I’m a look at the bright side kind of person, and can usually find the “half-full” aspect of any given situation. But even I have difficulty finding the silver linings from the swamp. You know what I mean; when life isn’t just a puddle here and there, but a shoe-sucking wasteland of foul-smelling crap that threatens to sink you every moment, and you can barely see an escape from the reeds, you can get a little down.
The analogy got me thinking about swampy times in my life. Immediately, I thought of fourth grade. That was a terrible year, just one snippet of misery after another. Things at home were terrible and my teacher was a witch, no really, she told us she was a practicing witch, and her brother was a warlock, and she absolutely hated me; that was ok – the feeling was mutual. She was mean-spirited. That was the year she tormented Jorge so much he jumped out of the window and never came back. That was the year Matt said my mom was so short she drove a matchbox car, and I chased him around the room until I had pummelled him sufficiently for saying it. But mostly, that was the year of Dana.
Dana was my friend. We sat next to each other in class and would hang out after school too. She was a tomboy like me, but infinitely cooler. She had dark hair and an olive complexion; I think her family was Italian or Armenian. She was insanely skinny which was astounding because she could eat like an elephant, and she was always moving; I suppose she’d be considered hyperactive today, but she used that energy to make her fast. She was so fast she could beat all of the boys in any race on the playground. And, she was dyslexic. Dana was the first person I knew who was. I didn’t really understand what it was like for her except that it made school harder for her. I was always her partner in class, and it didn’t bother me at all. I had my own issues. Our weekly spelling tests were the bane of my existence. I can still hear my teacher reading out my test scores to class.
“Heather, 26 out of 27 WRONG. Class, please laugh at Heather.” They did, she would wait for them to, smugly smirking in my direction. I couldn’t spell, and my tests didn’t improve no matter how much she made them laugh at me. I resigned myself to making sure that even if my words were misspelled my test paper was the prettiest, best-designed page to cross her desk. I think that just made her angrier. I didn’t care. She wasn’t the only bully in my life, I wasn’t going to let her get to me. Unfortunately, Dana did. There were countless days she would lift up the top of her desk, pretend to be searching for a pencil, paper, or some other necessary supply only to hide her tears from her tormentor. Going to class was going to war, and we reveled in the small victories. For me that was Fridays. Each Monday, Ms. Carr would write four or five titles on the board and tell us to write a story using one. Each Friday, we read them off, and the class would judge the best. For second place you’d get some crusty stale chips or pretzels, but for first place, you’d get spearmint gummy trees. I LOVE spearmint gummy trees to this day. I may have failed miserably on all of those spelling tests, but week after week she was forced to begrudgingly hand over the spearmint leaves after the class voted. The stories were my escape and I loved writing them. Clearly, the love of writing has followed me all these years.
Dana’s chance at victory over Ms. Carr was different. Near the end of the school year, when the weather had become warm, and the kids became antsy, the teacher announced “Opposite Day.” It was our chance, she said, to become her for the day. Each of us would prepare a lesson of our choosing and teach it to the class. We were allowed to work in pairs. Dana and I decided our topic would be the brain. We researched the parts and functions and even created a poster. When the day arrived, we were excited, Dana was exceptionally so. It was her chance to show the teacher how smart she really was. We took our spot at the front of the classroom, and Ms. Carr slithered over and plopped down in Dana’s seat. She raised her hand incessantly, interrupting us over and over, correcting our mispronunciations nastily. The final cut was by far the worst. When she had succeeded in flustering us to frustration, she peered across the desk, smiled evilly, lifted Dana’s desktop and began to pretend to cry inside. Dana was crushed. She sent us gleefully back to our seats, and I watched Dana’s back shaking over her not-so-secret crying spot behind her desk-top, and the rage was too much to bear. I jumped out of my seat and began screaming at her. I didn’t care if she was the teacher; I didn’t care if she was bigger; I didn’t care if she was a witch; and, I didn’t care if I would get in trouble like my brother.
“Pick on someone your own size!” I screamed. “Can’t you see? Can’t you see what you’re doing to her?” I lost it. What kind of person did this? What kind of teacher would pick on a kid? She was a horrible person. Everything I had wanted to say for the entire bitter year came tumbling out. Furiously, she marched me to the hallway to wait for the principal. I didn’t care. I knew I was risking being labeled as a troublemaker like my brother. Among other things he’d thrown a desk at the teacher across the hall a few years before, and I was still getting tracked in all the worst classes because of it. The principal scowled at me as he passed. He opened the door and spoke to the teacher. I don’t remember the punishment. I actually don’t remember much of anything after that.
Dana moved away at the end of that year, and I continued to spell poorly. I never knew what had happened to her. The kid that jumped out the window eventually made it back to school and ended up a year behind me in high school. For a long time, all I thought about from that year were Dana, Jorge, and my spelling tests. But, even in all that misery, there was a silver lining, my love of writing stories.