[from work in progress] I was restless from the start, the kind of fussy first-born baby who needed rocking chairs and car rides to fall asleep. I was shy, but my doting parents assumed I could do anything.
I was anxious about starting kindergarten. It wasn’t separation anxiety. I was worried that I couldn’t read well enough already. On the first day I was horrified to see children crying, scalding tears on their faces while mothers fluttered about. I didn’t have time for that nonsense. Let’s get the show on the road.
It turned out that grade school was stupid. In large parochial school classes of up to 60 children, it was an exercise in 1950s mass education. Nothing about it was inspiring. Check problems. Take a number, multiply it by 2, then by 3, 4, etc. then divide the total by 2, 3, 4, etc. to get back to the original number. Diagramming sentences. Interesting the first thousand sentences or so but where was it leading? In eighth grade the grammatical discipline devolved into group punishment. Religion. Memorizing the Baltimore Catechism. It had all the answers to life’s great questions reduced to easy answers. Who made me? God made me. Why did God make me? To show forth his goodness and to share with us his everlasting happiness in heaven. Everything in grade school was broken down into categories and formulas. And absolute truths. History came from the Catholic perspective. What Dark Ages? Wasn’t Catholicism flourishing?
Geography. Endless weeks on the Central Farming Region – squared off, pale green diagrams of giant farms with no real explanation of sorghum. The Central Farming Region became my sense of place, my boring Midwest. Who wouldn’t long to escape from a world where the highlight was crop rotation? Literature. I vaguely remember writing book reports, but I don’t remember reading books, except for my private passion, Nancy Drew, followed up by Sherlock Holmes and other mysteries gathered up from the public library. Literature in grade school meant memorizing poetry with no meaning to girls who lived in cities: lovely trees, hosts of daffodils, poppies in Flanders Field.
I rebelled. Memorizing meaningless poetry and being forced to stand and recite it in stumbling singsong while everyone stared, hoping you’d make an ass of yourself – this was an act of cruelty to children I couldn’t tolerate. So I did not memorize. When the nun would call on me, I’d stand up and say flatly, “I don’t know it.” She would glare at me. I would stare at the floor. She would tell me to sit down. What was she going to do? Only the boys got smacked.
In grade school I drifted along in a fine old Comfort Zone. I was in a Girl Scout troop whose members earned no badges – and no one seemed to care. I rotated through best friends, nursed secret crushes on priests, marched with the drum and bugle corps, made clothes for paper dolls, read mysteries, avoided sports, practiced my lettering and wrote stories. Kids weren’t really expected to like school. You just went. I did enough to keep my grades modestly above average. My school was not about excellence – it was about conformity. The only pressure was to be normal.
[P.S. This seems a little cranky. A side memory is about my father who (though he sorely wished I was a better athlete) enthusiastically enjoyed helping me with those damn check problems and sentence diagrams. And he had his own volume of poetry he loved sharing with me… cue Ogden Nash.]