I saw M last week for a haircut and we circuited through our usual topics: His little Russian Blue kitty. My big fat grey tabby. Theatre and movies: what we'd seen since we saw each other last. Our president. How good it feels that he's our president. And race.
We almost always circle back around to racial discrimination before we're done, although it took several years of knowing each other before we felt comfortable going there. We first got there by way of theatre. M was telling me about a play he was in, in which God shows up at a bar one fateful night. M played God. M is a big, black man -- taller than me, and I'm 6 feet tall. M told me that the theater received complaints from a white women that God was played by a black man.
This provided the fuel for our first rant on the biases that people bear, and it's become an easier and easier topic for us to tear into whenever we hook up over my hair. Race isn't something I talk about much with my friends who are white, although civil rights come up quite a bit with friends who are white and gay. I don't fit the profile of someone who should get outraged over discrimination -- I'm straight and I'm white and most doors in society open easily for me.
I owe my rage to my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Stevens.
I loved school, and school always came easy for me. I was such a nerd about school that I was often the teacher's pet. By my 3rd grade year I realized that this was a social liability -- no one likes the teacher's pet -- and in my 4th grade year I experimented with ways to still get off on school without being singled out.
I wouldn't raise my hand even when I knew the answer. I passed notes in class and earned disapproving looks from my teacher, Mrs. Easterling. I tried to pick up on the whole gym thing, although dodge ball (the dodging part) was the only thing I ever managed well. Near the end of the school year Mrs. Easterling gave everyone in the class a unique award. Kimberley, who was long and lithe and whose dad was a Denver Nuggets basketball player, got the Bionic Beauty award. I got the Bionic Brain award. I was crestfallen. My plan had failed.
Then we moved to the Northwest and I was assigned to Mrs. Stevens' 5th grade class.
Through an accident of the school system Mrs. Stevens was teaching the same 4th grade class she had taught the year before, only now as 5th graders. She had a complicated system for assigning and logging class assignments and homework that the entire class was familiar with and well-practised in, because this was the second year they had to abide by it. It was my first year with the system and it left me baffled. I don't recall that she ever took time to explain it, and because I had never been baffled before in school I didn't know how to ask for help.
I started missing assignments because I didn't know they had been assigned. I was the new girl and too shy to ask my new classmates for help. When I did turn in my assignments I received poor marks -- because they were late? I don't know, but it snowballed, and I was receiving C's for the first time in my life. The only subject I continued to excel in was reading, probably because in the misery of that year I retreated deeper and deeper into books. It was as if Mrs. Stevens had decided what I was capable of -- had decided that I wasn't capable of much -- and graded me accordingly. Unthinkingly.
Her perception of me was pervasive -- I saw its effects in the other kids. One day in gym class when I struggled to climb the ropes -- and failed -- I returned to the line and the little girl in front of me said: "Mrs. Stevens said bad students are usually bad in gym too." I said nothing. My face flamed red and I felt the deep rage of being thought someone I was not and the shame of thinking maybe what the little girl thought was true. Nothing I did changed Mrs. Stevens' mind about me and I limped my way through my 5th grade year, happy only to have survived it.
I shook off the stigma in 6th grade and stayed on top of things from there on out, never regretting being teacher's pet again. I learned how to ask for help, and I had my moment of triumph when Mrs. Stevens brought her 5th grade class over from the Elementary School to see the Middle School play in which I had the starring role as Penelope the Pride of the Pickle Factory. (When I peeked through the curtains and saw her there with her class the old terror flooded through me, but I went on stage and pulled it off. Later my sister told me that the other kids said "wow -- was that your sister? She was so good," and I glowed.)
I hated Mrs. Stevens for what she thought of me, hated the way she warped my world into something untrue and unjust, hated that she never saw me for who I really was.
I hated her, but she may have taught me the truest lesson I ever learned.