Melting Away

This was the third hospital that my brother stayed in; he’d been at this one before. The name of the actual facility escapes me, but it was located down the street from a factory that made “Fruit and Nut” confections. My mother, sister and I thought that was a riot that there were two places with nuts on that street. Maybe we were just laughing because that was better than the alternative.

My father came over and I could tell this was going to be a turning point in the relationship with him. He was angry and upset that it had come to this. He was not happy about the price tag that he was assuming by sending my brother to this boarding school. I didn’t even know there were boarding schools in our metro area, but I guess when you got into the more upper class enclaves, you could find one. The Catholic school my brother would attend (which we all found ironic) had a seminary attached to it in addition to the regular high school.

Looking back on it, I think there was no place for any of us to find common ground. Everyone blamed everyone else in the scenario: I blamed my father for not intervening sooner and saving all of us living under lock and key years of anxiety; my father blamed my mother for not having provided more supervision to keep my brother away from the rougher elements that influenced him so badly; my mother blamed my father for reducing the child support and forcing her to work extra hours to be able to pay the bills that mounted as my brother’s depression and anger increased. There was no sympathy from any one of us for any on the other side of the fence. Instead, the battle lines were clearly drawn now: boys against the girls.

I got up and went to school every day. I wanted to feel grief and anger and something that would garner me the kind of attention and concern that was being lavished over my brother. But it all felt so stupid to me. Too much energy, too much drama, too much out of control. I could feel it all swimming in my head, but couldn’t find the words to reach out to anyone with to express how messed up I felt about it. Who would listen anyway? My parents and sister were all too busy dealing with it all themselves. My few close friends were doing the best they could diverting me away from it, but only a few really knew how bad things had gotten. I just wanted to close my eyes and forget. I wanted to have a different life, like some of my friends at school, with parents who didn’t yell at each other, with fathers who weren’t gay, with brothers who didn’t leave bruises.

I threw myself in, head over heels, into school. These people didn’t know what was going on behind the closed doors at home. They thought I was whoever I projected myself to be. I was the smart girl, just like all the other kids in my honors classes. Let them all think I had the same great life they all did. Perception could be reality, couldn’t it?

I tried, in that winter of 1986, to hold onto appearances, though I felt it all melting away inside.

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Freshman Year

It was freshman year for me.

I was now attending a large school of about 2500 kids over four grades. I now rode a bus for about twenty five minutes to get there rather than the short walk from my townhome. In fact, the walk to my bus stop was nearly as long as the walk to my school had been.

In my school, there were three middle schools that came together for the high school. This meant that on a daily basis, I was surrounded by people I didn’t know more than people I did know.

Dawn and I did not share a single class. We never did in the middle school either, with me being placed in the gifted program for all of my core classes. I had hoped with some electives and a different structure for tracking ability levels at the high school, we might end up in at least something together. No such luck. And my friend Andrea was a whole year younger than me, so she was still back at our quiet, insular middle school. The other small group of friends I gained in my gifted program were all split up based on interest and electives.

I felt very lost. My favorite parts of the day were the bus rides that I shared with Dawn. We would sit together near the front of the bus, away from the trouble makers in the back and the older kids who weren’t lucky enough to have cars, and talk about all of the new people we’d met, the teachers we had, the classes we liked and disliked. Both of us had avoided the gym requirement this year. We were both taking high level English (there was no Honors English, just three levels of instruction) and had the same instructor, but at different times of day. We discussed the odd layout of our high school, which encompassed three separate buildings. She talked to me about her Algebra class and how hard it was, and I told her I’d help her. Algebra was the one class where I did find people I knew; I enrolled in Honors Algebra and most of my gifted compadres from the middle school were there, since there was only one section per grade level.

My brother attended the high school too, although most days he was picked up by much older boys in a car and therefore not on my bus. I never saw him in the hallways at school because it was so large. No wonder he had floundered last year here. The grounds were so big and the population so vast, someone could easily decide to find a group that fit whatever mood you were in that day. You wanted drugs? Start asking around and you’d find them, I heard. You wanted to miss class? With three separate buildings, there were infinite places to hide and not be seen. You wanted to blend in? With so many students, it was hard to stand out and be noticed.

I felt like a very small fish in a very big pond, and it disconcerted me. I didn’t like it at all.

Time to Close a Chapter

I ended my middle school career with little fanfare.  There was the final music concert, in which I performed twice; once as a band student and once as a choral student.  I loved both of my music teachers; both of them, in their individual ways, gave me the feeling that even if I wasn’t the best at my craft, I was good and with practice, anything was possible.

There was the award ceremony, where I pouted that I wasn’t ranked with the highest GPA and vowed to give Curtis a run for his money with the clean slate I was about to get in high school.  My father embarassed me by correcting other students’ behavior during the ceremony.  My parents had me strategically sit in between them since neither of them wanted to sit anywhere near each other.

There was the yearbook, where I had a lowly three photos featured of myself, this giving me more proof that I wasn’t exactly what you would call popular.  Besides my class photo there was the group shot of me with the choir and another of me in the band.  My pals all signed it, which filled up the inner front and back covers, but not much else.

There was the goodbye to my language arts instructor, him having been my teacher for three years.   We were his first class at the school, and he took us out on his sailboat to celebrate.  Looking back on it now, I wonder how he afforded that sailboat when he told us he qualified for food stamps on his salary, but I digress.  He was a good man who helped me navigate my way through the various rough patches during those three years.

And just like that, I was no longer a student at the Middle School.  I was off on summer vacation, and getting ready to go to the 2400 student high school campus.  I wouldn’t have the luxury of walking home anymore if I wanted to stay after school for activities.  I’d be going to a place where my brother and sister already had established a reputation for our family; I wondered how hard I was going to have to work to reverse them.

I started working on my tan and put some Sun In in my mousy brown hair and started thinking of all of the possibilities that lay ahead.  I was ready.

A New Friend

By 8th grade I had a very narrow pool of friends.   It was a two way street there, certainly.  I suppose if I’d been more gregarious I could have had a larger circle, but my insecurity kept it tight.  I didn’t want to share a lot about what was going on at home, because it made me feel so very different from everyone at school.  I wanted to be the same.  I wanted to blend in.  I wanted to fit.

Dawn lived close by and we were easy friends with lots of very odd things in common.  What we didn’t have in common was the bulk of our school day.  I lived four out of six periods of my day in a small area of the school where the gifted classes were held.  These were split classes between two grade levels.  When I was younger, the splits were with older kids.  Now that I was older, the split went with kids a year younger than me.  That’s how I met Andrea.

Andrea and I got along from the start.  A year younger than me, she was also in the band and our interests dovetailed often enough to start a friendship.   Her family lived a little distance away from us though, but her father was a teacher and often available after school to pick me up to come visit.  Looking back on it now, her parents must have sensed a need on my part to not be at home very much; I started spending a lot of dinners and overnights at Andrea’s house, but she never did the same at mine.

It was at Andrea’s that I first discovered the VCR.

Andrea’s parents had bought one of the first video tape recorders.  I was in awe of how you could tape something off of television and replay it to watch WHENEVER YOU WANTED, just like a tape cassette and the radio.  I couldn’t imagine how rich they’d have to be to buy one.  I knew such technology was expensive.  We’d just bought our first microwave oven; a magic box that cooked food in a third to a tenth of the time it would be done on the stove.  We all just stood around and watched things in box the size of a small TV.

Andrea’s VCR was a Betamax VCR.  I didn’t know at the time that there were two video formats competing for market dominance.  I loved going over to her house and watching “videos” on the VCR.   What a heady combination cable tv, with its constant stream of movies, and a VCR would be; you could watch movies at home whenever you wanted.  The idea seemed like…it could change the world.

With Andrea and Dawn, I felt an increased sense of self esteem.  I had two very close friends whom I could call upon when my own world just seemed too wacky.   Neither one of them were friends, and we never hung out all together.  Each filled very different holes in my life, in different ways.   But they both were there for me, and I was grateful.

Smart is as Smart Does…or Is It?

I was brought to a small room (no larger than a closet, really) down a hall I’d never seen at my new elementary school.  A woman I’d never met before was talking to me about the task at hand.   She was going to be asking me a lot of questions, the answers of which would determine if I was considered “gifted”.

It was an IQ test.

I wanted to do well on the test.  I knew I was smart; I already knew that.  I’d been reading since kindergarten, long before my school even started trying to teach the children how to do so.  I got upset with my kindergarten teacher for marking one of my phonics exercises wrong, because I had a total explanation for why I didn’t put “knobs” on the dresser depicted on the ditto sheet:  my own dresser didn’t have knobs, it had notches in the bottom of each drawer to pull them out without a knob.

I liked being smart.  It meant you got adults’ attention.  They would smile at you and tell you what a good job you did.  In first grade, I was proud to be skipping books in our leveled reading program.  Each brightly colored book I completed represented an achievement, and early on I was anxious to race through them as fast as my teachers would allow.  By second grade, I was working so quickly through the material that I, and a few other talented peers, were allowed to spend hours unsupervised putting together a play.   The timed multiplication tests in third grade were a chance for me to shine above my classmates.  I was determined to finish them the fastest, with the best accuracy, of anyone in my class.

When I moved in the fall of fifth grade, my reputation did not move with me.   I was not placed in the class that had the best and the brightest readers; that became clear to me within weeks.   I immediately started working as hard as I could to prove to my new teacher and classmates that I was a cut above the rest.   And by the spring of that year, I was sitting in a small room with a woman I’d never met, happy to prove myself to anyone who would pay attention to me.

There were questions that had to be answered.  There were repetitious sequences that needed to be memorized.  There were blocks and puzzles that needed to be ordered.  There were images that needed to be identified.  I was in my element; having one adult focused on me, telling me that my abilities and my talent made me special.   I completed every task, gazing up at the woman through my big lensed glasses, hopeful for some indication that I was excelling as much as I hoped.

After about forty five minutes, she walked me back to class.  She didn’t tell me how I’d done; that information would be shared with my parents in a week or two.  I wondered.  I waited.  I worried.

My mother didn’t tell me right away.  I wasn’t sure why.  Eventually, it came out in the waiting room of my brother’s counseling office.  Apparently, the counselor had also administered to my brother an IQ test.  Seriously?  I was the straight A student.  My brother was lucky if he got Cs, unless he was interested in the subject matter.  No one could possibly compare the two of us.

I overheard the numbers as she spoke to my brother’s counselor, not aware that I was listening.

Me:  136.
My brother:  138.

Not only was I now competing with him for our parents’ attention, but I was now competing with him scholastically.   I figured if I couldn’t win in one of those areas, at least I could surpass him in the other.

Game on.

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