Wednesday, February 2, 2011


It was the first day of fourth grade and my best friend was late.  We always walked the three suburban blocks to school back in the days when it was safe to let your kids walk to school by themselves.  I paced in my driveway waiting for her to appear at the corner where we met.  I smoothed my dress my mother had sewn for me, special for this day.  I knew Jody and I weren't in the same class and my cousin didn't have the same teacher either.  Secretly I was relieved.  It was my turn to see who I really was and what I was capable of instead of standing behind them and letting them shine.  Finally I saw her dad turn the corner and he pulled into the driveway.  "Dad's driving us, I couldn't figure out what to wear."  I scrambled in and shut the door saying, "Good Morning Dad Kringle."  That's how close Jody and I were.  I didn't say Mr. and Mrs. to her parents.  They were Mom and Dad Kringle.  My parents however were Mr. and Mrs. Marshall.  In the thirty five years Jody and I were best friends, not once did that ever change.  Neither did her tardiness nor my promptness.

In my house, my clothes were always laid out the night before.  My books were on the desk ready for me to pick up on the way out the door.  My lunch was packed, only my sandwich to be grabbed out of the refrigerator to complete it.  This made morning run smoothly at our house.  Tranquility was treasured at our house.  Don't upset your father was the motto.  So I got extremely anxious to the point of nauseau when Jody was late for school.  I didn't want to upset my father even though he was already at work and had been for two hours.  And my mother was at home and could have easily taken me to school.  She was just relieved to have me out the door.  No kids.  Had she been given the chance to do it over again, I think she would have looked at the inability to give birth as a blessing from above and kept working.  She didn't enjoy motherhood and nurturing wasn't in her nature.

Finally on our way to school I noticed the school patrol had already left their crossing posts and the crossing guard had already left.  I was going to be late on the first day of school.  I couldn't help but resent Jody.  She was always late.  Couldn't she be ready on time just this once?  We got dropped off on the first bell.  We had one more bell before we were officially tardy.  I thanked Jody's dad and didn't even speak to her as I rushed to my class.  The only seats left were in the very front, but I didn't mind.  I liked to be up front so I wouldn't be mistaken for getting into trouble that always happened in the back of the room.  This was the first time I would be in an air conditioned room.  Slowly the PTA was working towards raising the funds to air condition each of the rooms in the school.  It was Northeast Florida and it was sweltering for most of the months of school.  I tucked my lunch box under my desk and put my notebook filled with notebook paper and my pencil box under my desk.  Back then the school provided crayons and pretty much anything else we needed.

Our teacher was named Ms. Johnson, a thin friendly looking woman and back then we would have called her black.  She was very light skinned.  She had curly hair that framed her face and a soft voice that made you listen.  This was only the third year of desegregation and I wondered how far she'd had to drive to get to my school in the all white neighborhoods my school was in.  I wondered how she felt looking at a sea of white faces with maybe two black faces looking back at her.  There certainly were no Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Arab or any other nationality represented in our school.  The closest we had come was a French boy all the girls had a crush on in the third grade who had moved back to France in the middle of the year.  Where did they go to school?  I think maybe one bus load of black students were bussed over from the other side of town, from their friends and families to go to a school where they knew no one.  I don't remember having any black friends until fifth grade, but they were very loyal, protecting me from the other black girls that wanted to beat me up for no apparent reason!

But back to Ms. Johnson.  I liked her immediately, until she started calling girls up to her and whispering things to them.  They would go back to their seats, holding a secret that Ms. Johnson told them, that I didn't know.  I wanted in on the secret.  But at the same time, I liked to fly under the radar.  I didn't like to bring attention to myself.  The motto of    "Don't upset your father" carried over to school as well.  "Don't upset the teacher" was just an extension of that motto.  Because if she got upset enough and called home, the "Don't upset you father" was out the door.  And if you upset father, it wasn't pretty.  He may have wanted children, I'm not really sure which one wanted to adopt, I just know the preacher told them something like those who can't adopt after ten years of trying.  But, he didn't want children that made noise, upset him or were visible when he didn't want them to be.  And he didn't want them to have opinions.  But that's another story.

So, I was torn.  I wanted in on the secret.  I wanted to belong to the club.  I wanted the teacher to like me enough and trust me, think I was reliable enough to share the secret with, but it warred with the part of me that needed to be invisible.  In the end, I didn't get to make the decision, Ms Johnson did.  She motioned me up to her stool, a bar stool she sat on to instruct us.  Then she whispered me the sacred secret that would make me part of the club, "Young ladies sit with their legs together so their panties don't show.  Try to remember."  Mortified, I nodded and slithered back in my seat with my thighs glued together.  Yeah, I was part of the club, the show the boys your panties club and I hadn't even known it.  But when I looked up she gave me a smile and a reassuring wink when she saw my eyes brimming with tears.  And just like that, I knew I hadn't ruined anything with her.  She didn't think any less of me.  I hadn't  "upset the teacher".  It was okay.

Throughout that year, Ms Johnson gave me enough encouragement to develop a love of writing and to overcome some of what was happening at home.  I never told her about home, but she seemed to have a sixth sense.  She never missed an opportunity to make me feel special.  She let me design the bulletin boards while the other kids were still working because I finished all my work early.  She would single my writing out to read as an example of excellent creative writing, but she never used my name, because she knew I'd be embarrassed.  When a new student showed up with type one diabetes, I was given the assignment of getting sugar cubes for her when she needed them.  For some reason, it was a big secret that she had diabetes, but they trusted me enough with this secret to give me this life saving duty.  Only now do I know the importance of this job.  Ms. Johnson gave me the confidence to speak out in class, to write in a journal and to write poetry. 

Ms Johnson also kept me alive.  That was the year I first thought of suicide.  Although I didn't know the word, I knew I was extremely depressed.  I wanted to melt into the picnic table I sat on writing poetry.  I wanted to be the wind in the trees.  I wanted to be anything but what I was.  My family did not understand me.  Of course they didn't.  I was a product of another family so dissimilar to them and they never tried.  They wanted me to be like them.  But if ever there was a case for nature versus nurture it was me.  I cried a lot, got my feelings hurt a lot, felt everything deeply.  And their answer was, "You're too sensitive."  I was rarely happy, but I was always smiling because I didn't want to "upset your father".  The only time I thought I might be differnet from everyone else was when I was told "You're too sensitive."  But I wondered if other fourth graders wanted to die.  Did they care if tomorrow didn't come?  Did they feel like there was nothing in their life to look forward to, to get up for?  Ms. Johnson gave me a reason to keep going.  She gave me poetry and writing and a feeling that I was special.  That not only did I belong on the same step on that ladder but I might belong on the next step up. (See previous post Illegitimate).

I wish I could see her now and tell her what she did for me.  I can't even remember her first name and she was only there that one year.  But she gave me permission to be creative and told me I was good at it.  And she nurtured it when I needed it most.  When my parents didn't have the ability to nurture.  I know where I came from now.  And yes, it's a very emotional place and I definitely got my mental illness from her.  But I got my empathy and compassion from her.  I got my love of animals and need to help others from her.  I got my love of reading and writing from her.  But unfortunately, she's still sixteen letting go of a baby she couldn't raise and I was thirty three when I met her with a two year old.  But I know I'm not "Too Sensitive" anymore and I'll slap those words right out of your mouth if you say it about my kids.  No one took up for me as a child, but I will take up for them.  But they're cut from the same cloth.  They might have gotten my bipolar disease, but they are also compassionate, empathetic, loving  and sensitive and no one can tell me this world doesn't need more of that in this world.  Before I was ever diagnosed as having bipolar disorder I had a therapist tell me that she thought it was wonderful that I was so sensitive.  She told me the world would be a much better place with more sensitive people.  And like Ms. Johnson, she made me feel special again, able to hold my head up through the shame of mental illness and realize that there were some things that were good about being bipolar.  Being sensitive is one of them.  I can read the emotions of a room in five seconds flat when I enter it.  It's how I survived, "Don't upset your father," as a child.  So thank you Ms. Johnson.  I know you had to drive probably an hour in rush hour traffic to get to Holiday Hills Elementary School but for that one year, you made a huge difference in my life.  You're one of the many reasons I'm here today to write this.  I'm sure you had an impact on plenty of students.  And thanks for getting that staple out of my finger!


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