In grades one and two I was teased for taking Billy to school. No one understood how lonely she’d be at home all by herself. I would have kept taking her to school, too, if it wasn’t for the fireman who visited our classroom one day.
“If there is ever a fire, you have to leave all your things behind and exit the building,” he told us.
“Am I allowed to get Billy?” I asked.
“Who is Billy?”
“She’s my teddy.”
The answer was unequivocal. I would be required to leave her to writhe and die in a ball of vicious flames while I selfishly escaped along with the other students.
I’m sure the fireman used kinder words, but this is how the potential scene unfolded in my mind.
Billy never accompanied me to school again.
Even when I stopped dragging around my grotty bear, however, I wasn’t popular. It probably didn’t help that I went through a phase – a long phase – of wearing a head band sporting bunny rabbit ears. No one could convince me they were not cool. I didn’t know what “cool” was. I just wanted to be a bunny rabbit. It beat being a student.
Most of all, I hated asking the teacher questions. I’d have preferred to meet the bunyip than put my hand up (and that is a serious claim). I spent about six months unable to add two and two. This is because the teacher presented the question thus:
two and two =
My problem? I didn’t know what “and” meant in this context. Why did two and two want to hang out so much? Were they dating? Married, perhaps? I imagined two and two at dinner, sipping from glasses and sharing a meal.
One day someone (I can’t remember who) revealed the trickery embedded in this slither of mathematics.
“And,” they explained, “means plus.”
“So, like… two plus two equals four?” I asked.
“Yes! What did you think?”
In retrospect, my habit of personifying and anthropomorphising everything may have been a hindrance at times.
In grade three, fear of confronting the teacher reached epic proportions. This is partly because my teacher, Mrs. Jones, was a nasty lady who thought her students were soldiers (perhaps suffering from some type of growth-retardation).
We did the same thing. At the same time. Every. Single. Day.
The scariest part came after recess in the form of a maths test.
After recess I routinely discovered within me a raging desire to release urine. Just a coincidence, of course.
After the loo, I’d slink back into the classroom (often late) and begin answering twenty questions. Literally. There were exactly twenty mathematics questions read out to us every day.
Do you remember etch-a-sketch? It’s a red toy with a screen whereby you draw pictures using two dials, only to erase the entire thing by shaking it. It was a cool toy, enjoyed by many kids of my generation. I’m at the dag end of the millennials – the ones who would be ignorant of terms such as “pixels” and “high def” for some time to come.
I mention this toy because Mrs Jones’ voice did to my mind what a vigorous shake does to an etch-a-sketch drawing. When she asked me a question, all semblance of intelligent life within me disappeared. My mind became a blank screen with no one to control the dials. During these maths tests, her words seemed to flow quicker and quicker until she sounded like a chipmunk. She sort of looked like one, too. The whole experience always seemed hyper-real.
What adults achieve on LSD, children can achieve by just taking in the scenery.
The real ordeal, however, came after we’d marked our work.
“Who got all twenty correct? Raise your hands,” Mrs. Jones would say.
A few smart kids put their hands up.
“Who got nineteen? Oh, good job.”
An alarming number of hands.
“Eighteen? Come on, I want to see hands now.”
I felt nervous.
“Who got seventeen out of twenty?”
I started to feel sick.
“Sixteen? Fifteen? Fourteen?”
My stomach wanted to empty itself.
I tended to get between zero and nine – the latter on a good day. I was usually second-last. The poor kid who came last could barely tell the difference between his fingers and toes. I felt dreadful sorry for him. Once he pissed all over the playground equipment; inciting laughter, squeals and general chaos among the other kids. I remember his dumbly grinning face as he waved his little white willy about for all to see.
I wanted to explain that the others were laughing at him and, on no planet, in any universe, would his portrayal of a sprinkler make him more popular. I doubt any words I offered would have made a difference.
Where are we? I was momentarily distracted by golden showers.
Ah, yes: One of my handicaps is (note the use of present tense here) a disease called Forgetfulness. For most people this disease worsens with age, but my Forgetfulness was already advanced at birth. This is why I never remembered to return school books. Unfortunately, in grade three, one had to return the book before advancing to the next level in literacy. I consequently was barely taught to read during that year.
Luckily, my home was filled with books and encouragement to delve into the fantastical world of fiction, so I can thank my parents for filling what would have been a gap in my education.
Anyway, I’m sure you get it. I was shy and destined to be devastatingly unpopular right up until I grew tits. But that’s another story. In grade three, I didn’t think about growing tits. In grade three, my main aim was to remain inconspicuous to Mrs. Jones’ ever-surveying eyes. I imagined that, in her off-time, she shot birds down from electricity poles with those laser eyes.
I guess my fear was obvious because Mrs. Jones decided my self-esteem needed improving. And what does every little girl with low self-esteem need? To be singled out every morning, put in a class with special kids, and made to do special work. Let’s rephrase that last sentence so it better reflects how I understood it then:
I was put in a class with kids thicker than the earth’s crust to complete tasks simpler than counting marshmallows.
My “special” teachers confirmed that I was not “special,” but that I did need help. They therefore entered me into an experimental trial that was currently hip in the education system.
This was the idea: Kids can concentrate better if looking at schoolwork through pretty colours.
I underwent some tests. First, a lady held up a symbol for me to stare at. She held it up for such a long time that I zoned out and started thinking about something else – possibly Astro Boy. Finally she asked, “Does this look at all blurry to you?”
I considered this. I’d zoned out so fully that it had indeed become blurry.
“Yes,” I answered truthfully. She nodded thoughtfully and held up the next card. For a long time. Bored, I zoned out again.
The woman eventually started showing me symbols and text through different-coloured glass. She wanted to know if I could see things “better” through any of these pieces of glass. I’ve always liked the colour yellow. Who wouldn’t – it’s the colour of daffodils and butter! And piss, come to think of it. I’ll try to remove that last image from my mind.
After some deep consideration I decided that I could see things better through yellow glass. Everything was so bright and sunny. I could almost imagine I wasn’t in this godforsaken room full of dim-witted adults teaching dim-witted children via questionable methods.
And so it was that I received very yellow, very expensive pieces of glass in the mail from some place faraway and exotic, or so I imagined. We never got around to installing said glass into a frame, though, because we then moved from Hobart to Cygnet.
Grade four, new school. I don’t know why, but my teacher liked me. She encouraged me at every turn and seemed happy with my work. I can’t remember ever doing tests. If we did, they certainly weren’t on a daily basis.
My bladder stopped playing up after recess.
One day our teacher announced, “Some exceptional students have been chosen to take part in special classes.”
I looked at the teacher’s beaming face, the children’s expectant faces, and decided that “special” probably meant something different than what I was used to.
She read out four or five names. Mine was among them. I tried to act nonchalant but in fact I was tickled every shade of pink. One of the other “special” girls prodded me and said, “Did you hear that? We’re in the class for smart kids!”
I nodded, still trying to act nonchalant. I was also trying to hide my confusion. How could I go from dumb to smart in just a few months?
In our special class we went on field trips. We studied plants and learnt about atoms and drew little diagrams of the factories inside the atoms. I loved doing those drawings. I imagined my eyes were microscopes through which I could see the building blocks of all life.
Our special teacher was gentle and kind and she seemed to genuinely like my carefully-sketched atoms.
Something still bothered me, though. Was this some sort of joke? Were they once again trying to trick me into thinking I was special in a smart way when I was really just dumb? Were teachers sitting around secret tables and stroking cats while they plotted this whole thing out?
My conspiracy theory faded as my marks improved throughout the year. The year after that, I was lucky enough to land in a class with a teacher who had teacher written into his DNA. He talked to me like I had more than two brain cells playing ping-pong in my skull. He was animated. Excited. Funny. That year, I did well in a school regional short story competition.
It is then I realised I wanted to be a writer, even if I had to be poor (I have succeeded on both accounts).
I think the point I want to make is this: Kids whose minds go blank under intense scrutiny and risk of humiliation aren’t necessarily dumb. They may be scared.
And if they are dumb, they still shouldn’t be scared. They probably shouldn’t be called dumb, either, but I never claimed that this blog is politically correct.
Some believe we must be cruel to prepare children for this cruel world.
Isn’t that like saying we must poison ourselves to prepare for future food poisoning? Or that we have to practice being smashed up in cars for future car accidents…?
Then again, what would I know? I’m no one special!