My daughter went back to school yesterday . . .
She went willingly and with a smile, so that’s always a good thing. Her mother was sure to take a photograph before our little girl walked across the street to her bus stop. And I admit to a quick tear in the corner of my eye when I saw the photograph. My daughter is beautiful, and I know I had something to do with that.
Other than my first day in first grade, I have no detailed memories of any first day back to school. I only remember not wanting to go. I didn’t want to walk through the double doors that opened into the corridors and smell the same familiar smells, as if the hallways were just cleaned and waxed.
I never wanted to deal with the teachers, or that “knowing” look they would give me. They looked at me as if they knew I was going to fail—but if I was going to fail, then I was going to fail on my terms. If I were to fail then I would fail in a blaze of glory and perfectly burn each bridge behind me as I went along. In a word, I was frustrated . . .
I suppose I somehow fell through the cracks and my learning disabilities were never diagnosed. But times were different then. Our awareness was different and yesterday’s issues would be approached differently in today’s society.
On the other hand, my behavior and antics in the classrooms were not helpful. I was a wild distraction to the other students. I admit that I would not have the patience to teach a student that behaved as I did. But, then again, this is why I never became a teacher.
First day, first grade, I was looking forward to see what school was about. This was a chance to meet new people and see new things. I was excited, and since I wanted to be ready with anything the teacher asked for, I began to sharpen one of my pencils.
It did not matter that I didn’t know how to read or write, and it did not matter that I didn’t have a piece of paper to write on—but just in case the teacher asked us to write something down, I would be ready.
The classroom was somewhat dim in color with cinderblock walls, painted in a glossy tan. The white ceiling was foot-sized squares of acoustical ceiling tiles with overhead fluorescent light fixtures, which hummed while lighting the classroom.
The floor tiles were checkerboard in color; I think the colors were green and maroon. There were a few green indoor plants on the waist-high shelf near the lower sashed, horizontal tilt-out windows, and the teacher’s desk was organized with a desk pad. Her books stood perfectly lined at the edge with a ceramic apple to act as a bookend.
There were age-appropriate decorations on the walls; there were scatted pictures, letters of the alphabet, and colorful streamers hung just below the ceiling’s height. The desks were small to accommodate small bodies. They came with an enclosed shelf beneath the tabletop, which was a light-colored shade of plastic wood. The seats were wooden and the steel desk frames were painted in a glossy shade of gray.
As an incentive to my excitement, my mother gave me some school supplies, which came in a plastic pouch. I removed that pouch from the shelf beneath the tabletop of my assigned seat. Then I removed one of my yellow #2 pencils and slid its flat wooded-side into the plastic sharpener, which also came with my pouch of supplies. Turning the pencil slowly so that the wood shaving would peel off in a long thin strip, I continued until the flat edges peeled away and the black tip was pointed and sharp.
The teacher, Mrs. Goldman, must have noticed I was doing something under my desk, so she walked over to investigate. I assume my zeal to learn was not the problem; however, she took great offense to the fact that I allowed the pencil shavings to fall on the floor.
She began to yell at me. She yelled loudly, but I had never been spoken to like that. I was never yelled at or humiliated in front of a roomful of other children before. As I recall, everyone in the classroom was watching me, and all I wanted to do was be ready . . .
“Clean that up,” she commanded.
“How dare you!” she shouted.
Mrs. Goldman sent me to the front of the room to fetch the wastebasket beside her desk. I felt the rage begin as she continued to scold me. The humiliation picked up to the speed of blurring outrage, and by the time I reached the front of the classroom, my anger was uncontrollable
She shouted, “I want you to clean that up, this instant!”
But I snapped . . .
Rather than do as she ordered, I jumped up on top of Mrs.. Goldman’s desk. Then I kicked her books to the floor, and shouted back, “Why are you yelling at me?”
Safe to say, this was a warning of school years to come. And while this story may have a sad tone to it; I laugh.
I try to laugh about this with my mother, though she doesn’t like to remember it.
I sometimes ask her, “Didn’t you see that as like a sign?”
My mother just closes her eyes and nods her head the way an old woman nods when thinking of the days she would re-do when she was younger.
Then she smiles. “You were definitely a handful,” she tells me.
In my last months in the public school system, I was cornered by one of the teachers. (This is what I refer to as the Fred Flintstone Incident)
He was much bigger than me. His large nose was pocked and his breath smelled from too much coffee. Most of the students commented on his resemblance to Fred Flintstone, and no one liked him.
He crowded me into the rear corner of the classroom beside the wall the Plexiglas windows, which tilted outward from the second floor, and faced the front courtyard on Wenwood Drive.
He growled, “You know what I would like to do to you?”
His shoulders hunched forward as he towered over me. His upper lip curled with rage and his teeth clenched together. “I would love to kick the shit out of you!”
He told me, “You’re never going to be anything more than a bum.”
“You’re a loser, and if I could get away with it, I would kick the shit out of you right here, right now.”
I looked up at him. The wind from his foul heavy breath covered my face as he panted on me. The opened collar to his blue, buttoned-down dress shirt revealed the angry veins that pulsated with contempt at the sides of his throat. The teacher’s wide body pressed towards me; his large belly hung over his dark colored suit pants, and his black shoed feet were twice the size of mine.
“But you can’t get away with it,” I told him. “You can’t even touch me.”
The teacher let out a slight, but evil laugh. He called me a “Stupid little punk,” as I pushed my way passed him and exited the classroom. Then I left, and skipped the remainder of the day. If he was to be right and I was to be a failure, then I would fail perfectly. But the truth is it would have hurt me less if Old Flintstone just hit me.
I don’t know which was worse. I don’t know if I was hurt by Old Flintstone’s words, or more because I believed what he said was true. By this time, I had seen my way through countless hours of detention. I was often suspended and frequently in the “In School Suspension” room. But we called it I.S.S. (I.S.S. was a small classroom with cubicle desks where the punished student would sit for an entire school day. There was no talking allowed. There was no getting up and no going to the cafeteria. There was schoolwork, but I never did any of that.)
I had already been left back, thrown out of classrooms, sent to the principal’s office, sent home, and the threat of expulsion was on its way. My attitude mirrored my image. I was a longhaired teenage kid and disobedient. I was always on some form of mind altering substance, which I used to soothe the itch that came with my social anxieties. But again, I mention I was frustrated—not stupid.
And here I am now . . .
Three weeks short of my 42nd birthday; I assume I am close to the same age as the teacher when he cornered me in the back of that classroom. I have close to 24 years of sobriety. I am a published writer and poet. I am a friend, and family man. I earn a decent wage and I own a home in the same crazy little town I grew up in.
I have also physically grown since my time in the public school system, so I wonder what that teacher’s posture would be like if he met me as I am now.
I once wrote that teacher a letter as a therapeutic exercise. The idea behind it was to rid myself of the resentment because I am not a bum, like he predicted I would be, and I am certainly not a loser.
In my letter, I explained what I accomplished and overcome. And no one can take this from me.
No one . . .
I have succeeded and achieved in spite of my struggles. And more, I maintain who I am on a daily basis.
One of the gifts of parenthood is it allows us to see the beauty of our creation. Because of my child, I now understand that is impossible for me to be anything less than incredible because I created something so perfect. I created a beautiful little girl. She is so smart . . . and I know I had something to do with that.