There weren’t any signs on the school saying, “Come as you are! You’re welcome here!” They certainly weren’t rolling out the red carpet for my arrival. In all likelihood, many of them didn’t want me there. So how did this first grader who lived in the local public housing complex and was zoned for the worst elementary school in Cambridge end up in the lauded and applauded East Muskingum School District? How did I get to walk through the doors of Pike Elementary School and enter the same halls as reputable and qualified teachers and students with privilege?
My mom seized the opportunity of open enrollment.
It was made for me and others like me, the growing population in southeastern Ohio of at-risk Appalachian youth. I was a poster child for this population: the product of young second generation out-of-wedlock and unplanned pregnancy, neglected by my high school drop-out father, my childhood profoundly affected by his addiction, my single-parent household, and my family income near or at the poverty level.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t come from the same place my classmates did with their two-parent homes, their PTA-participating moms, their pools, lake houses, car phones (in 1982!), and plenty of money to spare.
While these kids showed up to school like it was their right, my attendance at Pike Elementary School came with great sacrifice. It meant that I had to get up earlier than is reasonable for an elementary school student. It meant Mom’s drive time to the factory where she worked was doubled, taking a toll on our barely reliable Scirocco that was literally held together by aluminum siding for a house. Since this was before the days of formal before and after school watch programs and daycares on every corner, Mom had to look for people who lived in the school district and were willing to let me come to their house a few hours before school started so I could catch the bus from their driveway.
But she found them, even if some of them rarely got out of bed to see me off, or see me at all.
Mom was an arrow pointing the way for me in life, but she had to trust me to read and follow the signs since she often couldn’t walk with me.
So, I had to watch the clock and get myself out the sitter’s door to catch the bus. Other girls came to school with their hair fixed in pigtails and barrettes. I remember realizing the disparity between how I looked and how the other girls in my class looked. In 2nd grade, I asked my mom if she could fix my hair so I could appear more put together. I realize now how that request must’ve put more stress on her because she was doing all she could. But she lovingly and sacrificially fixed my hair the next day in a nice, tidy bun. I was so proud stepping on the bus that day, as if those few bobby pins automatically elevated my status and made me fit in. I don’t think she was ever able to fix my hair again, but that one time meant the world to me. The next year, I got my long hair cut since then I could have a no fuss “style.”
In the afternoon, Mom had to clock out, fight the onslaught of traffic caused from all the factory workers leaving their shift at the same time, and rush to pick me up from school. I remember waiting for her outside on the school steps, occasionally after the teachers left. Maybe it was a safer world then, but it’s still astonishing to me that they were content to just leave me there. Our financial net worth apparently equaled our worth as humans. I could attend school there, but I clearly did not belong and evidently could disappear without anyone caring.
One day she picked me up and was infuriated noticing I had a split, bulging lip that no one had called her about. Earlier that morning, I had tripped down the paved hill running to catch the bus, falling face first and horribly busting my lip. I had no way to get to school if I missed the bus, so I got up and kept running, trying to keep the blood from staining my shirt too badly. I don’t remember the bus driver saying anything to me or offering to help me clean myself up. Maybe she expected someone like me to show up looking like that. Or, worse, maybe she didn’t even notice.
They did notice me, though, when we went around the classroom to show and tell what we had purchased at the in-school Secret Santa Shop. Everyone got uncomfortably quiet since I only brought $1 and bought one small thing while the others proudly showed treasure after treasure of their purchases.
They noticed me, too, when they found footprints on top of the toilet seat in the girls restroom and accused me of standing on the toilet to look over into the other stalls. They made me show them the bottom of my shoes and asserted that the prints indeed matched. I never stood on the toilet seat, but they could not be convinced otherwise. Like the poor and marginalized before and after me, we all are easy, defenseless targets found guilty of crimes we never committed.
By the time I was in third grade, I had become more self-aware and the weight of being different was taking its toll. I knew I was always in the lower reading group. I knew the teachers tolerated me but didn’t have the same aspirations for me that they did for the other students. I wasn’t invested in or praised. I often didn’t understand my schoolwork but didn’t feel the motivation to ask for help. I didn’t have a vocabulary for it then, but I realize now there is only one letter difference between being at risk and being seen as a risk. As long as there weren’t too many like me, though, I was a non-factor and could continue to be somewhat ignored, practically invisible.
But I will never forget the day I was really, positively seen. Because our school was close to Muskingum College, we occasionally had student teachers come for a semester to finish the requirements for their education degree. I don’t even remember the student teacher’s name, but I remember the hope-filled way she looked at me when she praised my poem to the class and stapled it to the bulletin board as an example. This had never happened to me before. She looked me in the eyes and it was as if through her acknowledgement of my job well done she was willing me to succeed, to launch above the statistics, to have goals and aspirations. I don’t know if she knew anything about me, but I do know she changed my life.
It’s not a coincidence that by the next school year, fourth grade specifically, I had worked my way into the highest reading group. It’s not a coincidence that the year after that, when we had Career Day and had to dress up like what we wanted to be when we grew up, I grabbed my typewriter and wore the same color shirt Judy Blume wore in a picture I had seen on the back of one of her books. If that student teacher thought I was good at writing, I decided I wanted to be an author.
Not only did the student teacher give me confidence and hope for my future, she gave me the gift of words. I don’t know which came first, my skill at writing or her telling me I could do it, but it’s because of her that I have written millions of words in this place and many other places on and off the internet. It’s because of her that words were often my free childhood therapy after the traumatic death of my grandma and Mom’s short-lived but devastating first marriage. It’s because of her that my heart processes almost every single significant event in my life by putting letters together, one after another, stitching memories with their dots, lines, and curves, punctuating joy, and articulating pain.
I wish I knew that student teacher’s name. But because I don’t, any teacher who reads this gets the thanks for looking that messy-haired child in the eyes and praising her. You get the thanks for offering him a vision beyond where he is to where he can be. You get the thanks for seeing the invisible ones, making sure they know they’re positively seen, and helping them read the signs that move them forward to success.
Thank you, from all of us.
Featured header image found here.