|The pool in our backyard|
Our homes were all built on large well-shaded lots, carved out of what had once been a massive citrus orchard. Each had ample square footage to house nuclear-sized families of five or six members and, without exception, each had a swimming pool. Moms rarely worked. Dads were gone long hours doing whatever they were called to do: lawyering, engineering, doctoring, professional things like that. And we had lots of friends, for blocks and blocks in every direction, most of whom were pretty normal. And yet I never had an outdoor birthday party, of which I had many, that didn't end in a brawl or fight, or an overt theft of candy or party favors, or with one of the guests dropping trou and pissing into the oleander hedges, or worse, dropping a big stinky brown turd to the ground while perched, ass hanging out into space, from high above on one of the upper levels of my treefort.
I'm pretty sure I was known amongst my teachers as one of the good kids, and that I had earned this reputation because I actually was. I've never been good at lying, have mostly been inclined to keep my hands to myself, and generally have wanted to please both my parents and my teachers, so that they would be proud of me, and hopefully perhaps even say so once in a while. When my kindergarten teacher observed, during my very first days of elementary school, that I already recognized by name and could sound-out the letter A, and subsequently then moved me into the small group of children who possessed the same ability, I, in-that-moment, determined to always work to get placed in this group whenever possible. I did not always accomplish this goal as a student, but I often aspired to it, and, throughout my entire school career, possessed a deep and abiding envy of those who were placed in this group in my stead.
As a first-grader, I was selected by our teacher to be the kid-who-sits-with-the-new kid when Rusty, truly the archetypical 1970s seven-year-old boy, entered our classroom mid-year. He turned out to be way smarter, far more popular, and a great deal more athletic than I, but I like to think that the insightful and advantageous start I provided to him successfully set him on this path.
Once, in second grade, I was accused by my teacher of sharpening crayons in the pencil sharpener. I'm not certain what caused her to suspect me or to draw the conclusion that I'd put my crayons where they shouldn't have been. But I hadn't. And when I told her so, she said she believed me. Still, I can remember that she took a moment to turn my desk so that my back was to the sharpener mounted to the wall, and to point out that my personal crayon box also contained a built-in sharpener that was "just for crayons."
In fourth grade, a bunch of my buddies were called to the office unexpectedly. And, a short time later, I was too. When I arrived, I noted that several of my friends had red eyes, swollen from crying. The principal brought me into his office and explained that my friends had implicated me as complicit in their offense: throwing rocks from the playground at cars on Exeter Street. I insisted that I hadn't participated in this particular violation of decorum. Which was true. And Mr. Cartwright, who had once-upon-a-time been my mother's principal when she had been employed as a teacher at Scottsdale's Tonalea Elementary School, said he believed me. I was later told that he gave each of the other boys a swat with the large fraternity paddle he kept on display in his office. But I did not witness this act of corporal punishment, as he sent me back to class before it transpired with the admonition, "Choose your friends wisely, Mr. Coe." Which I have. Mostly.
Aside from these narrow brushes with trouble, and dozens more like them (culminating with my in-school suspension for maliciously and intentionally kicking over dozens of trashcans with a few friends on our last day of eighth grade, which caused me to miss our graduation party, which was being held at my own house. Or perhaps the time in high school when I was suspended for a day for a dress code violation: wearing socks with my Vans that were too short (and thus too gay, "only girls wear socks like that") to meet with the uber-macho Dean of Boys slash Football Coach's approval), school came pretty easy for me. Except in those moments when I wanted to get into an accelerated group or class, I never really had to work very hard at it. Not bragging. That's just the way it was.
Except in third grade.
My third grade teacher didn't like me. Of that I am convinced. As to why, I'm not entirely sure. But I suspect that her dislike for me grew over time and likely derived from many different sources.
First of all, I didn't like the SRA self-guided independent read-and-respond activities that were a central component of her daily language arts program. At the time I thought (and still think) that they were pretty stupid, although vapid and asinine are words that I would prefer to use to describe the program nowadays. I can remember her vocal praise before the entire class for the students who quickly ascended the hierarchy of low-level-comprehension "tests" to the gold level, while a few of us languished, either due to laziness or deficiency, in the program's initial level: aqua. After my first read-through of the very basic aqua reading selection card, I simply refused to engage with her SRA program and the vaunted expectations she upheld for her best readers. So I didn't. And thus I didn't progress. Not only did I never make it to gold (Rusty's level, natch), I never made it out of aqua. For the entire year. My teacher persistently reminded me of this fact, almost daily.
With me in the aqua group was Lonnie. A nice, blonde- and curly-haired girl from the neighborhood. Even as an eight-year-old, I recognized that Lonnie and I had different reasons for being in the aqua reading group. I was there because I hated it. She was there because she couldn't read.
Lonnie was a nice but extremely quiet kid, having learned, I think, as some students do, that if she kept quiet and thus turned a certain shade of invisible to her teacher, she would be overlooked when it came to correction and intervention of her deficits. Her desire to exist below-the-radar applied not only to her academic pursuits, but likewise to social ones as well. No one hated to ask to go to the bathroom during class more than Lonnie.
And so she'd peed herself. A couple times. To this day, this is well-known to be unacceptable behavior for all third graders. Period. And our teacher let Lonnie know this, in no uncertain terms, in front of the entire class, that it was "unacceptable" for a third grade girl to pee herself, regardless of the circumstance. Un-acceptable.
There came a day when Lonnie, her face contorted, obviously in pain and needing to pee, was noticeably too afraid to ask to be allowed to go to the bathroom during class (a dispensation our teacher was, as it so happens, typically unwilling to grant), that I decided to ask for her. Discretely, I went up to our teacher and whispered it to her, "Lonnie needs to go to the bathroom." To which she replied, in a much louder voice, "If she needs to go to the bathroom, she needs to ask me herself."
And then, of course, a short time later, Lonnie peed herself. Again. I think our teacher never forgave me for my attempt to advocate for Lonnie. I know I never forgave her for not allowing me to.
But the great egregious wrong was done, not in an attempt to stand in for one of my peers, nor in my efforts to stave off boredom by avoiding some rote program of assessment that had no meaning to me. No. The great-unforgivable-wrong was done on the weekly Vocabulary Wall, wherein our teacher showered unreserved praise on her students who knew big words, and important words, and could use them in a context which she would write on sentence-strips and place proudly on display for the week to come.
Words like "responsible" and "cooperate" were reviewed with great excitement by our teacher when brought to our weekly vocabulary word wall group-time by my peers. When recited in a context, "I was responsible for my homework last night," by a student, our teacher became nearly apoplectic in her adoration of the child's achievement and depth of knowledge.
And so, one day mid-March I raised my hand and brought the term "vernal equinox" to the fore, of my own volition, a phrase I'd no doubt encountered on any one of the many nerdy nature shows I was fond of watching on the weekends, and intended to coincide with the week of the year when the sun would transit across the Earth's equator to shine above the northern hemisphere once again.
"Your mother told you to say that, didn't she?" our teacher asked me scoldingly.
"No," I told her. "I think it was on Jacques Cousteau. It's the day that's the start of spring."
"Well, you're right about that. But I don't think it's a term you understand. I think your mother told you to bring it to class today. She did, didn't she."
"No. She didn't. I know what it is," I replied. Defeated. And our teacher, a blank sentence strip still in her lap, moved on to the next hand.
Later in the school year, a handful of children were plucked from our midst, to be "tested," as our teacher told us "for the gifted class." Though none of us knew what this meant, we all quickly understood its implications, as the SRA gold students were each given the opportunity to be scrutinized in this regard.
I was not. Nor was Lonnie.
At year's end Lonnie was, however, granted safe passage into the "fun" teacher's fourth grade class and was known to enjoy, as did all her cohorts, the famous weekly Friday afternoon popcorn parties afforded to all those enrolled therein.
I, on the other hand, was assigned to the "hard" teacher's room. The domain of Mrs. Bruce was known to be trialsome by all, a place of many red-pen corrections, stern glances, and even sterner words.
I found this classroom to be a welcoming place of high expectations, where it seemed, even to nine-year-old me, that everyone, the hard kids, the slow kids, the easily distracted kids, and the smart kids alike found the support and encouragement and earnest high quality instruction that they needed. Mrs. Bruce was no less stern than we'd been told, nor was her red pen any less damaging to our prose. Her reviewers had simply left out the part where she was also fair in her judgements, consistent in her expectations, and dutiful in her delivery of sound teaching.
A few weeks into our first term, Mrs. Bruce made arrangements to meet with my mother after school. I waited in the classroom for my mom to arrive after everyone else went home at dismissal time, watching in silence as my teacher graded papers at her desk, her notorious red pen grasped firmly in-hand.
"Why was John not tested for the gifted program last year?" Mrs. Bruce asked my mother outright. "I think he would benefit from the challenge."
My mom explained that I had not been selected by my third grade teacher to sit for the evaluation, that my third grade teacher and I had had a few "problems hitting it off last year."
After meeting with my mom, Mrs. Bruce scheduled me for the test, which I passed, or got whatever I needed to get to get into the program. But because I hadn't tested when everyone else had, the year before in third grade, I got started a little late in the semester, midstream so to speak. So, by the time I got there, everyone else was already deeply engaged in their big first-semester research project. Nevertheless, the gifted-class teacher, a seasonal forester and part-time teacher named Mr. Montgomery, helped me get up to speed on my first day. As he had with all his students, he let me choose to develop my report on any subject on any topic in the universe in which I had a sincere interest.
Naturally, I chose Jacques Cousteau.