Crushed by the system

I had a very hap­py time grow­ing up. Per­pet­u­al­ly cheer­ful, I was “a lit­tle steam­roller”, Mom’s “hap­py lit­tle guy.” The first-born, I was dot­ed upon, and received lots of atten­tion. My moth­er spent count­less hours read­ing aloud to me, and I began to devel­op a love of books. I was able to read well before I start­ed kindergarten.

My kinder­garten expe­ri­ence was very pos­i­tive. My teacher, Mrs. Flor, was a real sweet­heart who loved kids. I got along just fine with the oth­er chil­dren, but Mrs. Flor could tell was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the oth­er five-year-olds. One day I brought to class a book I had been read­ing. It was about the ani­mals of the world, and I gave the class a detailed pre­sen­ta­tion on the eat­ing habits of the Komo­do Drag­on. When I relat­ed the astound­ing fact that this giant rep­tile could kill and devour an entire pig, one of my classmates—son of a hog farmer—burst out in scorn­ful dis­be­lief. “It can’t eat a pig!” he exclaimed. “It sure can!” I respond­ed heat­ed­ly, “It can eat a whole pig!” Mrs. Flor told my moth­er that this inci­dent made her realise that I was think­ing on a dif­fer­ent lev­el from most five-year-olds. This was per­cep­tive of her, and because of this she allowed me to do my own thing to a large extent. Thus, my mem­o­ries of kinder­garten are very hap­py ones.

First Grade was going to very dif­fer­ent; I could tell that from the very first day of school. The moment I walked into the dingy white class­room, with its tow­er­ing ceil­ing and rows of hard desks, an icy hand seemed to grip my young heart.

The teacher, Sis­ter Marie, was as cold and unsmil­ing as Mrs. Flor had been kind and cheer­ful. At first things went well enough, the lessons more dif­fi­cult than last year, less fun. I still remem­ber sit­ting in my desk, Num­ber 2 pen­cil in hand, fill­ing in the lit­tle ovals in the book­let, the lit­tle ovals that would deter­mine my IQ, my intel­li­gence quo­tient. Of course, it meant noth­ing to me at the time; it was mere­ly a bor­ing test, one that was a bit more bor­ing than usual.

But soon I was slip­ping, los­ing my grip in this new envi­ron­ment. I began to lose inter­est in the pages upon pages of math prob­lems we had to do every day. My favourite time was when we read, but we seemed to do that far too seldom.

In the back of the class­room there was a long shelf of sto­ries. They fas­ci­nat­ed me, seem­ing to call to me with siren voic­es. If we had fin­ished our assign­ments, Sis­ter Marie would let us take a few books home for the week­end. Soon I was cap­tured by their spell. Noth­ing else mat­tered. What use these rep­e­ti­tious work­books? I could be read­ing real books! As this real­i­sa­tion came to me, I lost all inter­est in school­work. Every­thing else was pushed away; only books held any importance.

Sis­ter Marie, how­ev­er, had oth­er ideas. As I began my down­ward slide, she got tough, keep­ing me in from recess, mak­ing me sweep the floor with a hand broom, my head bump­ing against the clunk­ing old radi­a­tors, and, final­ly, inevitably, tak­ing away all my book priv­i­leges, giv­ing me only math.

In response, I with­drew into a fan­ta­sy world, a world of my own, a hap­py place where math couldn’t harm me. My dad is an enthu­si­as­tic gar­den­er, and one day I came across one of his gar­den­ing mag­a­zines. It was open to a sec­tion about a species of tiny green insects, called aphids. The name delight­ed me. A few days lat­er, I began talk­ing to aphids.

After I began talk­ing to imag­i­nary insects, it was only a mat­ter of time before the oth­er kids began to think I was weird, and the teacher declared me a hope­less case. By ear­ly Feb­ru­ary I had had enough. I suf­fered a ner­vous break­down and became extreme­ly ill. I remained absent from school for sev­er­al weeks before I began to recov­er phys­i­cal­ly, but I was an emo­tion­al wreck. Assess­ing the sit­u­a­tion, my par­ents decid­ed not to send me back to school. I would be home schooled.

My mom has spo­ken to me of those weeks after the deci­sion, of how she would do noth­ing but hold me, hold me close, all day long. I was crushed, bro­ken by the sys­tem before I was sev­en years old. My mom could only hold me, won­der­ing what had gone wrong, won­der­ing what the school had done to take away her “hap­py lit­tle guy”, leav­ing this shell-shocked, silent child in his place. Would he ever recover?


  1. This is from deep in the archives: my very first col­lege paper, in fact. But I still think it holds up well, and every year I like to think back that Feb­ru­ary when it all fell apart, and my life as I know it began to unfold.

  2. Wow, how sad your first grade expe­ri­ence was. I abhorred first grade. I’m old­er and there was no home­school­ing in my day. I would have loved it!!!! Well when I saw my kids very cre­ative per­son­al­i­ty traits, I thought, Home­school here we come! Your moth­er was a very wise woman.

    Karen L., from goodreads

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