My childhood was neatly bifurcated into two spheres that never, ever intersected. In the one sphere, I was ordinary, accepted, understood. In the other sphere, I was different, on the outside looking in, never able to crack the code that would allow me entry into that world.
Those two worlds were the block I grew up on, and the elementary school I attended. Home and school, private and public, one of the gang and different.
My parents moved into their current home fifty years ago. At the time, they had two little boys and Mom was pregnant with the first of their four daughters to come. They were the first (and still only) owners of that house, as it was in a development so new that the houses on the street behind hadn't been built yet. The street was a small one, ten houses on one side and eight on the other, and completely self-contained, as at one end it made a right angle turn to become another street and at the other it ended at a cross street.
Those eighteen homes were packed with children, most roughly of an age to play together. We formed quite a pack, playing together mostly in smaller groups but coming together in the evenings and on weekends to play in bigger groups. We played British Bulldog, Stuck in the Mud, Freeze Tag, Hide and Seek, and Red Light, Green Light, on summer evenings until the light went away and the lights came on. Our house and the one next to it were the only two on the block with adjoining lawns that weren't separated by little brick fences or hedges. That meant that all the games were played in that one big lawn or, by habit, in front of those two houses.
The block was safe. All the families had one peculiarity or another--this one had only one child, that one came from South Dakota, these few were Catholic and the others were that mysterious religion known as "Not Catholic," one had a ditzy mother, and that one had children who were never let outside. Our family was a llittle odd in that it had six children, but then so again did another family, and there were several families with four children each. We didn't have as many toys as the families with only one or two children, but we had more space to play in. Our house was one of three with a second story added on, but that second story exactly matched one down the street because the houses were the same model and that father was an architect who drew the plans and then let my parents use them, too.
The block was safe. Everyone knew that when the bell rang*, it was time for all the Browns to go home for dinner, and that winter meant the arrival of the South Dakota grandparents to their daughter's home, and that the girl next door was slow for some unstated reason but did just fine at home with us.
The block was safe. We knew which fathers came home angry, which got drunk in front of the television, which mothers were nervous, which mothers were too busy to notice things, which mothers would interject themselves into our games, which parents didn't mind having extra kids around and which parents did. Everyone knew that the Browns were really smart, but no one minded. So many of those individualities were never discussed, just understood and implicitly tolerated. We knew our way around, and we were safe. And because our family had six kids over an eight-year age span, we had a kid or two in most of the different smaller gangs of kids and so knew almost everything that went on everywhere.
School was not safe. I didn't know how to behave, how to talk to those kids, how to fit in. Going to school meant leaving the safety of the block, going to that place where the children all knew different rules and where my peculiarities weren't understood and accepted. I was chastised on the first day of kindergarten for claiming to know how to read, not understanding that that wasn't a good thing. Going to school meant going to a hostile place where brains were bad, brains marked one as 'different,' and where 'different' was not tolerated.
I would watch the other kids, watch them talk, watch them interact, and try to figure out how to join in, but I never could. If I did something, it was wrong, if I said something, it was out of place. I could not crack the code and, because I was so smart, wasn't invited to. In the fourth grade, my teacher finally gave up teaching me with the rest of the class and just turned me loose on the school book room, which was a large closet opening off our classroom. That year, I sat in the back corner of the classroom and did textbook after textbook until I finished all the textbooks the school had.
In fifth grade, things were a little better, because while the other kids still spoke in code and followed rules I didn't understand, my teacher didn't sentence me to a chair in the back corner. Instead, she put me at a desk right in front of hers, a desk that was tucked up under the top of hers. There, I worked on extra assignments, in addition to those the rest of the class was doing. I wrote my first poems and my first book in fifth grade (and gave it to that teacher), all because that teacher didn't think my brains were a bad thing. I tried to fit in as best I could, making friends with one girl whom I could understand a little bit because she came from a Catholic family of seven children and so knew some of the same rules I did. Once, I did slip up, reading "White Fang" or "The Call of the Wild" at my desk when I didn't know the teacher was watching me until she asked me, "are you really reading that or are you just looking at the pictures?" (I was turning the pages much too fast, you see.) I confessed to really reading it but then made a conscious effort to read each page two or three times before turning to the next one, so as not to let my difference show so much.
Sixth grade was a repeat of fourth, left on my own to do whatever in the classroom while the other kids did assignments and interacted with each other all day. I read all the books on the class bookshelf and had to resort to bringing in books from home to give me something to do.
Sixth grade was the year the school tried to do something about the smart kids in setting up a gifted program. The program consisted of pulling us out of class one afternoon a week to do things that were to enrich our lives somehow, things like drama and clay and other art projects. I resented that program almost more than I can describe, hating everyone for making my difference public and pretending that playing with clay would somehow make up for years of social ostracism. It got so I refused to attend, at which point some adult would come to my classroom to demand my presence at that blasted gifted program. I was so obstinate that eventually the adults in charge stopped trying to force me to cooperate and let me spend my time in the library, writing research reports on topics of my choice (the two I remember were on bees and bears--maybe I was working my way through the alphabet).
Looking back, I think my social awkwardness was only partly because of the brainy thing, with the other part being from falling somewhere between the bell curve that is called 'normal' and the spectrum that is Asperger's and autism. That's a self-diagnosis, but it's realistic--my father is certainly an Aspergerian and most of the six of us had varying degrees of difficulty with social issues. What's really appalling about my elementary school experiences is that none of what was going on with me in the classroom was discussed with my parents. Since I wasn't failing, there was no problem. The social isolation was ignored, that I wasn't doing the work the rest of the class was doing wasn't discussed, that I needed more to do was never addressed.
Junior high and high school weren't much better but at least there we had different classes so the days were broken up into smaller, less painful units. There was one class in junior high that I loved, eighth grade social studies; it was a class specially set up for the smart kids. We got open-ended assignments that we could run with, and a teacher who let us go as far as we could. That class and tenth-grade biology were the highlights of those later school years. Those, and teaching myself Middle English at home so I could read the Chaucer and Malory I found there.
I'm not sure why I wrote all that, except that the prompt this week was to write about being different and that was when I was most different. Nowadays, I enjoy my brains, enjoy that I can read so many more books that most because I read so fast, enjoy that I can take the time to research subjects in depth until I get a good understanding of whatever it is. But years ago, brains were bad, brains were not accepted, and the smarter kids were left out as surely as the slower kids were.
One-size-fits-all education doesn't. It helps that big curve in the middle, but it leaves hanging the ones on BOTH ends of it, those who need more help to get the basic work and those who need more work to keep from going off the track. I wish I had an answer, one that was economically feasible, but I don't. My fifth-grade teacher had the right idea, giving me extra assignments as quickly as I could complete them, but that wasn't enough because it wasn't part of the school's system and wasn't repeated anywhere else.
I wish I had an answer. Those of us on the ends of the spectra are what give bell curves their definition, but we're mostly left hanging by institutions that try to accomodate everyone.
I wish I had an answer, beyond the financially problematic one of private tutors for those outside the 'norm,' but I don't.
*My mother used to stand out front and ring a cow bell to call us all home. Everyone on the block knew that bell and would send home whatever Brown or two might be around their place at the time.