Saturday, June 9, 2012
I actually wrote this piece a few years ago as part of a class assignment. I was reminded of it recently when I heard writer Richard Rodriguez read at the Ohio University Spring Literary festival. Rodriguez is inspiring, and so is Mike Rose's book mentioned below.
I finish page eight of Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary with a pounding in my chest, an I’m on the verge of a huge epiphany kind of racing in my blood that demands immediate action. Stop reading. Call your mother.
“Was I ever labeled in high school?” I ask her. “Was I on something called a vocational track?”
“No,” she assures me, without bothering to ask what’s fueled this latest surge of insecurity. She is used to my out-of-the-blue probings into the our family history, my sometimes obsessive need to know myself, to make sure I’ve got my story down correctly.
Despite my mother’s assurances that I was on the same “track” as everyone else, Rose’s discussion proves what I long suspected – students are labeled in school, there are different “tracks,” and the track they are relegated to can make all the difference.
My upbringing was vastly different than Rose’s; my family, despite divorce, had more opportunities, and I was raised in a nice middle-class neighborhood in a perfectly good school district. My experience in school, however, is strangely more similar to Rose’s than one might imagine. I thought I had figured it out on page eight, that the reason for some of my feelings of inadequacy throughout school – high school especially – was that I was on a different “track” than my friends. Ok, so that wasn’t the case, but the epiphany still smolders: I know I was still labeled, if not by the institution itself, then by my own perceptions of what I was capable of, of what my family and teachers expected from me.
My troubles began in kindergarten and first grade at Baxter Elementary school in Anchorage, Alaska. “She doesn’t listen,” the teachers said. “She is off in her own little dream world.” “She is the class clown.” Mrs. Troop was especially mortifying. Not a month into first grade and she was raging at my side, wood-pecking her ugly index finger with its massive watch-ring on my desk. She bent her face down so close to mine I could smell her breakfast. “Go, you naughty girl,” she said. “Go talk to Mr. Ruffle.” The Principal. When I got there I would be in trouble again; what was I supposed to talk to him about?
Fast forward a few months or so to the tail end of first grade. Dinnertime: “It’s you,” my mother says, sniffing the air around me and nearly toppling out of her chair like a clown on a two-legged barstool. “Good God, you stink! Get down from here this instant and get into the bath.” I hadn’t done anything especially dirty that day, but still, I followed her command with an eagerness that probably belied my glee at not having to finish that evening’s vegetables. She trailed behind me with the scrub brush. Downstairs in the bathtub, my mother scrubbed my feet and knees and elbows with a vengeance until they were as raw and glistening as the potatoes she had peeled for dinner. Then, coming in for my neck, the washcloth poised to do some serious damage, she smelled it. It wasn’t me that was molding like wet bread in a dump truck. It was my ear. The next day, the doctor explained that my eardrum had burst. This finding didn’t explain the smell away, but there you have it. A few weeks later, when I went under the knife to repair my torn eardrum, the doctors found a small tumor. They removed it. It grew back a couple of years later. They removed it again. The crux of it all is that before my operation, I had lost 90% of my hearing in my left ear. So, it wasn’t that I wasn’t listening in class, I just couldn’t hear!
By third grade I had regained all but 10% of my hearing in my “bad ear,” but it seems the damage had been done. I was behind in my basics due to what I had misheard or missed completely, and it seems that the adjectives that once described me followed me still: I was still slow, a dreamer, in a world of my own. What strikes me as sadly funny now is that I was even dumb to my own dumbness. Not too many years ago I berated my mother for a nickname she and my father used to call me as a child: Dumbo. “I walked around for years self-conscious about the size of my ears,” I told her. “Why do you think I got so upset when you cut my hair short?” My mother laughed: “Stupid,” she said, not unkindly, “we didn’t call you Dumbo because your ears were big; it was because you were dumb!” A fine beginning.
Subtle feelings of inadequacy followed me to high school. While I did well in English, I struggled in all my other subjects. My friends, it seemed, were taking harder classes, doing more. Where I was expected to graduate with one Science class, they were taking two; I had one year of Spanish, they had two. Where I had Algebra, they had Trigonometry. They were taking “college prep” courses, they said. But what was I being prepped for? I don’t remember ever sitting down with an advisor. So who decided I didn’t need to be prepped for college? Who assumed I wouldn’t be going? Test results? My parents? I still don’t know. Remember that survey/test we took that tried to guide us towards our future careers? Mine said I was not suited for further academic pursuits. Slinging pizzas. Making babies. According to the exam there wasn’t much more in my future than that. Damn; I had already had my heart set on teaching.
While I did graduate high school with four years of English and extra courses in Speech, Creative Writing, Journalism, and English 100 under my belt from the local community college, I felt then, and still feel now, that the system gypped me along the way. Rose writes, that “it is an unfortunate fact of our psychic lives that the images that surround us as we grow up – no matter how much we may scorn them later – give shape to our deepest needs and longings”(44). That survey, the labels, that trip to the principal’s office: these are the memories that have made me.
What Mike Rose gives me is that reminder of who I used to be, the difficulties I faced in school because of a tenuous beginning and my own insecurities. He reminds us all, I hope, that even if we have survived our own various versions of classroom traumas, they may still be unhealed wounds in the minds of our freshmen. As we begin our new quarter, I hear and take part in the banter with colleagues in the halls. “Yes, I have a good group this quarter,” I hear, and I say. “A smart group, much better than last fall.” Already we judge, and based on what? A week of lectures? A couple of assignments? Do we equate early participation with intelligence and label the shy ones as “slow” or “stupid” as we go? I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to forget that I used to be on the sticky side of those labels. In these first couple of weeks back, I have also heard stories of scare tactics: instructors approaching their first classes with fierce tones and frowning faces, a façade that surely deflates every student’s dream of the classroom being an “oasis of possibility” (18). What do we or our students gain by this strong-arming, us-against-them approach? If I were mentoring my peers I would strongly caution against it. After a couple days of their snickering, of their questioning and perhaps testing our authority (and this generally comes from only one or two students whom we perceive through our own insecurities to be representative of the whole), things generally quiet down. We can growl all we want, but we won’t gain their respect or confidence until we prove we actually have something to teach them.
To move abruptly again from the teacher I am to the student I was, I’ll close here by noting that the end of my own story in education is an ironic one. The kid who wasn’t encouraged by the system to engage in academic pursuits has become a collector of diplomas: BA, MA, MFA, PhD. And I am not immune to the implications here: through education I measure my worth. Despite the degrees on my wall, however, despite my bookcase of publications, despite now, in 2012, being a year away from tenure, I, like Rose, and perhaps like many of my students, feel destined to continuously wonder – am I “the real thing or not?”(61).