Lucky for me, my mother saved almost all of my reports cards from kindergarten through high school(s), so if I ever went around claiming to be a genius it could be easily disproved. Looking over the pile of hand written grades and comments about my early academic life provides a bird’s eye peek at my general standing as a student and as a child trying to do right in the Niagara Falls District Public Schools. My very early years indicated that I was quite a satisfactory student who needed some improvement in making good use of my time. This is a running theme in my life.
My kindergarten evaluation is sterling, and I’m quite proud of it. I was well spoken, polite in speech and action and obeyed quickly and cheerfully. I took turns and shared, listened to others, and had control of my emotions. I could sing and dance, express my thoughts and creative ideas and tell stories. I was interested in books. I was so careful, I was often slow in completing my work. Hmmm, was perfectionism rearing its ugly head?
We had moved back to the Stamford district after my dad died and we attended the neighbourhood Elementary School. My brother was in Grade 5, my sister was in Grade 3 and I was entering Grade 2. The eight room schoolhouse was a two-storey, red brick building with wooden floors and rutted, worn down steps. Grades 5 and 6, the Nurse’s office and the Principal’s office were upstairs. Grades 2, 3, and 4 were downstairs. Kindergarten and Grade 1 were in bungalows to the side of the school house. Every classroom had a row of windows and a little cloakroom for winter coats and leggings, boots, book bags and lunches. There “cafeteria,” was a basement with a painted concrete floor, lined with green benches for eating our sac lunches during inclement weather. The grounds covered a town block area. Part of the grounds were paved and marked off for dodgeball, basketball and volleyball. The rest was grass and dirt with a baseball diamond and a make-shift track. In the spring, track pits were dug up and filled with dirt and sawdust for high-jump, running long jump and standing jump. There were big swings and little swings, and a metal slide. A huge oak tree rested in the front center of the yard, at the edge of the paved and grass area. Maple trees and a chain link fence lined the borders of most of the back yard.
Second grade took an interesting turn. My first term was excellent and I was very alert and industrious. I was a whiz at math, quickly adding up the yellow, felt ducklings and subtracting the red, felt apples on our felt math board. I was happy. I even had a budding romance with a little boy, Joey. I was somewhat of a teacher’s pet, helping other’s, helping her, and in charge of feeding the class pet. Life was good. But, my industrious efforts got me moved out and up to a Grade 3/2 class (with emphasis on Grade 3) for the final two terms. I was “accelerating,” as they called it.
The green, felt math board was replaced with a chalk-dusty blackboard and mechanical math problems. I had some catching up to do in that department. There were endless evenings of memorizing and testing of the multiplication tables, and I confess still get “brain freeze” if someone presses for a quick answer to “9 x 6.” Problem work was a problem, and there was more catching up to do in Social Studies and Reading Comprehension . Printing was acceptable but penmanship was right around the corner. Always a conscientious worker, I pushed through. We also started learning French, but were not tested in it. Whew!
My romance with Joey did not survive the move. He took over feeding the classroom pet and kept me updated on it’s life. We saw each other at recess but eventually schoolyard misunderstandings, gossip and jealousy caused a very dramatic “breakup,” So, when I was wrongly accused of cheating on him, I told him to “Go to Hell.” It was a place my Mom often encouraged others to visit when she was displeased with them. So that was that, my first love ended and I accelerated on. By the end of that year, I was promoted to a Grade 4/3 class, with the emphasis on Grade 4.
My Grade 4 teacher was an older woman who’s last name invoked imaginings of getting your head scalped in the woods. She didn’t deserve the reputation, but we all minded our citizenship in class. If you were disruptive, you got your hands whacked with a ruler, or you stood facing a corner while classwork continued. If that didn’t work, you were sent to stand in the hall, or to the principal’s office. The principal was known in my small circle, as “Grizzy,” and Grizzy was not someone you wanted to cross. Although I never witnessed anyone being punished by the principal, I did hear (as everyone in school did), the crying and screaming that echoed in the hallways during Grizzy’s disciplining. I did see the bright, red swollen palms and tear-stained faces of students that were beaten. Schoolyard rumors were you had to stand with your arm straight out and your palm turned up and depending of the severity of the crime, the principal whipped either one or both hands with a wide, leather strap. The worse the crime, the higher the count of hits; if you pulled your hand away the count started over. The rumor was no more than 25 strikes per hand, and of course stopping at the first sign of blood. Frightening. Girls were usually spared the strap, but not always.
Except for Math, which I managed to get average grades in, I did quite well in Grade 4 especially in spelling and written expression. The teacher wanted me to “try harder to improve,” and wrote “practicing multiplication tables and everyday problems using numbers at home would help.” My mother wrote back, “If extra homework is needed, I would appreciate it.” Thanks Mom. Since I basically went from yellow, felt ducks to 4th grade math, I guess it was on me to get it learned. I don’t think either my mother or I ever figured out what the everyday problems using numbers entailed, but I made it and at the end of the year, I was promoted to Grade 5.
Sometime during that year, 1963, I believe MENSA administered IQ tests to all students in my school and probably the Province of Ontario. I was nine years old. My mother came home from work and called a “Family Meeting.” Family meetings were always serious and never usually good. We all sat around the chrome-legged kitchen table and she announced that she had been to see the principal (Grizzy). It seems I did very well on the IQ test. She said they couldn’t tell her my score, only that it was “over 150,” and that I was a genius. They wanted to send me to a different school where I would be taught with other advanced students, in an advanced method. We were all shocked, me most of all, since school seemed like a game of catch up most of the time. I would have to go to the Elementary School across town, to a Grade 6/5 class for the next two years. I would carpool or bus with other students from other schools.
So we took a family vote as to whether I should go to a different school. Everybody thought I should go, although I wasn’t quite sure about it. I liked my little world. Walking to school with my sister, knowing the classroom faces, knowing the lay of the land. But the family voted, and it was decided that I would go to the advanced class across town. I did not feel easy about it.
There are a lot of opinions about IQ tests and what if fact constitutes a genius. I dare say if I took a MENSA IQ test today, I would not pass the mark. At any rate, being declared a genius isn’t as wonderful as one might think. For me, it became a series of teachers and adults with high expectations saying “we know you can do better,” or snide teasing like, “Ask Laura, she’s the genius.” My 5th grade year at the school across town was a strange and peculiar experience that took me away and set me apart, only to return me to even more social and academic challenges.
There is little I remember about school’s architecture beyond my classroom and a paved recess area where genius aliens gathered to establish their frontal lobe prominence. It wasn’t a home for me, but rather a brief stop in the Grade 5 Twilight Zone. Traveling to the Twilight Zone was via a local taxi cab driven by a large, ruddy-faced paraplegic man. I was the first stop of 4 in the alien carpool, so I was given the front passenger seat. From that prized position, I had a birds eye view of the taxi meter, the driver’s taxi log and the hand levers rigged so he could push and press the gas and break pedals. I was the only girl in the carpool and lived in a different neighborhood, so I sat quietly as we headed across town to pick up the three genius boys. They usually waited together at one house, hopped in the back seat then we headed to the “Zone.”
Our classroom was colorful and modern; no wooden desks and chairs lined in a straight rows. Our teacher was a young, pretty woman, who was very enthusiastic and warm, and ready to expand our geeky minds in a whole new way. She sat at a laminate, curved table in the center of the class. Our laminate desks and modern, colored chairs were arranged in two semi-circle rows facing the teacher. The room was like a rainbow. My first term was a challenge, but I maintained a solid B even though I was “slow in completing my work.” I tried making friends but it wasn’t going well.
I sat alone at lunch until one day a group of girls from the class approached me. A blonde, rail-boned girl lead the group. She told me she was “Jesus,” and I could join them for lunch if I wanted to be her disciple. Then she introduced the other girls (her disciples) to me, “This is Matthew, Mark, and Luke.” I didn’t have to be a genius to size up the situation. Clearly, this girl was not Jesus, the handsome dark-haired miracle worker I have been crushing on since Sunday school. Clearly, these other girls were not male disciples of the biblical times, but they wanted to be a part of her game. She pressed me to join. “Do you want to be a disciple? You can be John.” Mathew, Mark, Luke and John was the Sunday school rhyme for memorizing disciple names and moving up in the Sunday school curriculum. (I always forgot Simon, he was kind of the like “Doc,” when you tried to remember the Seven Dwarfs). “She’s gathering disciples in the rhyme’s order,” I thought. Intrigued, and not wanting to eat lunch alone (another running theme in my life), I negotiated, “I’ll join if I can be Paul.” Paul was my Beatle crush and taking on his name made my heart sing. “No,” she said. “You can’t be Paul, you have to be John.”
“What do the disciples do?” I asked. She pointed to an area on the playground, “We’ll walk over there, I lead and the disciples follow behind me in a line. Then you’ll all sit around me and listen to me talk while we eat our lunch.” The other girls encouraged me to join. How could I miss my chance to participate in a little “live theatre” on the playground? But I had to hold out for the coveted role. “I’m not going to be a disciple unless I’m Paul.” She could see I was steadfast in my resolve to be “Love me Do,” disciple Paul. Then Jesus spoke, “You can be Paul.” Miracles do happen! I grabbed my lunchbox and we lined up to follow Jesus to the gathering place. At the gathering place, I was informed that only Jesus spoke and disciples listened. My coveted role was now reduced to being a non-speaking player. That didn’t sit well with me, so after eating my lunch I got up and walked away. One of the girls ran after me. “Wait, aren’t you going to stay?” “No,” I said. I pulled out 3 Beatle cards I had stuck in my lunch box. “Want to see my Beatle cards?” I asked. So, we left Jesus behind and worshiped the Beatles instead.
The rest of the year is a dizzying blur. Our lovely teacher cried when she announced to the class the terrible news that President John F. Kennedy was shot. One of the boys in the car pool made an amazing mobile of the solar system that validated his presence in the genius class. I stood in front of the class reading morning Bible verse and experienced hysterical blindness shrieking “I can’t see, I can’t see,” validating my reason to leave the genius class. I successfully completed Grade 5 with the gut wrenching desire to return to my regular school. Luckily again, my mom was more interested in a “happy child,” versus an “unhappy genius.” So after graduating from the Twilight Zone, I returned to my neighborhood school and landed at age 10, in Principal Grizzy’s 6th grade class.
Slowly I Learned that labels and measures are not important and are constantly changing. You can be a genius at one point in time and not so genius at another moment in time, beautiful one day, not so beautiful another day. Slowly I Learned that we’re all unique and creative and divine and that is what we can acknowledge and value in ourselves and in each other. Slowly I Learned that I make a rotten disciple and if I listen to myself, I am my own guru. Slowly I Learned you have to stand in your truth and own who you are and delight in who you are as you play on the planet. Slowly I Learned that the door to the Twilight Zone swings both ways, you can always get out.