Evoking a Memory:
I am due to start 4th grade and my parents just moved us from California to Montana, for the 2nd time in 10 years, but the first time I wasn’t born yet, so it doesn’t really count. My parents were dreamers and adventurers and were headed to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to claim a 5-acre parcel with the agreement that if you lived on it for five years, it was yours. That was 1969, and it didn’t happen because I happened before they got there. Fast forward to 1979 and here we are, my parents and my four younger sisters like stepping stones down from my towering height. My next youngest sis may be taller than me now, but there was a long while there where people thought I was “mom” or an auntie or something. I’m almost 5′ tall and I’m about to turn 9.
To better set this scene, I’ve gone to an alternative school in California and I’m used to what people
that are clueless might think is a “hippy dippy” type of education. We played incredible games of steal the bacon at my CA school, and crocheted, and did Montessori work, and were in nature, and played recorders, and made mandalas, and were read to and acted out stories, and learned how to be a community. I did 1st-3rd grade there, I believe. I don’t ever EVER remember being given a worksheet. I remember cuddling up next to my sweet male teacher (I cannot remember his name, but we went by first names) while he read to us and scratching my nose on his fuzzy sweater that had an amazing texture. He thought I was wiping my snot on him. I wasn’t, but even getting the reminder that I was doing something gross didn’t make me love him and being there less. I still felt totally accepted.
It was amazing. I just looked it up on the internet, and lo and behold, it was started in 1971, about 5 years prior to my attendance, one of the leaders named Dan Hamburg who, interestingly enough, went on to have a career in politics in the Democratic and Green Party.
“A group of Stanford-educated graduates who moved to Ukiah to form Mariposa School – an elementary school far ahead of its time, which championed many principles now common in today’s classrooms – whole learning, peer education, conflict resolution.” -Carole Brodsky, Ukiah Daily Journal, 3/11/13
So I’ve just come from this enriching experience, and living close to family in California, including my beloved maternal grandmother that has just died of Leukemia in her 50s.
BAM. First day of school in Yaak, Montana. The kids look like me and talk like me, and we play outside and play on swings. There’s a tether ball pole and that’s exceptionally cool because being tall and fearless has made me the master at tether ball. Mrs. B, the brand new teacher to the Yaak School is about 4’8″ tall and has a severe wedge haircut on her black hair with little silver streaks. She is wearing red heels and pearls in her ears. She listens to my mother talk about me and my sister. I am only 9 and I know that she is only tolerating my mother. She is not really listening. I can feel the anger start to rise up in my mom. My mom is trying to explain that I have “hyperkinetic disorder” (what ADHD was called in the 70s) and that I have a strict diet and need a particular kind of learning environment. She is willing to volunteer and participate and support. Mrs. B is looking right through my mother. She has been a teacher for a long time. She was once a Principal somewhere. She dismisses my mother so completely, that when we turn to go as the conversation ends, I feel sure mommy won’t ever take me there again.
She took me there again. Happily, on the first day of my 4th grade I have made a new best friend immediately, Nicky, because we both have the exact same metal Holly Hobbie lunchbox. That was all it took and and almost 40 years later, we’re still friends.
Mrs. B watches me like a hawk. It seems like it is her intention and desire to figure out how to prove my mother wrong. She probably has seen my transcripts from Mariposa and sees nothing traditional and has made assumptions. As an adult, I have no doubt she was highly trained and capable, but she wasn’t seeing me.
Mrs. B is married to Doc B. He has a PhD in something, probably political science or philosophy or Russian, but definitely not in education and definitely not in children. Mrs. B looks at Doc with adoration and introduces him to us. She explains that this is very special and an incredible opportunity for us. He becomes a regular part of our school day. He humiliates me and my sister by writing our names as big as possible across the two huge chalkboards in class. I whisper to my friend Nicky and get in trouble for talking and am ridiculed for not paying attention.
We are learning long division in 4th grade. I came to school a few weeks into the school year, so I’ve missed any review I could have gotten. I can do the multiplication easily, that makes sense, but the algorithm of long division eludes me. I have never been taught it. I don’t understand the process. How do I get the digits to line up and indented and adding zeros correctly and WHY? I don’t understand at all why I’m doing this. I get every single question wrong. Mrs. B. purses her lips. I decide I am a math failure and that commenced a life-long battle with math trauma.
(A friend from a higher grade a few days later looked at me doing my work, and gently showed me where I was going wrong-I wasn’t lining it up right so my addition was off. Thank you, kind soul. It was probably Nicky’s older sister Kara or another kind friend that was willing to help me.)
Mrs. B. asks the class to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance one morning. “Jenny, please start the Pledge.” I have no idea how to say the Pledge. My parents and my former school aren’t anti-patriotic, but it just hadn’t been taught to me. I turn scarlet red and say in a voice as quiet as a church mouse, “I can’t.” Mrs. B. asks another student to start.
My handwriting is abysmal and I talk a mile a minute. I am winning all the tether ball I can against most of the kids, except for the older boys. I play teeter-totter with Nicky at recess and kick sticks in the dirt. It’s pretty cool. Some older kids teach me the song “Put Another Log on the Fire,” a song about a misogynist narcissist that gives his wife a long list of ridiculous chores to do and then in the end, she leaves. I just discovered it was written by the complicated Shel Siverstein. I know it was sarcastic, but it still makes me shudder to think I actually sang it a lot. It was catchy and twangy and country. Doc hears me singing it at recess and taunts me about it. I have no idea why, because I don’t understand the nuance of the adult themes in the song.
Doc is teaching again. He is there to teach us about geometry and he’s decided to show us a film on a projector called “Donald in Mathemagic Land.” It’s a little boring at times and I lean over to talk to my friends. I’m whispering, but my 9 year old hyper whisper is like regular talking. Doc gets so mad at me for not paying attention that he ridicules me in front of the class. Doc says we will have test after so I’d better pay attention.*
(*I was asked to remove some details from this part of the post, a good reminder to ask before we write anything that brings up personal stuff for others.)
I don’t remember anything else for days, because I think I blacked them out.
One morning something happens that makes Mrs. B. mad at me. I cannot remember. I’ve been in school in the Yaak for about a month or 6 weeks. She says, “Jenny, you are not in 4th grade anymore. Get your desk and bring it over here to the 3rd graders.”
She makes this decision to demote me, to hold me back, to make me repeat a year of school, to change my life trajectory-without ever talking it over with my parents.
My teacher had had enough and that was it. There were no IEPs or 504s back then. There was nothing that could be done. She’d decided it was this way, and that was that.
The rest of 3rd grade at the Yaak School is a complete wash. I can’t remember anything else from the entire year except for the evening graduation of 8th grade and the giving of awards. Doc enjoyed being in the spotlight. He made a wooden plaque for every single student in the school, which was less than the amount of children in my current classroom, but a gesture of inclusion I suppose.
Doc is giving away awards and including personal anecdotes about each student. The awards are sometimes academic, sometimes based on personality. Parents are chuckling and having a raucous time. It comes to my award. Doc awards me “Theatrical.” He says something about my loud and obnoxious personality, even though he doesn’t say it quite that way but it feels hollow. Then he says, “she can sing Put Another Log on the Fire Louder than anyone,” and some other humiliating things about my general “me-ness” I’m glad I can’t remember. I am sitting in an orange plastic chair in the dim light of a log cabin school and I want to sink into the earth and never come back.
I had my award until last Friday.
I couldn’t get rid of it for some reason. I don’t know why move after move from 1980-2018 I could not get rid of this plaque that represented so much toxic crap that made this false picture of me in my own head and heart.
I have come to accept that I don’t have to understand why people do the things that they do. I am only here to work on myself, to understand my own feelings, and to love and give to others as completely as I can.
I have come to accept that I have ability beyond what I can even measure. That my reach is farther than I can fathom because my faith tells me that. I work every day on letting my faith be enough of an answer instead of trying to solve everything myself. I can’t. That’s up to my relationship with God.
And grace. Grace rides around with me. Grace is the forgiveness I can give to the Mrs. and Doc B. I can show them the grace of being big-city people in a place where no one understood their story. I can show them the grace of being a fish out of water and being intellectually frustrated. I can show them the grace of love, because they were attempting to do something powerfully different than they’d ever done before and that takes major guts. I don’t have to agree with what they did, but it is for sure time to let it go.
I let go.