When I was in second grade, my elementary school made us all take a bunch of tests. They had all these (seemingly) boring questions about random stuff, and they were all timed, so naturally I loved them. What’s that? You want me to solve this problem about a tiger holding an hourglass and pickle, escaping a moving a train with no windows but a semi-working floor hatch AND I get out of class for it? I’m in. The result of these tests was me getting to leave class every week for a few hours to join with (maybe 7) others (I really feel a little guilty for not remembering any of them) in an awesome room that had tons of cool models and activities and books my regular classroom didn’t have just so we could all sit around and write made-up mystery stories (you’re looking at the 1st place [AMONGST SECOND THROUGH FOURTH GRADE] winner for most creative fiction story 1995) and watch documentaries about the ocean and stuff.
It helped me cope. I wasn’t the quiet one in GT; I wasn’t the over-achiever; I wasn’t the teacher’s pet; and no one tried to cheat off of me, ever. I never had to raise my hand or even speak out loud if I didn’t want to (although in my later elementary school years they would make me read parts of plays in front of the group. and I wouldn’t hate it anymore). It was a place where we were free from all conventional schooling restraints and could decide and figure out who we were and what we were about. We didn’t have to melt into a mold that one of the class Alicias or Treys had decided we needed to fit into, and we didn’t have to try and impress anyone because we were already all super impressed with each other. There was an unspoken understanding between us all. It was glorious.
But I remember, still so vividly, something that happened with one of the girls when I was in fourth grade. (a couple things I vividly remember actually, but the other was when I locked one of the Brittneys into a trunk on accident and we had to find the janitor to break her out. Very traumaticDRAMATIC situation, but a story for another day).
Fourth grade was the year I took a “read-as-many-words-as-you-can-in-one-minute” test and finished the entire page full, but missed one word because I pronounced “our” as “are”. Like my poor 8 year old drawl hadn’t suffered enough differentiating between “then” and “than”. I digress.
There was a girl in my GT class named Katherine. I remembered her from second grade because one time she brought a note to my teacher and this awful boy named Peyton made mean faces at her and she almost cried and I already hated Peyton because he had my name and he was a jerk, and obviously no one wants to share their name with a jerk. By fourth grade, she had toughened up. She had also grown. A lot. She was a good head and shoulders taller than all the rest of us and she had long, bright red hair. I thought she was awesome.
Every now and then we would have GT together, and she would stand on a stool with a boa draped around her shoulders and give a dramatic reading of Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing because we were prolific like that. She also had this deep, gut laugh that made you smile even if you didn’t want to. She was cool before kids in fourth grade knew what cool really was.
One day she brought a note into my homeroom class (apparently in her classes, she was always most trusted at carrying important papers through halls). I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I think she tripped or something while she was at the front of the room by the board. I remember looking up because several people in the room audibly laughed and most of the others snickered. (Meanwhile, I was too busy reading ahead to have even seen what happened. sheesh.)
Her reaction is what I remember the most. I can still see her there, her cheeks were only a little pink, shoulders only a little slouched and she turned to face the class and loudly made a remark about what a klutz she was. Then she bopped herself on the head and started a 20 second tirade about how ‘she’s such a dummy and she can’t do anything or go anywhere’, all while laughing and wiggling around, working the stage. I suppose it should be impressive that a fourth grader instinctively behaved this way, but I remember I instantly felt really sad.
I didn’t know why. Maybe it was because my 60+ year old teacher looked slightly mortified and I was identifying with her emotions, but maybe it’s because of what I didn’t know I knew then.
Self-depreciation is not cool.
Watching her squirm, no matter how cool I still thought she was, was sad.
Watching a nine year old begin to define herself by the opinions of her peers made me feel sad.
Watching a room full of peers assigning worth to someone made me sad. I know this is what was happening because I know what happened next. After she left, our class got scolded. Then for the rest of the day kids re-enacted the entire scene. Then for the next week, a few specific words or actions would elicit laughter. Then for the rest of the year, kids periodically made fun of her. And by spring Katherine was the only kid I personally knew who visited the school counselor.
As an adult, I can apply a lot more meaning to the situation. I can understand better what was actually happening. And I can see how we begin to mold our character long before we ever understand what we’re doing.
Here’s what I began to construct that day (well probably long before that day, but what I can see happening in myself that day). I wanted to control the situation. I wanted to will my classmates to behave tactfully. I wanted her to stop making fun of herself, to know that it wasn’t a big deal, and she was still cool, and she didn’t need to be affected by 300 measly seconds of time. I wanted my teacher to be proud of me for not laughing. I wanted to bring the composure back, restore the equilibrium between all involved parties, and then calmly observe the symmetry.
You see, I’m cool with change. I like mystery. I love a crowd. But they wear me out, and in order for me to exist as freely as I’m capable of, I feel like I need to know the boundaries. I need to be able to predict things and call them what they are, THEN things can be as chaotic as they wish to be. What I began to do was take it upon myself to become the equilibrium. I’m not a people-pleaser. I’m not a soothe-sayer. But I am a diffuser of awkward. I am an insulator of feelings.
The problem with being this is that sometimes you take things upon yourself that aren’t for the taking.You assume you must when really you shouldn’t. At some point, because your system has served you well, because it has given you identity and worth and most importantly, Control, you fight for it. But at another fairly close and completely related point, it drains you. It takes everything from you, because you have to pour all you have into sustaining other people and things.
Then at at yet another point, much further down the road, you realize you don’t know how you feel because you’ve been too busy either feeling other people’s feelings for them or negating other people’s feelings for them. When you have to feel–when you choose to feel–you find it leaves you empty.
I don’t have answers yet. I don’t even know why I really wrote this post other than I kept thinking about Katherine yesterday, and my therapist says it’s good for my growth to write about the things I’m learning and working through. So, three cheers for over-sharing! And another three for friends who will read this and will feel over-joyed that I shared rather than over-shared with. You’re the best.
((and because I know you’re all dying to know, the story I won the creative writing award for was about whale blubber. And it was a mystery. I know you’re too impressed for words.))