Sunday, December 14, 2008

Grammar School

He sat upright in the hard wooden chair, carefully copying the letters that the teacher was writing on the blackboard. He loved the sound of the chalk against the slate, and he somehow enjoyed the teacher’s apparent frustration when her piece of chalk would break as she worked. She would shake her head, probably cursing under her breath, and continue writing, her hand and black sweater covered in errant white powder.

His little desk of blonde laminated wood was his ersatz home for six hours every weekday. At some point at the beginning of the year, his curious fingers had discovered the topographic map of hardened chewing gum on the underside of his desk. Despite the fact that even touching the old gum by mistake made him feel dirty and sick to his stomach, in moments of stress his fingers would wander to those familiar islands of hardened rubber, perhaps in search of some unattainable kinesthetic schoolboy solace. Although he had never laid his eyes on those discarded clumps on the underbelly of his beloved desk, his imagination pictured them as a secret and personal archipelago. Here on his secret islands, he could wander, free of the bullying madness of the other boys who, when grown, would most likely spend their lives selling insurance and drowning their sorrows in musty bars on lonely suburban back roads.

For him, recess was the hardest part of the school day. Torn from the safety and order of the classroom, he was unwillingly thrust into the chaotic melee of childish play. As packs of boys kicked balls, chased one another, and teased the small groups of girls clustered strategically near the jungle gym and the swings, he would wander the edges of the playground, looking for animal tracks, interesting rocks, or any other sign of life that might distract him from the painful and doggedly constant loneliness that he felt when among his peers. Occasionally, one of the boys who liked to torture him would seize the moment and call attention to his solitary nature, and a group would form, surrounding and teasing him with stinging words and cruel accusations that he only partially understood.

The teacher’s whistle that signaled the end of recess was like the whistle of a long-awaited train. He waited for that sound every day, willing it to happen sooner and sooner, but sometimes recess seemed like it lasted for an eternity. How he longed to return to the comfort of his desk, the books and papers stowed inside, his pencil box, and the wonderful smell of glue, erasers and paper that permeated the air.

When forced to work in pairs or small groups, he would try his best to situate himself amongst the safest of his peers, careful not to end up as the only boy among a gaggle of girls since that would give his tormentors too much easy ammunition for future teasing and psychological torture. No, he would try his best to position himself with the few children who, although not quite as outcast as himself, might at least hold some sympathy for one who so clearly doesn’t belong, and who so painfully and patiently tolerates the terrible vicissitudes of grammar school life.

These six hours of each weekday were an amalgam of pain and pleasure. The pleasure that he experienced was derived directly from the fascinating and mysterious rules and codes to which he was consistently given the key. Opening the doors of understanding to sentence structure, history, and arithmetic gave him such a feeling of accomplishment and excitement, a sensation unmatched by any new toy, television show, or trip to the movies.

But his gusto for learning, his eagerness to raise his hand in class, and his apparent relishing of the learning experience made him a target of much negativity and snickering. Awkward on the playground, miserable at sports, and uncertain around girls, his social isolation and obvious intelligence were like magnets for abuse, and each morning he would steel himself for the day's onslaught of unpleasantness. Were it not for his tormentors, school would be nothing but joyful learning.

Even now, hunched at his desk and enduring spitballs and nasty notes, this young man is painfully aware that he is different from his peers. Stoic, focused, knowing full well that his enemies are truly enraged by their natural academic inferiority, he looks ahead toward a future when his studious concentration and desire for learning will most certainly pay dividends beyond his wildest dreams.

Anxious, frightened but determined, he lets his fingers wander to the underside of his desk. Here, island upon island teem with life and transport him away from the cruel meanness and pettiness of his classmates. Some day, he'll own an island, his own private paradise. And when the chalk, the playground, the spitballs and even this desk are only memories, he will stand proudly among the fruits of his labor, and he will be happy.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith