This whole exploration of my personal educational history started with a satire piece written over at the Winston-Salem Journal by one Mike Koivisto. Who won the Write Scott Hollifield’s Column While He is On Vacation or Performing His Court-Ordered Community Service Contest with his indictment of homeschooling through an overdone stereotype. I began it the only way such a thing can be answered–with a bit of satire of my own.
But it just wouldn’t happen. The difficulty is that Mr. Koivisto has the benefit of not knowing what he is talking about as he criticizes homeschooling through fictional examples of his own fictional homeschooled childhood. I really did attend public school, and I really did learn each of these lessons. And had to unlearn each of them, as well.
My earliest memory of school was making gingerbread men in Kindergarten. I remember somewhat sullenly pressing candies into icing, knowing my cookie I was so enthusiastically encouraged to embellish was about to be kidnapped. See, we had just heard the story of The Gingerbread Man, and I had a foreboding sense of impending doom about the future of my particular gingerbread man. When we were done, we walked together in single file down the hall to the kitchen where we watched a cook place our cookies in the oven. Surprise, surprise. When we returned, the cookies were missing.
I couldn’t figure out why the teacher was putting on such a show of surprise, and I think I might have burst into tears. I learned an important lesson that year, I think. Something about not trusting adults and literature being responsible for the theft of cookies.
At the beginning of first grade, Mrs. A. passed out plain sheets of paper and instructed us to color a house. I made mine with a high peaked roof, two upstairs windows and a door. It occurred to me that my house looked rather sad. I know I was a strange kid, but I have always seen faces in houses…still do in fact…and some look like they’ve been bopped in the eye, most look rather bored but a few appear to be grinning from chimney to garage. The house I lived in smiled, although most of its smile was hidden behind a tree. I wanted a happy house, so I added a few extra windows in the shape of a bright smile and colored happily until Mrs. A. came and looked over my shoulder.
My house was much happier than she looked. She scolded,
Houses do not smile.
If I remember correctly, I responded something to the effect of “Mine does.” Which she took as the height of insolence, though that was the furthest thing from my mind. So she took my paper and gave me another, demanding I “do it right.” I somewhat reluctantly restarted my assignment, turned in a miserable, haggard-looking and every-day sort of house which she smiled at and praised. The praise stung, and I think I burst into tears. I never did see my happy house again. I learned another important lesson that day. Something about creativity and expression being acceptable only under tightly prescribed rules.
By the end of first grade, I had read all of the books in the lower elementary students’ section of the library. I asked the librarian if I could check one out from the other section, the great big inviting section which looked so much like a small version of the public library rather than a reading corner for little kids. She smiled kindly and said,
When you are in third grade.
I looked disconsolately at the books while years of re-reading the same baby stories stretched out before me. And I learned another important lesson about grade level expectations trumping individual abilities and interests.
For second grade, I had Mrs. J. and Anthony, an annoying boy who kicked me under my desk and would immediately raise his hand and tell the teacher I kicked him. At first, I protested. I had done no such thing. He, in fact, had just kicked me. But she always believed him, always defended him, always said, “But my Anthony would never do a thing like that!” And I always thought the mere evidence of the case stood overwhelmingly in my favor. His legs were so long they were literally wrapped under his desk and though I was not exactly short, I couldn’t have reached his desk with my foot if I had tried. After some time of this, the trouble-maker–that would be me–was moved. I learned a lot then about justice, fairness and partiality. And began to develop stomach aches and head aches on a regular basis. I had a vague suspicion that it was because they were both black, but that would be nothing compared to my first real lesson on the playground.
One winter day, I was playing on the snow drifts with the other children when this little black boy ran up, punched me in the lip and ran off without saying a word. I told the recess monitor who rounded up every black child on the playground and stood them in a circle around me, demanding I identify the one who hit me. I looked at them and, surrounded as I was, I’m still no sure whether my tears were from the pain in my lip or from my growing sense of fear. They stared me down, the group of them, and I had a distinct sense I was going to be jumped by the whole lot at some unsuspecting moment. I finally pointed out the boy who had hit me, and Ms. V. exclaimed,
Dinky! I should have known!
And grabbed him by the collar and marched him off to the principal’s office, dismissing me to see the nurse about my lip. My great lesson in socialization and learning about people different from myself was that blacks were THEM, a group, a haunting group, a dangerous group. A group to be feared.
Fourth grade, I had Mr. T, by far my favorite elementary school teacher. He taught with enthusiasm, always had anecdotes and tangents to share about the subjects he obviously knew more about than all our textbooks combined, and he never answered our questions immediately, turning most of them back on us to consider a little more. He made me think. I loved being in his class and had more respect for him than I had ever had for any other teacher. He also noticed that I had a difficult time making friends and took me out in the hallway one afternoon to talk to me about it.
Why don’t you try to be more like the other kids?
I fought back tears…feel them stinging my eyes even now at thirty four as I remember how devastated I was. As if I wouldn’t have chosen to be “more like the other kids” if I had even known how.
Fifth grade taught me perhaps my second most important lesson. My best friend (and my only friend at school) stopped playing with me that year with no real explanation. One day in gym–we were on the same baseball team for class–she sat down next to me on the bench and started to talk to me. For a few moments, it was like things always were. The previous few weeks had hung over me like a dark storm cloud as I battled boredom and loneliness, having no one to talk to on the playground. But for a few moments, the sun shone. Until Leslie came over and sneered,
I thought I told you I would only play with you if you didn’t talk to Dana, anymore.
The storm broke, and I sought shelter. Shelter somewhere deep within myself. My fifth grade year, I learned how to become invisible. To remain under the radar. To attract no one’s attention and no one’s scorn.
It was a lesson that would haunt me for years. I had set an interesting trap for myself. Everything about how I handled myself told people to stay away, not to notice me, not to engage with me. And for the most part, they didn’t. In a crowded classroom, I was alone. In a busy hallway, I was alone. Sitting in a noisy cafeteria, I was alone. And because everyone treated me as if I weren’t there, I felt as if I weren’t.
That all might surprise some of my more regular readers. I have always said I had a positive school experience. And I did.
Fifth grade may have taught me my second most important lesson in life, but my most important lesson I did not learn at school or as a result of school. The summer between eighth and ninth grade, I really began noticing for the first time how differently I was received in my neighborhood than at school…even by the very same people. Take that back. I had always known that, but I had always viewed “them” at school as a sort of singular entity, separate from any of the individuals in that group. In a group, people were very different than they were individually. But over that summer, I began to really realize that they were not different. I was. I was the one who changed according to the social environment. I was the one who walked confidently around my neighborhood, striking up conversations and rounding up kids for a softball game. At school, I never made eye contact, rarely spoke and walked quietly along the edge of the hallway, trying to stay out of everyone’s way.
That summer, I had a conversion of sorts. Not to Christ…that wouldn’t be for another five years…but from a victim to a survivor. I made a choice not to play the part of the victim, and ninth grade was a very different year for me. My high school years were some of the best years of my life. And I never did become quite like other kids. I accidentally rooted for the wrong team at the only Homecoming game I ever went to, never went to a school dance…not even prom…and found the whole social scene somewhat baffling. But I had finally found myself and navigated through it all somewhat amused rather than offended. I loved high school. I relished not having to fit in. I was no longer being educated by the public education system, but in it. And I felt free.