It’s something to consider, the idea that some people were born with the yearning to write, or paint, or sculpt, or take photographs. Imagine the one of the greatest photographers of all time, Ansel Adams, and how he would have lived his life if he had been born five hundred years earlier. Could he have found some other medium from which to launch his soul? Or would be have gone through life looking at distant mountains and felt…something? What if Di Vinci would have been born three thousand years ago? Or Einstein in the Stone Age? Is it that the mind molded itself to the times or the times molded the mind?
Reading was always a very natural act for me. I loved reading as a child and devoured books as if they were oxygen to someone trapped in space. Of course, my handwriting was simply terrible, and it still is, but back in the late sixties, in South Georgia, bad handwriting was one of those things that simply screwed a child. There was no redemption for anyone with bad handwriting. It was one of the three “R’s” so right from the start I had failed on third of the requirements of grade school. The public school system was a savage place back then and kids who could not do well in one area or another were ostracized, humiliated, paddled with boards, and made an example out of. The practice of public disgrace extended all the back to a child’s home. The school system in general, and the teachers in particular, were infallible. If they claimed you were lazy then you were lazy. If they claimed you had a bad attitude then you had a bad attitude. Teachers were the final arbiters of a child’s intellectual state of mind, and the final arbiters of a child’s emotional state of mind, too. Parents sat and nodded their heads and accepted the judgement passed upon their offspring and the child was condemned.
I was struggling, drowning, falling deeper and deeper into despair in grade school. Not yet eight years old, I felt as if I had totally failed in life and would never succeed. If being hit with a paddle made a child smarter or improve a child’s handwriting I would have been putting rockets together by the third grade and learning calligraphy. Why no one seemed to realize that humiliation and pain wasn’t working I will never know. It would seem as if the adults in the situation would have gotten together and come up with something better. I will always wonder why they kept in place for so many years a practice that did very little but push me further and further down into a dark hell of a life.
I can’t remember what grade I was in but it was far enough along for us to be using cursive, which I truly hated, and it was early enough for us to be learning to spell simple words. Spelling, to me, was simply an extension of writing, and writing was hell. But finally, there came along a test I knew I could pass. We came to the words that all had OO in them, like Book, and school, and cool, and look. This was going to be the test that helped salvage my school year and get me out of the hole I was in. It would give my parents a sigh of relief. It would improve my standing in the classroom. It was going to be the one test I could count on passing, maybe I would even ace it, and I went into the test nearly gleeful. There were twenty words with OO in them and more than the majority of them were easy, four lettered words I had known since I started reading at age four. If I did well on this test I could watch television again, or go outside and play with the other kids, and I would get hit anymore, at least for one week, and after the test I was ecstatic. Even if I had missed the hard words there were still enough easy ones so I was going to do well. The weight was lifted. The bonds were cast aside. I felt as if I was part of the worlds again and part of the family again. The next day the teacher handed the tests back out and I had made a zero. I hadn’t gotten even one word right. Each and every word on the page was marked through with a big red X that looked angry and condemning. Zero. Not. One. Right. Nearly everyone had made 100 on the test and no one else had so totally screwed it up as I did. I had misspelled “Look” and “Cool” and “Book” and “Fool” and “Tool”. It was as if I had been shipped off to an alien world and nothing made sense. The words all looked as if they were spelled correctly to me. “Book” looked fine to me. There was a B there were two O’s and there was a K. I remember the teacher hauling me up and class and paddling me for making a zero. I remember the other kids looking at me as if they couldn’t understand why or how such a thing was possible, and I couldn’t articulate what I was seeing or feeling because it didn’t make sense at all.
The teacher used the cheapest of shots, the very basest of arguments, and very lowest of the lows and told me, “You know very well what you did wrong” and I had no idea, really. I took the test home and my parents were stunned. All the words were spelled correctly. They said so. They agreed with me over the teacher, which never happened. They called her on the phone and I thought for once I would be vindicated, exonerated, freed from shame, and maybe even apologized to for how I was treated. But it was not to be. The teacher claimed that all my OO words looked, to her, as if I had spelled them with aa instead. Laak, Baak, Caak, and Taal, is what she saw. She didn’t see a single O anywhere. My parents folded under the weight of Teacher Infallibility and the zero stood.
I’ve often wondered what might have happened if they had stood up to her and made her change that grade. I wonder what would have happened if they had gone down to the school and defended me in public. But the teacher came to class the next day knowing she would do anything to me she wanted to do and there was nothing I could do about it.