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?