I recently finished reading through my old report cards from grade school. I also spent a few hours sifting through grade school pictures, class pictures, and old family photographs from that timeframe. The experience was like warping back in time, peeking into another world that mostly I would rather not enter. Glimpsing those times reconnects me to places, people, and experiences that I would much rather leave dormant. Peeking in disturbs many unexplored, unexpressed wounds, feelings and emotions that I buried in deep graves; an unrecognizable landscape over-grown by weeds, vegetation, and creeping groundcover that hides those graves. Cleaning the landscape and opening those graves is necessary for me to bring forgiveness, some form of reconciliation, and healing. It is an extremely long, winding, twisting road through that uncharted world, but I trust God will lead the way, hold my right hand, and walk beside me through these craggy places.
It was the very late 60’s when I began attending grade school; the same grade school, kindergarten through sixth grade. Now, I do not remember the first day of kindergarten, but I know that it was half-days and I was in the morning class because my mother insisted the school place me in the AM class for her convenience and preference. The year I started kindergarten my mother accepted a job with the police department as the school crossing guard. On nice days, each morning we walked to her corner; on rainy or winter days she drove us to the corner in the car. Each day regardless of weather, I would proceed to walk about two more blocks further to the school by myself. I had a rain jacket that helped shield some of the penetration, but winter days bit my legs something fierce. Now my brother was in third grade, but we neither recall walking to school together. I tend toward believing we went our separate ways. Though I have no proof, but given what I do know about my mother, I believe she returned home each morning, once we were at school, to go back to bed. I was dismissed at noon and walked back to her corner. My mother was also an Avon Representative. We spent many an afternoon going door to door peddling her merchandise and chit chatting hours away with the other stay at home moms and elderly women. She was gregarious and acquired quite a flock on her weekly afternoon sales routes. I sat quietly drifting in and out of boredom with an occasional acknowledgement. Around mid-afternoon, we made our way back to her corner. I sat in the car as she stopped traffic to get the school kids across the busy intersection. And, then we drove home.
At that time, all girls wore dresses and all boys, well were boys, except no jeans – and that I know only from looking at the class picture. I have very blonde hair and my mother cuts the front so that I have bangs. I wear a nice red and green plaid dress on picture day; one would think it was Christmas. While I do not look slovenly or displaced, I am a fat child. I am missing my two front teeth. I am placed standing in the back row between four larger boys. Now my mother was an extreme girlie girl — all about fashion, shoes, purses, make-up, perfumes, hair, and much more — encouraged further by her Avon commerce. She held those exact same extreme aspirations for me. At that time, I did not know much difference other than little menacing forced mandates that crept out all over me. In kindergarten, on picture day, I have a white brooch on top of my head. She had this constant compulsion to attempt styling my hair, putting my hair up in all different imaginable ponytails, braids, buns, and twists using rubber bands, barrettes, and baubles as if I were her baby doll detached from pain or discomfort. When I was one year old, she decided to perm my hair. I remember nearly suffocating in terror trying to breathe while fumes slowly devoured my respiration as she is yelling for me to sit still. In kindergarten, on picture day, she drew up several strands of my long blonde hair, twisted them together over and over on top of my head into a single tail and then pinned that tail to the top of my head with a gaudy white flower brooch. In my eyes, I look remiss, but perhaps that is what mothers disseminate upon their little girls.
I actually like school and learning. I like my kindergarten teacher enough, but I really like the teacher aid and could not wait to see her each day – my second strong inclination toward an older female in a leadership role. One day we are all on the floor doing an art project. The art project is to cut out even size strips of construction paper in red & white, white stars, and a blue square. Once this is complete, we are to glue the pieces onto a rectangular piece of construction paper to make an American flag. I follow instructions implicitly, but operate in my own little world. I am sitting on a section of the floor alone, quietly cutting, and pasting. To my surprise, the teacher’s aide kneels down on the floor and whispers in my ear, “Don’t tell anyone, but yours looks the nicest.” I absorb her words like soft butter on warm toast and never forget! She blew a little much needed wind into my sails that day. Those kind words have stayed in my heart for a lifetime. Only by God’s grace, those words were not strangled out by all the weeds, vegetation, and creeping ground cover or better yet buried in a grave. When I look at her in the picture now, I wonder what her name was and what happened to her.
Now, I am a good student – cooperative, obedient, kind, but quiet, kept to myself, and worked alone. It only takes a few small visible differences for kids to notice and exploit others, beginning at a very young age. When I was born, the right side of my right leg was a reddish purple tone. From a very young age, my mother comments regularly on this discoloration, so I am not ignorant to its existence. She says the doctor told her it was a “birthmark.” It is my whole goal to keep my entire leg covered at all times lest anyone else recognize my eyesore. My mother thinks it the correct practice prescribed by social convention to make sure I wear a dress to church and school on every occasion. During this nocuous period, I always choose to wear knee-hi socks. I rationalize the dresses come down to my knees and the socks rise up to my knees, thus covering the mass majority of my purple red leg so that absolutely no one will know of my “birthmark.” In my small mind and world, it was working out quite well. It seems that absolutely no one knows of my unnatural monstrosity except my mother (perhaps my dad, but if he knows, he never says a word.) I arrive home one day after school to discover laying out on my bed are brand new, lace-edged, white bobby socks, socks that only rise to just above the ankle, edged with delightful frilly lace! My mother is quite proud of her purchase and announces that I will be wearing them to school. I on the other hand am mortified! Immediately, with underlying terror that my leg will be exposed, I tell her I cannot wear those socks to school. Just the thought of the possibility that anyone will notice my leg produces an anxious energy within. The thought of kids gazing upon my “defect” and making fun of me creates grave fear. But, my protests fall on deaf ears and she insists that I will be wearing those socks. I quietly put them in the drawer believing those socks will never see the light of day again. The next morning while dressing for school, as every other morning, my mother barges into my bedroom, asks where the socks are and tells me to get them out, I will be wearing those socks to school that day, to put them on, and she does not want to hear another word about it. Did she stay awake the entire night waiting for morning to delight in my suffering? I begin begging and pleading with her not to make me wear them. But the more I grovel the more entrenched she becomes and I know the battle is lost. My leg becomes the spectacle sideshow of the day. The kids begin teasing me about my discolored leg. It is not enough that visually I am the largest child, but now I am visually the largest child with an abnormal leg. I swallow the pain of ridicule and mentally try to ignore the teasing. On that unspecified date, the conscious, cold war of clothing and gender identity begins; episodic implosions over clothing, shoes, hair, etc.; mushroom clouds of humiliation; and a deep, tiny tributary of blood courses through my veins desiring to be a boy.
As I said, I was fat. I had not developed any affinity or aptitude towards physical activity or sports. On nice days, the class would go out on the playground for gym. I remember one particular activity. Frequently, the teacher would have us sit Indian style (the absurdity of girls in dresses sitting Indian style on asphalt perplexes me) in a circle on the pavement and play Duck, Duck, Goose. Someone was picked to begin, “It.” It walks around the circle, tapping each player on the head, saying “duck” each time until they decide to tap someone and say goose. That person becomes the goose and runs after It, trying to tag It before It can take the goose’s seat. If It successfully reaches the goose’s seat without being tagged, the goose is the new It. If the goose tags It, then the goose keeps his spot in the circle and It must continue to be It for another turn. The kids quickly learn that the fat girl is not quick enough to get up from the Indian style sitting position and chase down It. My mind worked overtime trying to figure out how to overcome my inabilities. I think I got stronger, but was never able to tag It! I became an easy target to harass. I slowly saunter and drag my sorry self out to the playground each time it is announced we are playing Duck, Duck, Goose. Inevitably, I am the Goose round after laughter after round after laughter and on it would go. I am on the fringe beginnings of persecution and purgatory that will last for years.
Love you, mean it!