"Where we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children in any way they could.
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids."
I enjoyed school. I loved to learn. Science was never my strongest subject, but it may have taught me the most. In tenth grade, I took chemistry with Mr. Stevens. Mr. Stevens was a jolly fellow, with gray beard and a big round stomach. During the winter his nose would turn pink, then red. I didn't get very good grades from Mr. Stevens, but I liked him and I enjoyed the chemistry "labs." My lab partner and I were a good pair. We always got the right results and we always finished ahead of the class. Lock our lab "instruments" in our drawer, and have free time! But there were an odd number of people in the class. So not everyone was in a pairs. There was Ray. Strangely the teacher didn't insist Ray join another pair and become a trio. Ray worked alone. Ray went to high school alone. If high school was hard for me at times, for Ray it must have been a near-hell experience. Ray was smart everyone knew but he didn't fit in. He stuck out, in a way that made people treat him with scorn. Luckless Ray. Always alone. He had a habit of accidentally locking his lab key in his lab drawer. Almost every time. And Mr. Stevens' usual jovial demeanor would fade. His brows would furrow. He would bellow. LOUDLY. "RAY! YOU LOCKED YOUR KEY IN THE DRAWER AGAIN, RAY?!" Ray would cower and sputter and sometimes shake. One time, when Ray realized he had locked his key in the drawer he asked if he could join my partner and I. Sure, Ray, I said, unenthused, but then: "RAY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING OVER THERE, RAY!? DID YOU??! DID YOU LOCK YOUR KEY IN THE DRAWER AGAIN, RAY?" Mr. Steven's exaggerated effort to get the master key out of his pocket; Ray's humiliation.
Two years later, in Mr. Stevens' office for a reason I can't now remember, Ray came up in conversation and then his problem with the lab key. In a flash of intuition, I saw. Was it a glint in his eye? A shuffling of the foot? The casual reaching for a cup when the cup was empty? I don't know why I could see at that moment that Mr. Stevens had spent a year exercising his own private torture on Ray. "You locked his key in drawer all the time," I stated. The glint in the eye, a slight overbite with the teeth to suppress ... no, he couldn't hide it. He started laughing out loud, his big belly shaking. Laughing gleefully. Laughing riotously.
Ray was the most unpopular person in our class. He was picked on everywhere. This teacher had the power to make his classroom a safe haven for Ray, but instead he went out of his way to inflict ridicule on Ray.
My fourth grade science teacher was Mrs. Kalin. She called me last week. Out of the blue, there was a message from her on my answering machine. From "Sandra." During one summer Mrs. Kalin and I went to the library every week and she would ask me what I wanted to learn about. And I would tell her whatever was on my mind UFOs, dinosaurs, comets and dragons. And we would spend the day learning about it. To meet me now, after all the kindness and patience she had given, would she be disappointed?
I deliberately didn't shave and didn't shower when I went to meet her. No pretense of success or having my act together let her see my in disarray and judge me then. Corduroy and an oversized flannel shirt. Coffee and dirty glasses.
Mrs. Kalin wanted to tell me about an organization that she'd been working with Gifted Resource Council (GRC). GRC was founded in 1983 to provide high quality enrichment opportunities (beyond the everyday school setting) for gifted children ages three through fourteen. Currently GRC programs reach 2,500 students per year. One of their programs is Academic Challenge Cup, a friendly academic competition that includes: Creative Convention, Equations, and LinguiSHTIK. Participants include second through eighth graders from the entire metropolitan area. The focus of Academic Challenge Cup is creative problem solving, mathematics and language usage with skills involving teamwork, task organization, idea generation, democratic process and decision-making. Academic Challenge Cup is held at Washington University's Wohl Center. The Creative Convention portion of the Academic Challenge Cup will take place January 14th, 15th,and 16th.
Mrs. Kalin's eyes lit up with delight as she talked about the children, in their teams, working to solve the problems. "Some of these gifted children feel weird, out of place, like they don't fit it. Just getting them around other kids who might also be interested in the same things they are helps them fit in."
"Unabomber," I joked.
"Yes," she replied seriously. "You can tell it makes a difference."
When the FBI raided the Unabomber's cabin in 1996 they found a copy of Paul Goodman's book "Growing Up Absurd." Goodman wrote many books about the alienation of youth and the systemic and institutional problems of the sixties. I was working at the time directly across from the Library Limited in Clayton. So I walked over there after work one day and tried to find a copy of "Growing Up Absurd". No luck. I went to the help desk and was told that the book didn't exist. So I called a friend who worked at one of the big chains and asked him to try to find a copy for me. No problem, he said and then never called me back. What could be in this book, I wondered, that someone like the Unabomber, living sparely in a cabin in Montana would have a copy, but that you couldn't find anywhere. Was it so obscure? Was it so dangerous?
Ray. Did he grow up absurd? Had he known that the science teacher was fucking with him? Certainly he knew someone was fucking with him.
After coffee with Mrs. Kalin, I google Ray's name. Nothing comes up. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. But I'm going to go to the Creative Convention in January and see if I can help some young minds feel a little less isolated, maybe a little less absurd as they grow up.
"I guess it was the beatings that made me wise... Suppose I abused you? I'm just passing it on." Pearl Jam