Shortly after the start of the school year, I was called down to the office. This was the first time in the seven years that I’d been in school that such a thing had happened and I was terrified. As a child, you live in a world of ill-defined rules that have been made for you by fearsome adults and you live in terror of violating a rule you didn’t know existed. That is what I thought must have happened. Somehow, I had failed to negotiate the maze of right and wrong, I had been found wanting and now I would be punished.
I trembled as I walked down the linoleum tiles of the corridor, a line of gray metal lockers on my left and a cinder block wall on my right. In my mind’s eye, buildings have a front and a back. It is the orientation buildings have when I think of them and it may, or may not, correspond to the orientation objectively understood by such terms as primary facade. Schools, in my mind, have always had an orientation different from the official one. The front for me is usually the door through which I enter on most days. The primary facade for the architects, principals and school superintendents is the one with the door the adults call the main entrance, the one the students never use. Set alongside the main entrance in this school, as in most I have attended, was the office. From my perspective, the office was located at the back of the building, a place I had never been, a scary place where punishment was meted out.
When I got to the office, I was told to go the of office of the guidance counselors, which was located in an annex. Back down the corridor I went, still apprehensive. Clearly, this wasn’t a simple matter of a rule being broken followed by an arbitrary punishment. Still, I had been singled out by adults for some reason which could only be bad. Weren’t we in school primarily to learn to fit in? To be ignored was a sign of success.
I sat in the anteroom of a group of offices, the social worker, the psychologist, the guidance counselors, people whom I’d never met before. I was called into the room of one of the guidance counselors.
“You look nervous. Did they tell you why you’re here?” he asked.
“Did I do something wrong?”
He laughed. “Not at all. You’re here because the teachers say you’re a good student, you’re well-behaved and well-liked by the other students.”
The last part of the sentence was news to me. I was hardly friendless, but I wasn’t popular like my sister who had many friends and even more frienemies, girls who copied her clothes and imitated her manner of speech. A roll of her eyes could send another student to social purgatory for a week. Now that I look back, I can see I was an adult’s idea of what a middle school student should be.
“We have a new student in school. We want you to show her around – introduce her to the other students, you know, the nice kids. She’s from Vietnam. She speaks English pretty well, but sometimes she has difficulty, so it would be really helpful if she had someone who show her how things work around here.”
I was taken into the office next door where I met T, to whom I was supposed to show all the rules I still didn’t understand myself.