In my last post a week ago, "By the Light of a Burning Bridge", I recounted that when I reported The Incident as a child, the investigation was snuffed out because my dad chose to believe my assailant's fabricated counter story rather than even talk with me about the matter. I sent him a link to the 2015 blog post, "About a Thousand Days Ago...", in which I first opened up about The Incident. As of the publication of this post, there has still been no follow-up. (Yes, I'm aware that blocking him on Facebook prevents contacting me that way. There are other ways. This is the 21st Century. At least, parts of it still are.)
One of the themes that I hit on in that discussion was how actively he worked to make sure I knew what I was--and was not; that I was a sissy crybaby and I was not special. I would never become a real man or make it in the real world. Believe me, Dear Reader, I wanted nothing more than to disprove this. As it happened, though, he was corroborated.
So, here's another major life experience of mine that has weighed on my mind as I've tried to process some of the stuff from last week. I'm pretty sure I've talked about it somewhere in this blog, but a quick search for "Centerfield" only turned up "My End of the World Confession", a light little anecdote about a milk chugging contest. (Go ahead and read that before continuing. It's only a few paragraphs.) I do, however, in that post, make passing reference to my experience at that school:
I was in fourth grade, a new student at Centerfield Elementary. Half of my neighborhood had already been going to that school, but for whatever reason, my half was not. They redistricted us so that the whole subdivision went to the one school. The short version is that I was not very well accepted - by students or faculty.It's important at this point to elaborate on that.
See, I started at an entirely different place--not just a different school, but at a different place in my own life. I didn't really have any friends at my first elementary school, but I also wasn't conscious of that fact, either. I didn't have any bullies there, either, which was certainly nice. I was a teacher's pet. I was even so much of a teacher's pet that one teacher would semi-regularly pop in on one of my classes just to check on me and chat...despite the fact I was not even her student! She just got a kick out of me for whatever reason. I, in turn, got a kick out of the fact she got a kick out of me. Lots of kicks were had all around.
I was a passionate learner. Even subjects that didn't interest me, I tended to with the intent to at least understand thoroughly. I was placed in the advanced class for math. It was an elite group; there were only six of us who made the cut. We brought clipboards to that class and were permitted to do our work sitting in bean bags. So long as we weren't talking about the work we were supposed to be doing, even some idle chatting was generally permitted. It was a wondrous experience.
The coolest of the six of us was a boy whose family was French. He left partway through the year to move there. That was the first time I was ever conscious that if I could somehow go to an entirely other part of the planet, I would actually know someone who lived there. I remember how neat I thought that was whenever I send my little Christmas sketch cards each year, knowing that at the part of the planet where each of those cards is ultimately delivered, I know someone there.
There was no elitist nonsense about us being in this class, either. I don't recall ever once being teased by anyone else for being nerdy enough to be in it, and I have no recollection of ever witnessing any of my fellow classmates try to flaunt it as some kind of badge of superiority over anyone else. When time came for math, the six of us were quietly dismissed from our respective rooms and convened in the room set aside for us. It was routine, so far as our interactions with one another and with our classmates was concerned.
I was very much aware that it was cool to be in that class. I mean, I got to sit on a bean bag and use a clipboard and crack jokes with the others while working on my assignments. That's still cool to me! Had I stopped to think about it, I suppose I might have regarded it as special. Had I had different influences by that point, maybe I would have even seen my being placed in that class as evidence that I was special.
Thank God I was spared that nonsense!
So, we jump ahead to the end of my third grade school year and this other elementary school isn't meeting its quota of poor kids, and I guess they'd run out of ways to put off having to take on more of us riffraff. Half of my neighborhood was already being sent there, so it made sense for them to expand and take all of us.
I encountered bullies for the first time in fourth grade. Some of the bullies' parents were teachers there. Some of the bullies were teachers there, for that matter. I went from being a teacher's pet to persona non grata without changing anything about who I was. My teachers refused to answer my questions, or to call on me to answer theirs--unless they were confident they'd set me up with something they knew damn well I didn't know because they hadn't taught it to me. I watched as other kids from my neighborhood, and others just as poor, were all treated the same way.
At Centerfield Elementary School, the advanced classes weren't restricted to only the students who hit a certain score threshold. It was as many students at the top of the score list as would fit into a classroom. I was certain that, all things being equal, I was a better student than at least half of them. I knew this because I watched how they'd get by without seeming to ever actually retain anything. They might get a B or even an A on homework and tests, but they only understood the material inasmuch as was needed to pick the right looking answer off a multiple choice list. They had no real grasp of the concepts--not like I had sought to master, and had been encouraged and helped to do.
At least, that's how it had been for me at LaGrange Elementary. Centerfield was something else. My mom recalls going to our first Open House, and being shocked at how rudely one teacher spoke to me right in front of her, after four school years of teachers gushing over me to her.
I went from being an honor roll student to barely passing. I would come home from school and try to study and do the homework and teach myself what my teachers had withheld from me in class, and I would be at the kitchen table from the time I got home until it was time to go to bed, breaking only to eat dinner. I couldn't take it. I broke down crying one night as I finally realized that nothing I did mattered.
These people did not want me to succeed.
I would not succeed.
That was all there was to it. I was going to be the failure that my dad predicted, because I wasn't as special as others had lied to me about being. Not my great grandmother, and not the faculty at LaGrange Elementary.
In fifth grade, I was one of two students to qualify for the spelling bee. I got a phone call at home later that day from the other student. Rather than our teacher, Mrs. Pitt, having given both of us a copy of the word list, she'd given both copies to the other student. That student was one of the few kind kids there, and she took it upon herself to see to it that I had the chance to come get the word list rather than go in unprepared. I've always appreciated and respected her for that. (Thanks, Ryan!)
The next day, when the spelling bee was held, I remember watching the clock anxiously. If I could just get in there and spell one word off that list that my teacher had tried to not give me, I'd have called it a win. We were doing some activity in groups. It was noisy. And when I checked the clock, it was too late. The spelling bee had already started. Ryan had been properly notified and sent to perform in it, but our teacher had managed to overlook making sure I knew.
"You are not to speak, or ask anything, or even raise your hand while those judges are in this room, do you understand me?"
I was surprised by this. To think, she seemed to genuinely fear that little ol' me could cost this school their precious award! An award which, had anyone asked, I would have honestly said I did not believe they merited, regardless of how they'd managed to see to it that all the teachers' kids and their friends aced everything that year.
But to show you how dispirited I was by this point, Dear Reader, it hadn't even occurred to me to be disruptive. At other times in my life, her admonition would absolutely have been warranted. I can be, and have been, a rabble rouser. By the time of the judges' tour, though, I was doing well just to contain the pervasive thoughts of suicide that I'd been contemplating for the better part of two years. Sabotaging their stupid award didn't cross my mind.
A rumor circulated that day that I was never able to corroborate. The story was that the principal had personally taken home one of the poorest students because he had come to school dressed so shabbily. Maybe it didn't happen. I can't prove that it did, but I've always felt the fact that such a thing would even make the rounds among elementary aged children speaks volumes about the environment there.
They won their goddamned award, by the way.
That was their reward for breaking me of my spirit as a student to the point I went from honor student to barely passing. That was their reward for proving to me that my dad was right and that I had been naive to think otherwise. That was their reward for instilling in me such hopelessness and pervasive feelings of worthlessness that I began having suicidal thoughts at age 9. That's what the 1989-1990 National School of Excellence Award winner did.
I've recently connected some of these dots and come to the conclusion that this, in conjunction with what I discussed in my last post, has led me to be less trusting of others than I like to think I am. I'm openly mistrustful in general, but I do allow for people to earn my trust. What I see now is that even within my Inner Circle, my trust only goes as far as trusting someone not to hurt me with knowledge of something private.
I do not, and cannot, trust even those people when they try to offer me praise or encouragement. I know it's a lie. A school won an award for making sure I learned that.