Tag Archives: school

[Some of these memories are out of order because I want to get them down when I think of them and I’m in the mood to write. I’m putting links to the posts on the page titled “Memories” and I’m trying to put them in the proper order over there.]

So, I was the new kid in school. I was more than a little bit nervous having been bullied, and essentially run out of, my previous school. Add to that the social conflicts of the months before and I’m surprised I wasn’t more of a wreck. Was I calm or was I just pretending to be calm? It’s hard to know. One thing I did know was that human beings are like sharks who can sense blood in the water. Show vulnerability and you’ll be attacked. Show power and people suck up to you. Pathetic, but all too often true. The night before, I spent a long time thinking of what to wear, erring on the side of the bland. Once I got a feel for the school, for its cliques and social circles, I could perhaps dress in a more flamboyant manner. For the first day, however, bland, but not too bland, was in order. Don’t look rich. Don’t look poor. Look up-to-date, but not cutting edge. Did girls there wear make-up? I didn’t know. A little lip gloss, a little mascara. No heavy eye liner, no visible rouge. The song “I Don’t Like Mondays” played on the radio as I got dressed.

My mother dropped me off at the back of the school. There was a steep hill and I sat on the grass waiting for school to start. It was quite a long wait. Finally, students started gravitating to the school and congregating around the door. There were some glances in my direction, but I was waiting far enough away that I didn’t attract much notice. The bell rang, the doors opened and I began to descend the concrete steps. As I neared the other students, I heard whispers. “Who’s that?” “Is she a new student?” Those whispers followed me down the hallway, up the staircase and into the classroom. Because I’m slightly near-sighted, I prefer the first row in a class because then I don’t need glasses. However, sitting in the first row has social implications, so I couldn’t sit there until I had an established reputation or else I’d get the reputation of an ass licker. I sat in the middle, slightly off to the side, near the windows but not next to the windows, the most socially neutral spot in a classroom by my estimation.

I settled in my seat. I placed my notebook on my desk, but slightly angled, off to the side, ready, but not too ready. See, everyone, I’m not a nerd but not a goof-off either. Suddenly, splat, something fell on my desk. I looked down in front of me. On the imitation wood-grain laminate of the desk was the unmistakable, square outline of a condom still in its wrapper. Laughter went around the room. Adrenaline made my thoughts speed up and time stand still, just as it might during a car accident or an emergency. I’m sure you’ve had this experience. It will take you far longer to read the account of my thought process than it took me to think it. It all happened in a few seconds. This was the moment I against which I was bracing myself all morning. The moment I would be tested. Fail this test and you could be sent to social hell for a month, or, in a worse case scenario, for as long as I was at the school. Responding correctly was of the utmost importance. The laughter told me that everyone had seen the condom land on my desk, so brushing it off and pretending I didn’t know wasn’t an option. I knew why it was a condom. I may have been developing my own ideas about sexuality, but I still had to live in a world where people held very different beliefs. The desired reaction on the part of the person who tossed it was that I would yell “Eeew” and make a big fuss. Everyone would laugh and proclaim me a prude or a baby. Socially, I could probably live that down, but there had to be a better response. I toyed with the idea of calmly pocketing the condom, but then they would call me a whore or a slut. Now, that might never be lived down. I needed to turn the tables on the prankster, put the focus on him, not me. I picked up the condom between my thumb and forefinger, stood up and held it aloft above my head like I was the Statue of Liberty. I turned around and slowly and scanned the room. “I believe someone has lost something,” I said, loudly and clearly, as if maybe, just maybe, I was being helpful.

There was some poking going on among several boys a couple of rows behind me. One of them came forward, “Um, yeah, it’s mine.” I handed him the condom and he slunk back to his desk. Everyone burst into laughter. I had turned the tables. I sat down as if nothing had ever happened. I heard a whisper, “She’s cool.”

After everything I’d been through, I was feeling more than a little pleased with myself. “You got that straight, man,” I thought. “Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. Now don’t fuck with me.”

I had a really weird dream last night and I want to write it down before I forget it. It’s a bit gross, so you might not want to read it while you’re eating. Nothing in it has any bearing on reality whatsoever.

I was walking up the staircase of a very large modern building. The building itself was a museum, perhaps a design museum, and was filled with a large number of people who were just wandering about. However, the building also housed a school of some sort and I was hurrying up the stairs, past the slow-moving museum visitors, because I had a project assigned. I didn’t know what the project was, but we were supposed to meet with the professor to find out. When I got to the room, it was an exhibition room, but there was a table obviously unrelated to the exhibition set up in the center. There were people in the room, but no one in the class and no professor. On the table were a variety of molds and little plastic cups filled with what appeared to be a modeling clay of sorts. At first, I thought perhaps I was early, but then it appeared to me that some little cups of the clay had already been used and I began to get anxiety that I was, in fact, late. But it was the right time, and some of the cups were still there. Nonetheless, I worried. I always seemed to be behind everyone at school, always late, always disorganized, always forgetting things. I picked up one of the cups and tried to press the “clay” into one of the molds. The clay crumbled in a funny way and it was obvious that it wasn’t supposed to be used in this manner.

I kept scanning the room for signs of the professor. Finally she appeared, a small, dark woman who was very neatly, severely, groomed. “No, no, no.” She said, seeing me fumble with the unknown substance. “You’re supposed to eat it. It is a newly developed green plastic. Instead of using an industrial process, it uses an organic one. Your body’s digestive process turns the raw materials into a usable plastic.”

“Eat it,” she commanded. So I did. “Come back when you’re ready to expel it,” she said and walked purposefully away leaving me a little stunned and puzzled and wanting to ask more questions.

“When I’m ready to expel it?” I thought to myself, “That could be a couple of hours.” I wondered how long the museum would be open and hoped the professor would still be around. What if she wasn’t? Why didn’t I ask that when I had a chance? Gosh, I was always messing everything up in school. I was certain that I’d manage to mess this up as well.

So I wandered around the museum. Finally, I felt as I was going to have a bowel movement, so I headed back to the table where the professor had set up the materials. The room was dark and there was no sign of the professor. I turned on the light and went back over to the table in the center. There was some information printed out on sheets of paper that I hadn’t noticed before. It described how a class of middle school students had made gallon water jugs out of the material. “Eew, gross,” I thought. Apparently, that was the point, to show that the material could be used for food purposes. At that moment, one of my classmates came in, a tall guy holding a teeny, pink, green and red martini glass on a tall stem. “Look what I made!” he said. He was always so enthusiastic but his work was so ugly.

“Have you seen Professor Manara?” I asked. (I don’t actually know anyone with this name. She is not a real person.)

“Not for a while, but she must be nearby somewhere,” he said and waltzed off with his martini glass.

I walked through the museum, past the tourists, and headed for the corridor where the professors had their offices. Professor Manara was not there, but there was another professor and I asked him if he had seen her. Indeed, she was in the cafe area. The students and the professors rarely went there and I couldn’t help thinking that she should have given us something like this and then gone someplace unexpected, but, as you know, students have no footing to complain about anything, and I headed quickly to the cafe area hoping I wasn’t going to have an emergency before finding Professor Manara.

I found the professor laughing convivially with a group of people I didn’t know. Finally, I managed to get her attention. “Why didn’t you say something! Come with me,” and with that she began walking back towards the exhibition hall. From beneath the table, she pulled out a plastic cup like the one doctors give you for samples and a small paper bag. “Here, go to a restroom and deposit it in this,” she said.

I was definitely beginning to feel a sense of urgency and was really hoping that there would be no line for the restroom. Luckily, there was none. Unfortunately the lock didn’t work. I guessed the paper bag was simply so we wouldn’t be walking around the museum carrying stool for everyone to see. Someone came in and startled me, and I missed catching the stool and it went into the toilet. I started crying because I’d already been kicked out of two design schools for incompetence and it all seemed so unfair.

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.

A city street with a traffic light and a school bus.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.

Several elementary schools fed into our junior high, and that is where the sifting and sorting began. For our main academic classes, I found myself grouped with the same students. These were the students who, two years later in high school, would be funneled into the college preparatory classes. Another new development for us was the introduction of choice into our eduction. We had “electives” and we were granted the grand choice of deciding between French or Spanish.

An oversized chess set built from found metal objects on a painted cement floor in an empty warehouse building at the American Visionary Arts Museum.There were pros and cons to each choice, all relating to my twelve-year-old self’s petty social life. My two closest friends were set on Spanish. However, my older sister had taken Spanish and I wanted to distinguish myself from her and cease the constant comparisons between us that always fell unfavorably on me. “Your sister has such a good disposition. Why are you so moody?” was a refrain I heard from every elementary school teacher. I wasn’t a particularly troublesome child, nor was I especially unpopular. I was a touch shy, but not pathologically so. Yet, adults who had met my energetic, popular, cheerful older sister first, could never control the urge to tell me what a disappointment I was. I adored my older sister who was, in fact, cheerful, easygoing, popular and all that, yet I felt like something of a misshapen dwarf living in her shadow. Even my mother, I felt, adopted me with the expectation of getting another happy, bouncy bundle. Instead, she got a quiet, pensive, brooding, inquisitive child who could not be trusted with a screwdriver because I was exceedingly curious about the insides of things. I wasn’t troublesome, just different.

So taking French class instead of Spanish was my first opportunity to differentiate myself from my sister and that weighed at least as heavily as any desire to keep company with my two closest friends. However there was a third factor about which I told no one at the time. For now, I will just call him J-.

People are always referring to “hormones” as a veiled reference to sexual desire. Yet my body was evidence that those “hormones” had been running through my body in adult proportions for several years. Yet when I think back on my thoughts in fifth and sixth grade, I can’t find much evidence that I had any interest in sex. It wasn’t until seventh grade, when boys were starting to express an interest in me and other girls were starting to giggle about boys that I had any relevant thoughts that I can recall.

So, I not only chose French, but I succeeded in spending the next year seated next to J-. French class had wide tables that seated two people at each and J- and I shared one in the first row near the window. He made me feel slightly agitated in a way I didn’t quite understand. I want to say that I was too nervous to look at his face, but nervous isn’t quite the right word. He had always been nice to me and he never made fun of other students, which was common behavior at that age. There was nothing I feared from looking at him. However, I can recall wanting to look at him yet not doing so because I didn’t want him to ask me why. It was a question I couldn’t have answered.

What I remember most clearly was the sight of his forearms resting on the desk. They were noticeably different from those of other boys. His arms were covered with a light layer of dark hairs and they had a shape formed by his developing muscles. He was an athletic boy, a competitive wrestler who, in later years, would place second in a state competition. The shape of his veins were visible under the skin, and when he grasped his pen or turned a page, I was hypnotized by the movement of the muscles under the surface. His hands looked strong in a way other boys’ didn’t.

We sat shoulder to shoulder, close enough that I could detect a faint scent. I’m not talking about the foul body odor that comes from being unclean. J- was, as far as I could tell, as tidy as any of the boys with his person. It was a distinct sent, one that in later years I would come to associate with men, and it hit me between the eyes. It was a heady experience, almost like being a little drunk or a little high, although I wasn’t yet familiar with either of those states.

I had no idea what I wanted from him, but I wanted something.

Wanting him to notice me and like me, with all the grace a twelve-year-old girl can muster, when the teacher would return a test to us, I’d punch him in the arm and say, “What did you get!” He’d show me his paper and, as often as not, I’d slap mine down on top and say, “Beat you!” I thought my good grades would cause him to admire me and he would regard me as highly as I regarded him. He was a good student, and it took quite an effort to beat him on tests.

I never did learn what he thought of me. Other boys would grab my attention soon enough, but I would never forget the feeling I got sitting close to him. Predatory.