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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lessons From School I Needed to "Un-Learn"

Well, I hope you're ready for another WHO AM I WEDNESDAY entry, because this one is going to be quite a big topic for me to write about.

It's also one that I've talked about before, and one that talks about the subject of being bullied - which as many of you know by now, I endured more than my fair share of it.

But this one has a bit of a twist to it.  You see, when it comes to the kids that I went to school with, I've finally made peace with it.  Sure, there are some people who really did hurt me, and I have absolutely no desire to reconnect with them.  And honestly, I think there are some people who genuinely had no idea how their words and actions really did hurt in the grand scheme of things.  However, the reason that I can forgive them is because back then they were children who really didn't know any better.  They couldn't really understand how their actions really made people feel.  It doesn't make what they did right by any means, but I just hope that they grew out of that sort of behaviour as they became adults.

But what happens when you are being bullied by someone who is supposed to be an authority figure?  Someone who is supposed to have your best interests at heart?  Someone whose job is to make you feel confident and empowered about learning new things, but instead makes you feel scared and inferior about life in general?

Well, bullying by children, I can forgive.  Bullying by teachers?  Inexcusable.

Here's my story about the lessons that one particular teacher tried to teach me about myself...and I've also provided lessons from other teachers that I have had along the way to try and disprove or discredit the teacher who seemingly made it her mission to "fix what wasn't broken".

September 10, 2014

I think that it must be some sort of prerequisite for most children to despise their first grade teacher.  In most cases, whenever I engage someone in conversation about teachers that they liked or disliked, most people I've spoken to disliked or even hated their first grade teachers.  And, I often wondered why that was. 

I guess the most obvious reason could be because Grade 1 is really one of the toughest years to get through in school.  I know some people might shake their heads in disbelief over that statement, thinking that high school classes are much tougher than elementary school ones.  But when I was a kid, kindergarten was only a half a day, and kindergarten was more or less a place where all you did was paint pictures, play with building blocks, and burying other kids in the sandbox.

(Oh, wait.  You weren't supposed to do that last one.  My bad.)

Therefore, the transition from kindergarten into the full-day Grade 1 where you actually had to do schoolwork without the benefit of a mid-afternoon nap was a tough one.  Grade 1 really was that whole transition point between still being a kid and actually becoming more and more responsible.  Maybe that could explain why first grade teachers seem to be more strict than other teachers.  Their jobs are to teach you the basic fundamental skills that are necessary to get through life.  And sometimes those lessons don't necessarily involve addition and subtraction, or nouns and verbs.

Unfortunately, I was saddled with a teacher who taught me a whole bunch of life lessons that I never really should have been taught in the first place.  Instead, she taught me things about myself that most other teachers would have likely been terminated for.  And it took the kindness and caring of other teachers and other adult figures in my life to help me realize that her "lessons" were more harmful than good.

So, aside from reading, writing, and arithmetic, what lessons did this first grade teacher of mine teach me?


When I entered the first grade, I admittedly marched to the beat of my own drum.  Some of this was intentional, but a lot of it I couldn't control.  I used to hold my crayon in a fist motion because I couldn't figure out what the proper way was to hold it.  In fact, when I was in school, I didn't even think that there WAS a proper way to hold a pencil because as long as the teacher could read my name, that was all that counted in my eyes.  But according to Grade 1 teacher, that was not acceptable.  I mean, I suppose I could understand the reasoning behind it.  You do get more control holding a pencil the way that most people hold them. 

That said, I don't think she had the right to make a big deal in front of class of me having special crayons and pencils with those big triangular blocks on them to draw attention to the fact that I did things differently from the other kids.  I especially didn't like the fact that I didn't have a green crayon and she actually gave me trouble for using a crayon that didn't have those pyramids of imperfection  attached to them.  She basically humiliated me in class on purpose because she didn't like the way that I held a pencil.


Well, pretty much any other teacher that I had.  Unlike my first grade teacher, who basically believed that I was worthless unless I knew how to hold a pencil correctly, the others instead focused on the skills that I did have.  I may not have been a great pencil holder, but I certainly did do well in other aspects of the class.  Well, at least the academic portion of the classroom, anyway.


I've talked about this before in the blog years ago, but if you're just tuning in, here's the Cliff Notes version.  Back when I was a kid, my arches in my feet didn't properly develop.  As a result, it made it incredibly difficult to walk flat-footed without feeling any pain.  It was a problem that eventually corrected itself, but between first and fifth grades, I had to walk on my tip toes in order not to feel pain.  I didn't expect that the kids would understand this, but I did expect that the teacher would have been kind and sympathetic about it.

She wasn't.  Not only would she refuse to let me go to the bathroom without promising in front of the class that I would walk flat footed, but she also arranged to have a social worker take me out of class so that I could walk around the school with books on my head to correct my posture.

Long story short, she made me feel as though I was broken or damaged because I didn't walk to her standards, and she wanted the whole school to single me out in hopes of embarrassing me enough that I would walk the way she wanted me to walk without completely understanding that I couldn't.  It was a living nightmare to endure, and I honestly think the decisions made by my teacher, and the school administration for allowing such a thing to go on destroyed my self-esteem. 


I guess in a way, I am.  All by myself.  Eventually, my walking style did correct itself on its own, and once that happened, kids were a lot less cruel about my walking style.  But honestly I still feel like I have issues with self-worth because of that teacher.  Many times I still feel like I push people away who get too close because I feel as though I'm too different from them because of what I was told by that teacher.  It's been a real struggle to try and find out who I really am as a result of what I went through, and I'm getting better at it each day.  But, again...that second lesson she taught me stuck for a really, really long time.


I'm sure if you've ever been a student at any given time, you were asked to raise money for the school in a variety of different ways.  At our school, we sold wrapping paper, boxes of chocolates, and other holiday pieces every Christmas.  And school fundraising meant that every kid received an order form to take home to their families and friends so that a portion of all the sales made would go towards improving the school (things like buying new books for the library, or providing new gym equipment).

At least, every kid was SUPPOSED to get one.

I was the only kid in my class who did NOT get a booklet.  And the way the teacher kept talking about the fundraising drive while purposely handing out booklets to every other kid in the class, it made me think that something was not right.  So, after school ended, I went to her desk and asked her why I couldn't have a book, and her response was that she had run out.  Yet, I could clearly see that she had four extra booklets that she could have given me.  I didn't think much of it at the time, but now that I'm older, I knew what the jig was.  She purposely denied me my right to fundraise as a sort of punishment in not being like everyone else in the class.  This was her almost making a point that I would not be seen in the same regard as the rest of my classmates, and that was inexcusable.


Honestly, I would give the credit to my second grade teacher, Miss Johnson.  Not only did she encourage all of us to do fundraising activities (and yes, she made sure I got a fundraising order form that year), but she was so supportive of everyone who raised money that it made me want to sell as much as possible.

Coincidentally, it's only a shame that my first grade teacher denied me the right to sell anything that year.  I only ended up being the kid who came in second for most funds raised for three consecutive years in the early 1990s.  I mean, granted, I only sold for the prize incentive...but if that school only realized just how much money I could have raised for them that year, maybe they would have been more interested in stepping in and stopping the emotional abuse that teacher inflicted on me.

Because let's face it.  What she did to me was abuse.  Abuse that would no longer be tolerated inside of a classroom.


Believe it or not, my first grade teacher flunked quite a few kids.  If memory serves me, at least four kids in my class were held back from completing first grade at the end of the year.  That seems insane to me.

What I didn't find out until later was that my teacher actually lobbied to have me repeat the first grade too!  And, I honestly was so angry at that fact because I didn't think I did anything that would warrant me being held back.  I read at an eighth grade level in first grade, and my French teacher often commented about my "photographic memory".  Oh, sure, I had a hard time getting along with some of the kids in my class, but my teacher's actions encouraged that behaviour, so there wasn't a whole lot that I could do about it.  But that wasn't enough to keep me stuck in the first grade, and the school agreed that not passing me into the second grade would have caused me more harm than good (nice that you thought of my welfare then, but not during the 1987-1988 school year, school admins).  I mean, if you're going to hold me back a year, make it a good enough reason instead of having a personal grudge against me.  And for that matter, maybe if that teacher had used her attention to help the other kids in the class who were struggling instead of inventing new ways to make my experience in her class a living hell, perhaps everyone in the class would have moved onto the next grade.


Ironically enough, the very kids who used to pick on me were the ones who saw that there was no reason why the teacher should have held me back.  After all, they did copy off of my paper when I wasn't looking.  I honestly don't know if they actually learned anything, but the fact that they deemed me smart enough to copy from meant that I had to be doing something right.  And any of the teachers that I had who encouraged my talents helped me realize that the school shouldn't have even entertained the possibility of being held back another year.  From my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Woodfine who encouraged me to write down how I was feeling (though I imagine if she finds this blog, she'll think that she created a monster), to my twelfth grade math teacher Mr. Wright who helped make mathematics fun again after having a negative experience in grade eleven, I knew that depending on the teacher, I was capable of taking a lot of lessons from the classroom and applying them to real life in a positive way.

Needless to say, the teacher that I had in first grade left the school just a couple of months after I went into grade two.  I'd like to think that I broke her, even though I imagine that the real reason came from the fact that so many of her pupils failed her class and the parents of those kids likely made the school terminate her.  In some ways, I wish that more could have been done to stop her from abusing me the way she did.  My parents certainly tried their best to get the abuse to stop, but nothing they did seemed to work.  She got away with making me feel inferior to everyone else, and in many ways, I blame her for a lot of the abuse that I sustained at the hands of my classmates because she was basically teaching the rest of the class that it was okay to bully and belittle other people who were different from them.

But you know what?  I'm a survivor.  And while the scars still remain over what she did to gives me comfort knowing that at least the kids who entered my elementary school after she left would never have to endure the life lessons taught by a mad woman whose bitterness and anger in her own life should have never been inflicted on any of her students.

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