I recently joined a Facebook group dedicated to alumni of my now defunct elementary school. A discussion board topic that was focused on favorite teachers quickly and inevitably turned into a rant (mostly by me) over several unpopular teachers from back in my day. The conversation has resurfaced some very negative feelings I have regarding grade school, tugging at wounds that it would appear have never quite healed.
Third grade with Miss “A” was a horrid time for me, yet the experiences of what I went through with that woman, thankfully, have mostly faded. There are only a few distinct moments that have made their homes in the corners of my conscious mind:
Anyone who had her as a teacher will remember her practice of desk dumping. Offenders who did not have desks that were neat and tidy inside suffered the humiliation of all their belongings being dumped out on the floor before them to be cleaned up. I’m pretty sure my desk was dumped on a regular basis. Why I was incapable of keeping a clean desk is unbeknownst to me, because the embarrassment should have been more than enough incentive to keep order. It wasn’t just the dump itself that left my stomach in nail biting knots; it was also the screaming about what a slob I was for the entire class to witness. Sometimes she dumped more than one student at a time, and there was a certain level of relief and camaraderie in knowing it wasn’t just you. The worst consequence of her targeted rage was her tendency to dump desks just prior to bathroom breaks. If you were the lucky person to get dumped that day, you were holding your water for the remainder of the afternoon.
On the learning front, I can recall what a hard time she gave me for not memorizing my multiplication tables successfully. The class chart displaying each student name and stars for their math accomplishments remained pitifully empty on my row, despite my efforts. If she had not given up on me so quickly, assuming (and telling my parents) that I was just lazy, maybe she would have picked up on a learning disability I had developed towards math. Among many other issues, it disallowed me to visualize numbers in my head, making the simple tasks of addition, subtraction, etc, feel like climbing a never ending mountain. It took years for me to recognize I have Dyscalculia. I don’t blame her for not picking up on it (I’m not even sure how much the condition was accepted in the 80’s), as it wasn’t until I reached the work force that I figured it out for myself. I suffered all my life with the repercussions of reversing numbers, confusion with spatial relation, direction, and the continued inability to add even the simplest of equations in my head. I wonder, however, if she had been kinder and more open minded about me during that period of my development if she could have seen my struggles with greater clarity.
My heart tells me that there were many, many more reasons to dislike this woman’s teaching methods. To be honest, I don’t remember much more than already professed, plus the undeniable feelings of great dislike and hopelessness that the year would never end. I do recall the song that my friends and I made up to deal with our daily stress. We would pick dandelions as we walked to and from lunch or gym across the street at the Annex. It was a sweet little one line ditty:
“Miss A had a baby and its head popped off!” Detach head of dandelion here.
To this day I can remember in great detail the occasion when the overhead projector screen above the chalk board fell down while she was trying to open it, scraping her hand. She winced in pain as the class sat silent behind her. It was the first time (of few) in my life that I reacted with pleasure at someone else’s pain. I was too young to understand the true concept of karma, but not too young to understand the sense of justice I felt was rendered at that time. It seems strange, but it was a pivotal memory in my life. I have many times recalled it, and recognized the conscious search within myself to find compassion for those whom I might not necessarily feel deserve it.
My graduation to fourth grade was met with great relief and hope. Those hopes were squashed on day 1 of Mrs. O’s class. Student experience with this woman very much depended on whether or not she had the notion in her head to like you. She didn’t like my sister, who moaned for me with great sympathy upon learning my teacher assignment. I could tell from that very first day as O looked at me (negativity so evident on her face I could see the distaste welling in her mouth) and spat, “Oh, I remember your sister”; she wasn’t going to like me either. Dea, if you’re reading this…it’s totally NOT your fault.
Unfortunately, I was right. Days dragged on and on as I struggled to get through the year. I have in fact blocked out most of how poorly that woman treated me, and numerous others, save one vital memory:
On the average day we exchanged our math work with our neighbor for review and grading. On the day in question, the neighbor of the boy who sat diagonal from me was absent. My friend Beth and I automatically did a three way switch with “Joe”. Beth, who usually had my paper, was correcting Joe’s instead. Following a review of one of the equations, Beth raised her hand to ask a question about the paper she was correcting. I remember her saying “What if this person put XXXXX.”
O’s response was look at me, shrug, and say, “Well Maria’s stupid so that’s no surprise.” Beth stated quite plainly, “This isn’t Maria’s paper”. O then shrugged again and just said “Oh.” I do recall she kept talking, telling Beth how to correct the paper, but I heard none of it. I replayed what she said over and over in my mind blinking back tears and trying to calm the heat that I knew was emanated from my cheeks, and the shaking that was wracking my body. At the same time, I couldn’t help but look to Joe, whose eyes never left my paper on his desk. I thought of the humiliation that he must have also felt, knowing her extreme reaction to his mistake. There are plenty of other embarrassing experiences that I’m sure I could come up with prior to that moment of my short existence on this planet, but in that very moment I had never felt so small, so useless, so very hopeless for my own abilities and lack of accomplishment. It never occurred to me to have a different reaction.
That having been said, it was twenty five years ago and probably twenty years too long past due to OMG GET OVER IT!!!! OK, I recognize that I’m still a tad bit pissed. Honestly, although my sister and parents (probably even my husband by this point) have heard me recount this tale and curse her name over many a glass of wine throughout my early adult years, I still thought that I was over the feeling of…inadequacy.
That was until she came walking back into my life on October 31, 1995. Fresh out of college, with little knowledge of what I wanted to do with my life, I was an assistant manager for GapKids at the Rhode Island Mall. It was a good job, and the company had treated me very well. I had interned with them throughout college, and was proud that while retail management was not necessarily what I wanted for a career, at the very least I had a full time job with benefits upon donning my cap and gown. It was on this day in 1995 that this woman who called herself my teacher strolled into my store. I remember the date so clearly because it was Halloween. And I was dressed up. As Pippi Longstocking.
There I was standing in the middle of a children’s clothing store wearing a tee shirt under Gap overalls, striped socks, my hair in two long braided pigtails held in upward positions by wire, and eyeliner freckles spread across my cheeks. Of course she recognized me immediately. She appraised me up and down without bothering to be subtle.
“So, you work here.”
I tried to talk up my internship. How I was the first person in the northeast region to complete the program. How no, I did not go to school for management training but it was a really good opportunity for me. How, ha, ha, imagine today of all days for her to walk into my store. She moved on to inquire of other family members and I was quick to recount that my sister was away studying for her masters in NY, and that my parents were together and well. I helped her with her purchase for the grandchild she gushed about and got her out of my store as quickly as possible. I turned to the young teenage girl that I had on shift with me and explained that I needed a few moments in the back room. I’m not sure that I got all the way through the door before I lost it.
I was overcome by the same shaking, the same feelings of uselessness, the same knowledge that I would never measure up to the unobtainable person I imagined she never thought I could be. The only difference is that this time the wracking sobs and the tears came out in full force. I was 10 all over again, and the big joke on me was that I was also dressed like it.
It’s been 13 years since my last encounter with the woman who shook my already frail self confidence to the core and contributed to its shattering into minuscule shards of self doubt. I spent months following the impromptu meeting thinking of what, in hind sight, I would have liked to have said. I eventually reached the conclusion it simply would not have mattered to her, and despite my weak reaction shouldn’t to me. I try not to think about how strong I could be, would be; should we meet again.
I reached a point in my mid to late 20’s where I got pretty darn angry about a great many things. And then I started to learn to forgive- others and myself. It sounds like a silly cliche or a Hallmark card moment, but after I allowed myself that, I started to change, and to be happy. Now, I’m fairly certain that I still have a lot of anger issues about Miss A and Mrs. O, this novel of a post screaming a resounding “Um, yeah…” I can say this, bit by bit I have learned to appreciate my own self worth, who I am, what I have to give, and became more than OK with it. Perhaps, should there be a next time we meet…I will not feel the need to prove it.