The suburban counties surrounding Baltimore City send their children back to school today; Baltimore — quite properly — waits until the Tuesday after Labor Day. Last night, I looked at a 10-year-old’s fresh notebook — looseleaf paper in a binder, with a zippered pencil case with 12 pencils at the ready. (“They told us to bring 12!” I was told when I remarked on the number.) At any rate, I was reminded of fresh starts, and my vain attempts to keep neat notebooks, with torn holes reinforced and subject headings bright in those color cellophane tabs. By Halloween, my notebooks were a wreck.
My thoughts leaped — naturally, morbidly — to the most humiliating moments of school. I still can’t speak of the single worst day of my life, a day in which I somehow avoided the fate of being marked for life as a loser/nerd, but simply by sheer luck. Instead, when grade school comes up, I always think of the day in fifth grade when I was placed in the dummies math group. Oh, we weren’t supposed to know we were the weakest, but we always did, didn’t we? My mother looked at the paper that had resulted in my placement and realized I had worked every long division problem properly, but I had copied them wrong. I needed glasses.
The thing is, that still wasn’t enough to get me out of the dummies group. I had to score well on the next test to do that. My answers were wrong. Years later, in a college math course, I would score poorly on a midterm for the opposite reason. My answers were right, but I didn’t reach them the correct way.
I still think of that fifth-grade teacher, a woman who sometimes put on pink house slippers in the afternoon as her feet swelled and began to ache. What happened to other kids, ones whose parents were less vigilant, who just looked at the red circles around their answers and said, “Yep, guess you’re not very good at long division.”
Anyway, as a back-to-school-special — please share a humiliating memory. Or a happy one, if you insist.