NOTE: The following is the first of a series of short stories/essays. The collection is called “Schooled Haze.” Readers might also enjoy other works of fiction and non-fiction available at the link at the bottom of the page.
I have only a few scattered memories from the time before I learned to read. Like fallen autumn leaves, early memories are often brightly colored but randomly assigned far from their tree. The sight of swelling giant green ocean waves over the railing of the ship lacks attachment to any origin or destination of the voyage. The shiny red toy gun appears but no stem attaches to a giver or an occasion. My father’s quavery voice as he hunkers down in the bow of the paddle boat, cautioning us to do the same because of the airplanes overhead, held no connection to his time in the army, his wounds, or where we were.
Once formal schooling began, whether because of age or training, my memories began to connect to a framework. Whether this made my memories more accurate or less accurate still causes intra-psychic debate, but that they were different — this is not in doubt. In the first grade, we began to learn to print. I actually already knew how to print. I had taught myself before school began. I suppose that was part of the problem. Even now, I don’t make my letters and numbers with the same “strokes” that most people do. Anyway, we were supposed to be learning to print, and since I was there, I wanted to play the game along with everyone else.
With our giant awkward green pencils poised above our cheap, lined, gray-yellow paper, we were to copy our teacher’s printing. At that point, blackboards were still black and chalk was still white. Miss Wilkins had neatly printed: “TODAY IS TUESDAY. TODAY IS TUESDAY. TODAY IS TUESDAY.” We were to fill our paper with this vital all-caps phrase. Indeed, it was Tuesday, but I really only needed to print it once to remember that. In fact, zero times would have sufficed. But, you see, there were rules in school. There were rules at home as well, but by comparison, very few. Home rules almost always made some modicum of sense, even to a six year old. School rules seemed part of some elaborate, religious, magical ritual or game imposed without explanation or exception.
Of course, this only surprised me a little because home and school smelled quite different. The black slate board had a smell, dark and clean and sharp. The chalk had a smell, that was attractive but choking. The cheap shiny paper had it’s own cheap shiny smell. And, if you took the time to notice (which most kids did), the bare wood of the giant green pencils smelled quite nice and much better than the shiny green paint part of the pencil. In fact, volunteering to sharpen pencils was a job most people were eager for, not only for the wonderful woody odor but also for the idea that we were making our own tools, and possibly our own weapons.
I understood the task at hand. I needed to fill up the page with “TODAY IS TUESDAY.” And, so I began. First I made a long vertical line for the “T” letters. Then I crossed every “T.” Then, I made a long vertical column of “O’s” and another long vertical line for the “D’s.” I began to add the bows for the “D’s.” Just as I was about halfway done with my “D-bows” however, the teacher yanked me out of my chair. She screamed as she marched me out into the hallway. Then, she grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me. As she screamed, she began to sob. I felt kind of bad for her, but I honestly had no idea what she was so upset about.
Sadly, this was not my only run-in with my first grade teacher. We also had a long debate about whether heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. She seemed quite satisfied that her example of the rock and the feather should leave any sane person convinced, but whether sane or not, it didn’t convince me. My father and grandfather were both engineers and my grandfather subscribed to Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, and The Atlantic Monthly. I probably mostly perused the pictures, but I also read articles from a very early age. Whether from reading or from talking with Dad and Grandpa, I somehow had heard about Galileo’s little experiment performed from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I explained this to her as best I could, but she refused to believe it. Again, she gave the example of the stone and the feather. She must have thought me a bit dense.
Perhaps that is why she thought so little of it when one of my classmates pushed me down the concrete steps in front of our school door. Such a head over heels tumble presents the oddest sensations! I recall being astounded by the seemingly random jumble of images swirling by. My head didn’t feel too great either, but I think the lack of control over what I was seeing was even more disconcerting. Typically, one of the few school rules that did make sense to me was that we were not allowed to hit, kick, bite or shove other pupils. I have never felt that much inclined to injure others so I didn’t mind following this rule at all. But here I was, not having been punched or kicked, but victim of a potentially far more dangerous rule violation. At the time, I didn’t think of it so much as dangerous as it was rude. And, beyond that, it clearly constituted an egregious violation of the rules. If we were going to have all these school rules, why should they not apply to everyone? Why should someone get away with pushing me down the concrete steps when I had seen the mildest of pushes and punches get punished mightily?
At the time, I could generate no coherent explanation. The cognitive confusion about how adults failed to meet my expectations simply added to my perceptual confusion from free-fall tumbling. It seemed as though the world were saying to me, “All Bets are Off” and “Adult Authorities are Not to be Trusted” and “You never know.”
Who could be trusted, then? Well, my beautiful dog Mel for one. My Dad brought Mel back from Portugal. He was a beautiful honey-colored Cocker Spaniel. Mel loved me no matter what. A few weeks earlier, however, I had heard my parents talking about giving him away because other kids in the neighborhood were teasing him and Mel, tied up, was snapping at them. He had a wire lead connected at one end to his collar and the other end was looped around a horizontal wire. Some kids quickly saw just how far he could go and found great pleasure in getting him to run to the end of his lead and then watch his neck snap back as he reached the end. This infuriated Mel and he snarled and snapped at them. My folks were worried that a bite could lead to a lawsuit.
I made them promise not to sell Mel. And, they didn’t. When I got home from school one day, he was gone. But he hadn’t been sold at all. Not at all. He had been “put to sleep.” Our small two bedroom bungalow had one main hall closet with a blue quilt folded up at the back. That’s where I went to hang out for the next hours. I didn’t much want to talk to my parents. Not about Mel. Not about anything. It seemed to me, that if anyone should have been “put to sleep” it would be the kids who were teasing him. I just sat in the dark on the cool blue quilt crying for Mel.
Despite what my first grade teacher might think, sometimes small, light things — things even so light as a soul — can fall very fast.