My introduction to the world of education was this: my older sisters had hiked up the lane to catch the school bus, and since I hadn’t started school yet, my mother was only now brushing my hair to make a ponytail between sips of coffee. Yank, whack. Mom approached everything with grim determination. She was 38 at the time of this recollection, and if, for instance, she glimpsed a silver hair in the mirror, she didn’t use a rinse. She yanked it out. So, I had fronted up for the morning hair ritual with eyes squeezed shut when she yelped, “Oh no! You’re supposed to be at the school today!”
Minutes later, we were racing up Eagle Hill Road to Lake Shore Elementary so I could be tested for class placement. And here began a long history of intellectual uncertainty because I didn’t get assigned to Mrs. Bush’s class. I got assigned to Mrs. McFadden’s.
We all knew which class was the smarter one, just as we all knew the difference between the Red Bird and the Blue Bird reading group. Sorry, Blue Birds. You know who you are. (And God help the outliers who had no group at all.) If you are reading this and you were in Mrs. Mc Fadden’s class too, I’m sorry, Blue Bird. You were not smart either.
In Mrs. McFadden’s class, we sang about clean fingernails, which even at the age of 6 struck me as inappropriate, creepy, and a bit bizarre. We even had to spread our little hands out on the desk for inspection as we sang. I didn’t think my relationship with Mrs. McFadden warranted that level of intimacy. After we sang, we learned to count to ten in French because those two skills would be highly useful someday. On the plus side of this experience, Mrs. McFadden was very pretty. She had been married for 5 minutes and a teacher for about 30 seconds.
My sense is that my mother found out I was in the second-tier class and drove up to the school to plead my case. I don’t know if that’s what happened, but about two weeks into the school year, I brought in a praying mantis for Show and Tell. With my dad’s help, the insect had been placed in a cigar box, the lid replaced with a screen for air and observation, behind which it stared out with bulging eyes. If it wasn’t praying before, pretty sure it was praying now, as Ms. McFadden suggested I take my show on the road to Mrs. Bush’s class. I took off down the hall, clutching my cigar box, anticipating the big reveal, when I heard scuffling footsteps, turned, and discovered Billy Burns heroically huffing along in my wake with my desk and chair. Mais non! I’d been reassigned.
Au revoir, mes amis!
Weirdly, the minute I entered Mrs. Bush’s class, I knew I was home. It was as if I’d been fostered by very nice people, but my real family had come for me. At least, I hoped this was true because there was a level of comfort such that occasionally, when super-excited about letters becoming words, I’d humiliate myself by calling out “Mom” instead of the teacher’s name. It also meant being proud to be included and aware of being different. For instance, my mother wanted me to have a hot lunch, but we couldn’t afford to buy, so she’d boil a hotdog, tie a string around one end, and submerge it in a thermos of hot water with the end of the string hanging out of the closed lid, then send me to school with my dog and a bun. Genius. But when the kids at the lunch table recoiled at the sight of my homemade bread pudding in tin foil, I threw it away.
Likewise, when my personal trainer looked at my shoes the other day and remarked that only old ladies and kids wear KEDS, I threw them away, too. The need for approval has not evolved much because if you suspect you may not be as bright as advertised, it’s important to be popular.
So, by 5th grade, I was solidly in the ‘smart ’ class track, warranted or not, and my teacher and I had in common that she was divorced and my parents were divorcing. We made eye contact a lot. If I appeared well adjusted, she could feel better about her own child weathering her change in status. We understood one another with a maturity not shared by the other students. Case in point: in a moment of empathy, she invited me and my best friend to her wedding when she remarried that spring but was probably astonished to see two teary ten-year-olds beaming from the 4th pew as she walked up the aisle.
One day, she asked me to stay in at recess to enter my classmates’ grades into her gradebook. I was happy to do it but as I was turning a page, I saw my name and my I.Q score.
So, to see if that number at the age of 10 was the same now, I just spent a half hour taking an exam that tested spatial recognition, logic, language skills, math, and cognitive reasoning. I think I did pretty well being tested this time—you know why? Because at the end of the test, the site wanted my credit card—and genius that I am, I put in all the numbers, the secret code, and THEN, noticed the word “subscription.” I tried to back out. This caused my bank to text me a fraud alert.
Did they mean the company? Or me?
In the spring of my first-grade year, I awoke to the news there had been a deadly car accident on Mountain Road about a mile from school. It was Mrs. Bush. I never saw her again. The administration said she was to stay home the rest of the year. I accepted that then, but as an adult, I have wondered if she died. I recently made contact with another Red Bird who assured me Mrs. Bush lived into her nineties.
If you are smart, you know how easy it is to become who you are told you are. For instance, I know for a fact that only Red Birds read this column. Compassionate, generous, highly intelligent Red Birds. And that, my beloveds, means you.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.