Monday, November 26, 2012
The Old, Dark Fear
There's a certain sense of dread I associate with dark, cold mornings. It's not just the fact that I have to stumble out of bed after an unsatisfying sleep in order to drive my oldest girl to the school for early morning seminary. It's not just because I know that after I get home the day will have well and truly started and there will be no more chance to snooze, or that I will be under pressure to produce billable work while also running a household bent on entropy. No, this horror and dread go way, way back.
I was in first grade. My teacher, whom we quickly nicknamed "Mrs. Shark," was an older woman who didn't seem to like children very much. Looking back now, I realize she had probably been teaching for decades by the time I arrived, small and quite intimidated by authority, and she wasn't willing to put up with any funny business. Frankly, she terrified me. I absolutely hated getting into trouble, so while I was a model student, I was probably also kind of annoying in my shrinking fear. The worst thing I could possibly imagine was to make a mistake, because if I made one single mistake, I and the other mistake-makers had to stay in during recess and fix it. It was even more worrying because I had no clue what the awful punishment could possibly be for failing to adequately correct the mistake. I really liked recess. What if the next level of punishment was a visit to the principal's office?
Back in those days, principals were still allowed to spank naughty children. Every once in a while during lunch, our principal would walk out of his office and just stand casually by the front doors, kind of swinging the board that was used as a paddle. The noisy room would suddenly hush, and we would whisper to each other rumors of spanked children past and present. I still remember the room itself with its huge Peanuts characters painted in happy colors on the walls. Snoopy and Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus looked down on our antics, contented smiles on their faces, a stark contrast to the smirking principal with the awful piece of wood in his hand.
One day, I made a mistake. When I got my boardwork paper handed back to me, red pencil had been slashed across it like blood. My fate was sealed. My stomach hurt and my head swam. The awful day I had been anticipating had arrived. I would miss lunch recess, and if I was really unlucky, I might get to visit the principal and his paddling board.
I was completely relieved to find that Mrs. Shark's duties took her out onto the playground that day, so at least I was spared her presence while I attempted to correct my paper. I sharpened my pencil, pulled out my paper, and began erasing the misspelled word. But to my horror, the paper ripped. The rip ran right across the space where I needed to rewrite the word. I almost passed out with fear, and tears burned my eyes. I remember saying, "Now what am I going to do?"
A boy who was also missing recess happened to hear me and looked at my problem. "Why don't you put some tape on it?" he suggested. Great idea. I taped the rip. But now I couldn't write the word in the right spot. And worse, my pencil made no discernible mark on the tape, so I couldn't write over the top of it. The same boy came to my rescue again (I wish I remember who it was). "Just write the last part of the word after the tape," he offered reasonably. There would be a huge gap in the word, but Mrs. Shark would understand that the tape was to blame, wouldn't she? I fixed it as best I could and then ran out for the rest of recess, though I wasn't completely at ease. It wasn't until the rest of the day passed and I heard no more about my paper that I finally relaxed a little.
So you see my fear, even if it was the fear of a 7-year-old. I lived with it on a daily basis, and it was very real to me then even if it looks completely irrational to my grown-up eyes. But the soundtrack that will forever remind me of that year was the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy talking alarm clock I got for my birthday. The clock itself was cute: when the alarm went off, Raggedy Ann and Andy had a little conversation about waking me up. So sweet. But the sweetness of their conversation morphed into some sort of dreadful death sentence in my head. Oh no! It was time to go to school! Raggedy Ann and Andy had betrayed me yet again!
I started getting stomach aches and headaches. My mom took me to the doctor, and he diagnosed me with stress. And then, thinking they were doing me a favor, my mom and the teacher agreed to take me out of the special little class for kids who read a lot, where we would leave the classroom with another teacher and do experiments and talk about cool stuff. It was the one place I felt absolutely safe, and now it was gone. The other three kids left in the class teased me about being dumb, which didn't make me feel any better.
I probably got used to Mrs. Shark over the months, and the rest of my years at that school were fabulous. I loved my teachers, who were all young and idealistic and believed in encouraging my interests. I really thrived. But the feelings of horror associated with those dark and cold mornings of the winter of my first grade year have never quite left me, even if I now have an adult perspective on Mrs. Shark (whose real name was Mrs. Sharp) and making mistakes. It's not as acute, of course, but it lingers. At least I can laugh about it now as I drive Sian to school.
Remind me to tell you about the time I got teeter-totter splinters in my behind and ended up half-naked and standing in the teachers' lounge while Mrs. Sharp picked the bits of wood out. Good times. Especially with all the other teachers walking in and out and laughing about my predicament. But that's okay, because I was wicked good at crazy and highly unsafe teeter-totter tricks when the teachers weren't looking. Best in class.
UPDATE 12/11/2012: My dad found the recording of the Raggedy Ann and Andy Talking Alarm clock. Of course, he sent me the mp3 file of just the Raggedy Ann and Andy clock, but I am stoopid with technology and will have to embed the entire YouTube video. Listening to it now, it's hard to believe the enthusiastic little message turned so sinister in my mind. But, then, the blaring of a regular alarm clock heard at any time of the day is enough to put me into fight-or-flight mode.