Monday, March 21, 2011

School Days, excerpt.

School Days

I still remember my first day of organized education. I remember putting on the brand new jeans bought for the occasion. Blue jeans were not yet pre-washed, pre-stressed or made with the idea that the person purchasing them may want to be comfortable while wearing them. For weeks, and sometimes months, the new denim had all the form fitting flexibility of aluminum siding. A pants leg might bend a little when you took a step but would soon snap back into its original perfect tube shape with an audible pop.

Walking was difficult but not impossible. The same couldn’t be said for sitting down. Your options were to risk leg cramps trying to force a horizontal crease at the back of your legs or to just accept the fact that you were going to sit there with your legs sticking out in front of you like a cheap plastic baby doll. The kind sold in pharmacies or in grocery stores on the same aisle as the light bulbs.

For a good hour or so, that first morning, I stood on the edge of the bathtub and admired myself in the bathroom mirror. Turning my head from side to side so I could admire my hair that slicked down with some form of hair grease and parted on the side. From the neck up I looked like a Republican. From the waist down I looked like a blue version of the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. From the waist up I sported a brand new white tee shirt and looked like a farmer or maybe a plumber on his first day at a new job.

For my first day of school my mother drove me in our forest green station wagon with the feaux wood paneling on the side. In order to make the occasion that much more special I got to sit up front. The outside of the school was the mandatory maroon brick that was required on all government buildings but it had been freshly painted in large squares of bright red, yellow. The yard in front of the school had just been cut for the first time since the beginning of the previous summer. The long cut grasses hadn’t been raked up but were, instead, just left in random clumps like a scarecrow murder scene.

What I remember most clearly that day was the look of excited anticipation on my mothers face as she got rid of me for the day. She didn’t have a job at that time so it was obvious to me she was going to start having a secret exciting life with my younger brother and sister now that I was out of the way. My siblings and I all knew that, if we left the room, that was when the party started.

Seeing that momentary look of hope, that micro-second of relieved anticipation that flitted across my mothers face made me think of the bad guy that finally has our hero trapped. This made me suspicious. Maybe I should rethink this school thing. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as fun as I was lead to believe by the adults. Adults were known to be tricky. Maybe preschool was like going to the babysitter or worse, the dentis. Maybe the whole concept of school was a plot to get me out of the house so they could have fun at home without me. My mood shifted severely and a pinpoint of fear stabbed at the back of my head. But I didn’t cry. I wasn’t about to let her see me cry.

The glass doors at the front of the school were big and too heavy for me to open on my own. Weren’t doors like this supposed to open by themselves like they did at the grocery store? This place was cheap, I thought to myself. Once inside the door construction paper signs screaming “Welcome” and “Preschoolers right this way” lead us to my new classroom. The room was decorated with a kaleidoscope explosion of bright colors. To add contrast to the decorations the cinder block walls had been freshly painted a pale sickly yellow that would be best described as old mustard stain or diseased toenail. Florescent bulbs finished the effect by making all of the colors super naturally bright. Like an acid trip. I was lucky I never had to go to preschool with a hangover.

The decor seemed even more alien to me because our house had been decorated with avocado green shag carpet, burnt orange drapes and black leather furniture. If there had been a decorator consulted, and that decorator had chosen a theme, it would have been titled Blackened Tertiary Hell. A bright color in home usually the result of a food fight or spilled blood.

As shocking to my brain as all the bright colors were, even more shocking was the organization. I was used to a vague concept of organization at home. I was often yelled out to put my toys in my room, for example, but once my belongings were past the threshold of my no further effort was expected.

Here at school, though, the concept of being organized was taken to an a nearly militant level. Books, toys and school supplies were stacked neatly in a grid of cubby holes at kid accessible levels. It seemed impractical to me not to have everything spread out on the floor like I did at home. My system made for easy access and probably saved a lot of time. Two dozen miniature desks were also in a grid, the perfect little rows exactly the same distance apart facing a much larger adult sized desk perfectly centered in the room. I don't know why tidy symmetry irritated me so much, but it annoyed me at a visceral level. I was nearly overwhelmed with the urge to add a little chaos, mess it up, make it look, you know, more natural.

There were twenty four children in my class and each of them was accompanied but at least one parent and in a few cases both parents and a grandparent. This was the largest group of people I ever found myself a part of. My first crowd. This was going to be great I told myself. All of these other kids were my age and were just like me. For a brief moment I convinced that I was with my people, that I had found a place I would finally fit in .

Then I looked around at the faces of my future classmates. Both boys and girls had tears and snot running down their faces, the ones that weren’t crying were jumping around like crazed little monkeys, over stimulated and begging to play with all the toys and still others just had blank looks on their faces like shell shocked soldiers. I rolled my eyes realizing that I had nothing in common with these little idiots. School was going to be just like home. Oh well, I sighed to myself, At least there are better toys here.

By four years old I was thoroughly jaded and an unearned sense of superiority was already a deeply entrenched part of my psyche. To add to my Ass-Holier-Than-Thou attitude was the fact that I already knew much of the preschool curriculum. To me this meant that anybody who didn’t know his colors or alphabet yet was just dumb and deserving of my indignant stares.

One morning, in an attempt to get us all better acquainted with the alphabet, the class was givien an exercise working on the letter "I".We had each been given a sheet of paper with the outlines of the letter in both capital and lower case. Surrounding the letter was an Indian, an ice cream cone, an igloo and a few other I-words for us to color. I considered myself already well acquainted with the letter “I” and found the assignment beneath me, and so, didn't bother applying myself. Instead I just took my indigo crayon and scribbled on each of the objects, so it would appear I had forth an effort but was just uncoordinated. My hope was to finish early so I could get first in line for the toy shelves.

Sitting to my right was a toe headed boy named Brick and, one chair down from him to his right was Brett, another toe head who looked almost exactly like him. Although twins were very common around town Brick and Brett weren’t brothers. They were the also common inbred cousins. Brick looked over at my paper then elbowed his twin cousin for back up. "You're terrible at coloring, you can't even stay in the lines", he said.

"Well, you're both Idiots and you should just color in each other" I replied, stretching out the "I" sound in idiot to show I was staying in the them of the letter I. My cleverness was wasted on those inbred children of the corn and they just stared at me, breathing through their mouths, while I laughed at my own genius.

I made it through preschool and when Fall came I returned to the same school with the exact same twenty four kids from the year before. It was pretty much the same routine except for a few minor changes. For one thing the teacher was slightly different, the classroom was one door past our old room and, because the school day was slightly longer, halfway through the day we got a break for a mandatory nap.

I rarely ever slept during naptime, instead I would lie there on my blue plastic exercise mat and watch the other kids drift off to sleep one by one. I would fantasize that the oxygen was slowly being sucked out of the room and, one by one, they were all being asphyxiated. If that fantasy started to feel old I would switch it up and imagine we had all been tragically lost in Alaska on our way to the North Pole. Caught in a severe snowstorm we had been forced to hide in a cave where one by one we would drift into sleep and freeze to death.

The freezing to death image came from one of the many stories I read from our second hand collection of Readers Digest condensed books. I never really wished the other children ill but I had to occupy my mind somehow. It wasn’t personal.

As part of our Kindergarten curriculum were taught to read using a system of letters called the Initial Teaching Alphabet or ITA. It is basically an altered alphabet where the vowels are subjected to hideous science fiction style experiments. Genes are spliced and a new letter was made that was supposedly easier for young brains to recognize.

For example, the letters A and E were fused together like Siamese twins and the new creature represented the long A sound in a word. When we were introduced this A and E abomination the character was shown dressed in a robe with a halo and little white wings. This new letter was named “angel A”. The idea was we would memorize the Angel A and the sound the two letters made and later we could separate that letter into two normal letters and banish the E to the end of the word. There was no cable TV yet so I didn’t know to point out that surgically separating conjoined letters like that ran a high risk of one of them dieing in post op.
The ITA system came with a library of books with inane titles like A Muskrat Is A Muskrat and it was no time before I had read them all. With all forms of entertainment available to me exhausted I had no choice but to look to my fellow classmates and finally admit I would have to actually talk to them.

Once I started to talk to the other kids a floodgate opened up and words poured out. I was like an addict and once I got that first hit of human interaction I couldn’t stop.

During lunch I would shove the last bit of food in my mouth as fast as I could after forgetting to eat during the assigned time. When a class assignment got in the way of a conversation I simply stopped doing my schoolwork. This eventually affected my grades. My gold stars were soon replaced with the phrase “Talks way to much” The fact that my teacher spelled the word “too” with only one “o" took some of the sting out of the comment.

Eventually the teacher had had enough of saying my name followed by "please be quiet" and my mother was called in for a conference. She was told I was being disruptive, that I wasn’t doing my work and that I was way behind the rest of the class. I might have to be held back.

Anger is a much easier emotion to feel than say embarrassment or maternal concern so my mother decided to be angry about the whole conference situation. I wasn’t sure who the target of her anger was. She could have been mad at me because she knew I wasn’t really mentally handicapped and could already read. She could have also been mad at my teacher because she was the professional and should have been able to spot a lazy smartass kid. Or maybe it was because, at this point, mom was a twenty-two year old widow/newlywed with three children under the age of five with no good mood altering drugs at her disposal.

The meeting was held after all the other kids left for the day. I was instructed to sit in the hallway so I couldn’t hear what was being said about me and my academic future. After an hour in kid time, but what was probably only five minutes in grown up time, I was called into the room. My fuming and red faces mother grabbed up a newspaper from the teachers desk and handed to me.

“Read this” she commanded. And I did.

After about fourty-five seconds she amended her command “Out loud”. And I did. It seems a man named Nixon was in trouble for doing something to a water gate.

“Ok Ok” my teacher gave in and I was sent back out to sit in the hallway. They could have let me take the newspaper with me. I never did find out what happened to that Nixon guy or what a Watergate was. I assumed it was some kind of dam.

After a few more minutes of muffled indignant yelling we went home. I was grounded from watching television and told I would have to present all homework to my mother every evening to prove it was being done. A week a letter came informing my parents that I would be scheduled to take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. A popular standardized test designed to determine if the taker could read, write and do math as well as anyone in Iowa. I didn’t care what it was for because it seemed very unfair to me that I had to take a test none of my classmates had to.

On the day of the test I was put in a room next to the teachers lounge, by myself with two sheets of paper and two number two pencils. The pencils were particularly interesting to me since, up until that day, I'd always used giant Big Chief pencils as big around as hot dogs when I needed to write.

It turns out that taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was a pivotal point in how I approached the rest of my education and how I viewed the people around me. I did extremely well on the reading portion of the test scoring higher than a typical high school senior . A high school senior from Iowa anyway. The scores in the other parts of the test were considered above average but were nothing spectacular.

The test scores were supposed to be a secret between my parents and the school. I only found out after another bad report card made it home.

“You are too smart to be doing this bad in school!” she yelled. “ Why aren’t you doing your work? That test you took said you’re smarter than the rest of them kids! Why don’t you act like it?”

“Smarter?” I thought, “Than the rest of them kids...”. It should have been obvious to my mother that one does not tell a child with my personality that he is smarter than everyone else and, worse, that he should act like it. Because that’s exactly what I did.

Acting like I was smarter than all of the other kids came very naturally to me but did not included performing academically like I was smarter. Since I had already proven I could ace a test I didn’t even study for it made sense to me that I could do well on any test without studying. My, now superior, mind also concluded that homework was probably not really necessary either so why should I even bother lugging it home? The result if my new attitude was a yet another bad grade card only this time it came with an extended breakdown I was expected to explain.

“Oh that zero?” I would say “that wasn’t really meant for me. It was for homework meant for the other kids”.

My perception of myself had changed dramatically. I no longer considered myself different because I was weird and from a white trash family. Now I was different because of the burden of my superior intellect. It wasn’t easy being around average people all the time and nobody seemed to understand. This must be how Superman feels I would tell myself while being punished for yet another failing grade.

The standardized testing produced by the good people of Iowa had turned me into an intolerable and arrogant little bastard and I hadn’t even started the first grade. Imagine my potential!

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