning it into a cool, dark private space where I could listen and pay attention and also hide and feel safe.  It was highly impractical because I had to climb over my desk to get out each time.  But it was a clubhouse.  It was Martha's Vineyard.  It was Wade's van in Ready Player One.

The teacher was assailed with jealous pleading and wailing and gnashing of teeth by the club girls because I had created and claimed this coveted space, but he listened with a blank expression and never altered the arrangement.  I think he perceived the situation clearly and decided I needed the desk more than anyone else.  Sometimes, tiny justices are what save us.

Sixth grade.  This is how I entered my Teacher's classroom, crowned with all of the possibilities that advancement to middle school bestowed, but showing no other sign of royalty beneath my pauper's rags as I took my seat in front of the far left row, right in front of her desk.  I was still alone, and thirsty, and longing to hide under something or become invisible.  On the first day of school, she looked at me holding a crisp, new green notebook, the one who had crashed yet again on the moon and clambered out of the familiar, fitting wreckage, the one who radiated need, the one who had crumpled in the face of adversity instead of growing stronger, and she smiled at me.

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