Friday, September 04, 2009

School Days: Day 5 (Be Real)

I'm participating in Travelin' Oma's School Days. You can read all about it here.

Search through the drawer in your heart. Are there memories that shaped your self image? Write about a time when your feelings were hurt. Why do you think you still remember the incident? How does that help you understand yourself better?

I spun in my chair and angled my head to get a look. I had to see what they were all laughing about--why they were all laughing at me. My legs numbed. My stomach iced. I was betrayed. I couldn't understand how an adult could set up a kid for such humiliation. My ears burned, but that paled in comparison to the fire at the corners of my eyes. I searched the room like a hunted animal looking for a place to hide. I was painfully aware of everyone's eyes on me. I wanted to leave. I wanted to run. The tears came, and to my relief, the bell. In that instant I bolted out the door and locked myself in the oatmeal colored bathroom stall. In four minutes I'd have to go back in there. I didn't know what to do.

I typically did well in school because I worked hard to earn recognition in class. I'd always tried to please my teachers. I had no fear. I'd try anything once, and I wasn't afraid to get up in front of the class or participate. This day changed everything. This was the day where I learned that not all teachers have a student's best interest at heart. Not all teachers are considerate. Not all adults are trustworthy. She hurt me at my core, and that day shaped me for the rest of my schooling.

In seventh grade we had Language Arts every day for two hours. It was near the end of the first hour and we'd run through everything we were supposed to do for that class period. Since we were learning about metaphors, the teacher offered to let us play a guessing game. The premise of the game was that one at a time, students would sit with their backs to the whiteboard and try to guess what she had written behind them. She wrote things like "I am a tree" or "I am a flower" or "I am a fish" so it seemed safe enough. After a few rounds I raised my hand and was selected to play.

Now what's important to know is that I was cursed from sixth grade through tenth grade with horrible acne. In addition to normal teenage awkwardness, I had glaring problems with my skin. I don't think there was anything that brought me more shame. Still, I was outgoing and I enjoyed being in front of people. I think I was able to put it out of my mind.

Unfortunately, that day the teacher wrote on that whiteboard behind me: I am a pimple on the face of humanity.

Yes she did.

Let's overlook the fact that calling someone a pimple on the face of humanity basically means that you have no respect for them at all. Let's pretend that it isn't a mean thing to say. Let's just put that aside--even if seventh graders were mature enough to understand it--it's rude. But seventh graders are nothing if not literal. They read pimple and they saw pimples and suddenly I was the best joke they'd ever seen.

That moment when I turned and saw the board--I'll never forget that feeling. From that point on I was terrified of being made fun of in class. I squeaked out a few more carefree months in junior high but by the time I crossed over to high school, the imprint was made. By high school it was hard to raise my hand. I didn't easily trust that teachers wanted to take care of me anymore. I was so afraid of being made fun of. I felt so let down. I felt afraid to be wrong. I felt that if I put myself out there, it would be to the detriment of my own feelings.

I think I still remember it because it was one of my defining moments. I also remember it because I really hope that it has influenced me as a teacher. It makes me remember how much of what I do is noticed, filed away, scrutinized. It makes me very aware of the effects that my actions have on students. It makes me try to avoid embarrassing them. It also makes me realize I probably can't avoid it entirely. I wish I could.

As the second bell was about to ring, I sat in that oatmeal bathroom and made the decision to return to the class for the second hour. I slid in at the last possible second and melted into my chair. I let my hair fall over my face to try to hide my red eyes, to try to shield myself from the inevitable stares of my peers. She came up and squatted by my desk, putting her eye level with me--the pseudo "caring" move of teachers and waitresses who want better tips. I held my breath in anticipation that she'd apologize, that she didn't realize what she was doing, and that she now felt remorse. I couldn't even look at her.

"I'm sorry you took it that way."

Really? You're sorry I took it that way? What other way is there to take it? Can you please give me one interpretation of what you did and how I could take it in a better light? Thanks for the non-apology. I can't believe you did this to a student.

I didn't say any of that, though. The damage was done. I just nodded so she'd go away. My feelings were hurt. My trust was broken. My view of the world, a little bit more jaded. Irony of all ironies? This teacher left the teaching profession a few years later to join the peace corps.


  1. I can't believe she said that, that is crazy! I guess teaching just wasn't her thing and sometimes teachers don't understand how they effect us.

    Hope you have a wonderful weekend and thanks for your comical comment to enlighten my bad day!

  2. Had a similar (though not as personal) experience with the same teacher in 7th grade. She completely lacked the ability to identify with her students. I can't imagine the hurt this caused, especially amplified by the already tough junior high experience.
    My husband just started teaching at said school...I'm grateful there are awesome teachers like you guys who make the extra effort to remember what it was like to be a student yourself.

  3. Oh, this story breaks my heart. The negative things people say stay with us. My curly-haired granddaughter's friend (they were 3) said she hated curly hair. The friend will never remember or even know, but my granddaughter will have hair issues all her life! Thanks for reminding me to think over everything I say.

  4. I remember this day so clearly and how sad I felt. I know the effect it had on you - makes me very careful what I say to kids - including my own. Too bad she'll never know what she did that day. I really can't believe the insensitivity she displayed that day. I guess we can only hope she has changed and never made anyone feel that way again.

  5. I am glad I didn't have that teacher! Or at least I can't remember an episode like that. How horrible! I am glad that you try not to ridicule your kids or embarass them. So sorry that happened to you and once again serves as a reminder to me to be careful what I say and how I say it!