Fri 17 Jul 2009
i was angry when i slipped the note into the dark maw of her desk, around the rim of chewed, dried gum.
furtively, i shoved the paper deep. i remember the feel of it leaving my hand, its sharply crumpled edges, the not-quite-moment-of-hesitation. i let go. and then i stood and walked away.
i don’t think i thought of it again until the teacher called me in after school a day or two later. a tank of a woman who ruled the seventh grade like a German train line, she sat me in front of her, the note between us. her gaze and sheer bulk bore down on me. my knees began to shake.
it wasn’t a nice note. i don’t remember if it was a signed note, oddly, though some niggling shred of memory tells me it was. i do remember there was no denying it was mine. and suddenly, like the floor dropping out from beneath me, no way to justify or explain.
i had left a note in another girl’s desk telling her she was a jackass. jackass. apparently my gift for cussing came later. i believe i also called her a baby. only now do i realize that it was that which was far more cruel.
this note was not the first this girl had received that fall, my teacher informed me. the other, which i assume was unsigned, hadn’t come from me. to this day i don’t know who the other player in the story might have been, or what they’d said to the girl. but the poor kid had brought the notes to her mother and her mother had brought them to the teacher and there i sat, bewildered and suddenly – for all intents and purposes – a bully.
i was eleven years old that fall. i was a January baby, which due to the school cutoff dates here, meant i’d started kindergarten at just four-and-a-half. i’d been ready enough, until junior high: both socially and academically able to negotiate the terrain of each school year.
grade seven, though, hit like acid. i had finished sixth grade an eleven-year-old girl who played with Barbies and liked to read. i was earnest and smart and, as the only child of a mother who treated me with great sincerity, utterly and completely innocent of the subtleties of human communications, particularly those on the snarky & sarcastic end of the scale.
grade seven made me a fast learner.
we moved that summer, left the apartment where we’d lived since before i’d turned two. we moved to a far crappier place in a nicer neighbourhood near my new school, the big school where we were marched off to different teachers for different subjects and suddenly girls i’d known all my life grew catty and judgemental and style & status mattered and there was makeup and i felt like Alice through the Rabbit Hole.
i remember, still, the confusion of those days, how friends suddenly and seemingly randomly took sides, practicing power, choosing who would be included and who cut out. without siblings, i’d never had the experience of fighting with other kids, had few conflict resolution skills, had never even seen the give & take of frustration and reconcilation modelled within my family. i believed i was in a zero-sum game: once ostracized, i’d be alienated forever.
my Barbies got relegated to the back of my closet, a secret comfort i took out only when alone. i studied the other girls, the play of language, the codes of maturity, the attitudes of those who carried themselves with authority. i tried like hell to grow up, all in a few crazy weeks.
i knew i did not understand popular. but i understood smart, and i applied every ounce of smart i had to figuring out how to mimic the mock-grown-up performance my peers seemed to embody so effortlessly.
or most did. the girl whose desk i left that note in that November lived around the corner from my new home. she was older than me, by a few months, but she still played Barbies. she wore bows in her hair. and she coped, i guess, with the maelstrom of change that fall by digging in her heels, rejecting the shift in environment and ethic from childhood to adolescence. or maybe she just didn’t notice.
i remember her voice as flat, and loud. i remember being embarrassed by her public appeals to play Barbies at her house, by her ingratiating overtures of friendship, always a little too close, a little too eager. she was a Daddy’s Little Girl of high degree and seemed to expect everyone to treat her as her Daddy did: perhaps she thought if she just got close enough, she’d get the petting she was accustomed to. i didn’t have a Daddy, and didn’t know what to do with her need. i remember recoiling, scrabbling to distance myself from her. and when she didn’t recognize my clumsy attempts at indifference or respect the efforts i made to show my hard-won grownupness, i grew panicky, and baffled, and contemptuous of such bovine insensibility to all that was so inexorably and painfully evident to me.
i wasn’t actually a mean girl, not really. and i was a bit of an utter coward, when it came to confrontation. so the culmination of my frustration was the scrawled note i shoved righteousnessly in her gummy desk, which read along the lines of, LEAVE ME ALONE, JACKASS. YOU’RE A BABY.
it was cathartic. it marked the distance between us in a way she couldn’t ignore.
it was cruel too. i know that, maybe even knew that then. i apologized after, and mostly meant it, because hurting her feelings hadn’t been my primary intent. what i’d wanted to do was rock her oblivion, her self-appointed coddled pet role, her privilege in getting to remain a child while the rest of us were forced, like it or not, into an adolescence some of us were most definitely not ready for. i wanted to punish her for being too stupid or too protected to notice that everything had changed.
i wanted her to be my scapegoat, because everything had changed and i was utterly at sea.
after the first few days at his new preschool and an unproductive parking-lot meeting wherein i made a lot of “not really appropriate placement” noises and the director mostly appeared to wait for me to be done talking, Oscar suddenly and without warning got moved up to junior kindergarten last week.
so instead of our April 2006 boy being in a peer-grouped class almost entirely of 2007 babies, he was a class of 2005 babies. mostly early 2005 babies.
he loved the room. they had plenty of dinosaurs, and interesting books, and lots of stuff he hadn’t seen before. suddenly, he came home talking about dressup, about cannons, about billy goats gruff. but whenever we showed up to pick him up, he was attached to a teacher or playing alone.
it took almost a week to get a meeting about it, because it is July and people are taking holidays. by the time the meeting rolled around, the school had come to the conclusions that Dave & i had raised eyebrows about when they first made the move: he not only wasn’t really interacting with the bigger kids in meaningful ways, they were beginning to tease him a little for his pronunciations, and he’d turned into the teacher’s permanent tail. in spite of our efforts to teach him strategies for interacting with the other kids, they weren’t necessarily responding in ways he could make sense of or take up.
so we agreed to move him back to preschool – after all, there are two other three-year-olds there now, both nice little girls.
he didn’t want to go. and even four days in, full of genuine and significant efforts on the part of the preschool teachers to scaffold age-appropriate activities with him and the small group of 2006ers they have on hand, he doesn’t want to be there. he wants to be in the junior kindergarten.
and i am trying to figure out what it is that draws him there, with those kids a head taller, whom he can’t really seem to keep up with or engage in conversation with. and a part of me wonders whether the shift up to the bigger class simply started one of those inexorable shifts for him, as junior high did for me, where the world opens up and going back – not in the literal sense, but in terms of how one views one’s role in the world – is emotionally and intellectually impossible, no matter how unprepared one is to cope.
maybe not. but we have some decision to make on behalf of this little boy, and i wish i understood better what was going on in that small blondish head. as an educator, i’m no fan of accelerated placements, particularly at this age. and other than the fact that i’m going back to work next month and need childcare, our primary reason for having Oscar start preschool wasn’t really about learning opportunities in the classic cognitive sense, for all this school provides many, but rather socialization.
kids who get moved up, or who are among the youngest yet highest-performing in their classes, as both Dave & i were in our illustrious (snort) childhoods, hear the words, “you’re so smart” a lot. like any label with positive attributes and reinforcement attached, it can become a bit of a drug. i was a little freaked out when the school first reported that they’d moved Oscar up because he seemed “advanced” – i’d been advocating that his placement was inappropriate because he was essentially in a baby room, not because he’s some kinda prodigy. i forget that his vocabulary – pronunciation quirks aside – has become pretty wicked over the past eight months or so, since a year ago he was in speech therapy and only i could distinguish more than ten words he said. but they heard him riffing on the finer points of stegosaurus, and i know even the older kids gathered ’round that first day he got moved up and held court around the dinosaur book, and i would bet my teeth he heard a lot of “oh, such a smart boy!” and a part of me wonders if this isn’t the reason his stubborn little self insists he belongs in that room, because he’s dying, inside, to recreate that moment of stardom and glory.
there is a scene in the old Jimmy Stewart film “Harvey” in which Elwood P. Dowd, a character my eleven-year-old self would have had no way to comprehend, says something along the lines of, “In this life, you end up being either oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant. I’ve tried smart. I prefer pleasant.”
it’s a lesson i wish i’d learned a lot earlier. and one of the main ones i want my children to have some exposure to, early. yep, we want O with kids he can talk to, in an environment with age-appropriate stuff. but we also want him to understand that being kind and thoughtful trumps being smart, in terms of how one values oneself and one’s relationships with others.
and that growing up too fast is no fun.