October 25, 2014
For a brief time in the morning, my mind is clear. I can think cohesive, coherent thoughts. I masticate my phrasing as I chew on the inside of my bottom lip. I hear the bubbling leak of the toilet next door, the sounds of traffic roaring by the house, the slam of my neighbor’s house door. I have an unsettled mind that compels me to write.
I feel as if I could read my writings aloud without squeak, croak or stumble over a word. Though I know the reality of public speaking is not just about opening my mouth and letting sound issue forth. For me, it is about anxiety, fear and abject terror.
The anxiety exists because it has always been there. The fear is of being heard by another living soul. The terror is of the response that I may elicit. I have heard over and over, “You just need to practice,” “Don’t worry about what people think – just speak up,” “You just need some self-esteem,” “Take a deep breath and let it out.” All easy concepts, for someone else.
I was the girl who never talked at school. I cried every day when I got to school. I was petrified of people. They called me painfully shy. They must have thought I couldn’t hear them either. I’ve always had what I called “dog hearing.” I always managed to hear what people were saying about me. No, I wasn’t hearing voices. My classmates would say, “Don’t talk to her, she doesn’t talk.” I was left to myself.
What I had was extremely bad eyesight, so I had to listen intently to hear what was going on in class. I kept my head down, I don’t even remember being aware that there was a blackboard other than hearing that weird scratching sound. My teacher didn’t think I was paying attention, so she started throwing questions at me. I always answered correctly, but I was accused of cheating. I never bothered anyone in class, so I couldn’t help feeling like I was being singled out. I really just wanted to be left alone at home.
There was the elephant incident. I never spoke to anyone at my table. My neighbor saw my elephant drawing and asked me to draw one for them. Suddenly, I was passed many pieces of paper, one by one, and I drew an elephant and passed the paper to my neighbor. I remember their hands with little chubby fingers, never their faces. I don’t know how many elephants I drew before I heard the swish of a dress and squeak of her nursing shoes as my first grade teacher came around to the front of her desk. Mrs. H’s booming voice asked, “Who Drew THIS Elephant?” I couldn’t see the front of the class and I knew my classmates hadn’t since I had been mass producing them, so I raised my hand without looking up.
I just thought they finally liked something about me. I didn’t realize that I was the mastermind of some juvenile pachyderm crime ring. I was sent to the office for something I had unknowingly done wrong. I got a lecture from the principal about cheating during art class. I thought was going to go to hell, but first my mom got called in to the school. I heard my teacher, the principal and my mom talking. Then, I remember my mom yelling. I had pretty much shut down by then so I don’t remember much about the aftermath. I know I didn’t want to go back there.
Then, there was the tornado drill. In the mid-west in the 1970’s, the siren goes off and as a first grader, I knew the drill. You get up, get into a line and file into the cloakroom without making a sound. Kneel head down, hands over your head, under the coats, up against the wall. I had my eyes firmly closed, when I felt my bottom get swatted from above. I was shocked. I opened my eyes, looked back from under the coats and saw Mrs. H’s squeaking shoes walking away from me. I cried. I told my mom when I got home that someone had swatted me during the tornado drill.
The next day she took me to school and we met with the principal and Mrs. H. She assured Mr. Principal that she had done no such thing and that some other child must have done it as a joke. She just seemed so happy about it. I was told that I couldn’t have seen who had done it since my eyes were closed. I repeated what I saw after I felt the swat. I saw her large white shoes stepping away from me as everyone else’s heads were still down. I remember the glare I received from that teacher. I recall shutting down again and wanting to be anywhere other than there, as my mother lost it on the teacher and the principal.
There were no further incidents in my classroom during first grade. Though I do remember going with my brother during the summer to a closed school administration building for some kind of special testing downtown. I waited for my brother to take his test, then he came out of the room and they wanted me to take the test next. Funny how some details can clog up a head from 38 years prior and other memories are just gone forever. They were surprised that I finished the test quickly, then we were sent home. We were put into a special program in a different school, so I would never have to see Mrs. H again.
In second grade, there were other quiet children like me who could always answer the questions correctly without being accused of cheating. I didn’t realize that everyone couldn’t read as they entered kindergarten. I thought everyone was as bored as I was at my old school in first grade. During recess and lunch I remember reading silently with my classmates. I still don’t think I had much to say. I had friends who would smile at me and give me a hug. That felt nice. Some of the other kids from other classes thought we were weird and said so to our faces, so I felt pretty normal back at school. The teacher really seemed to enjoy teaching us about writing, history, math and French. I remember the games we played to learn French. Learning through playing games and singing songs was fun.
I thought it was weird to be in a class with one of my older brothers. It was a second/third grade double classroom. I was in second grade, he was in third. I ignored him, he ignored me. There was no animosity, we were never in each others space. We may have played with the same friends, but I don’t remember playing with him at school. He is hole in my school memories.
My oldest brother went to a different school and seemed angry with me most of the time. I tried my best to stay out of his way. I never seemed to get far away enough.
To be continued…