Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hope, pt. 2

Did you miss part 1? Read it here.

In second grade, I had the same teacher who'd taught my Reading "class" the year before and everything was much the same. Vocabulary and spelling were big subjects that year and along with our regular words, we were given one large word each week to memorize and learn to spell. The day that I spoke out loud to give away the meaning of onomatopoeia? I think I still hear the teacher's blood boiling now.

And when I say 'much the same' I mean exactly the same. At the beginning of the school year they gave me the exact same Golden Retriever book I'd finished early back in first grade. Something must have happened to make them rethink giving me the same assignments for an entire year, because I do remember at some point I was given an hour of 'free play' in the lab next door during reading class instead.

That free play pretty much rocked. They had these really cool electronic games (you know, for 1985)'d read a paragraph on a card and then answer a question on what you just read. When I think of it now I would probably compare it with an early LeapFrog game, only in 2-bit and not nearly as cool. To answer the question, you'd stick this pen thing into one of the available holes to select a multiple choice answer. If you got it right a light would come on. If you were wrong, you just kept sticking the pen in the other holes till it lit up.

The best part of that free play was that there was no longer anyone giving me funny looks. No one discouraging one making me think that maybe I'd get a lot less grief if I just played dumb.

And then, come springtime, they brought me back to second grade for creative writing again. I only wish I had the type of parents who had saved some of what I wrote, especially those early days. How cool would those things be to read through now? (Who knows, my first great novel idea could have been in there!)

The years continued on very much like this until I started junior high. That was the year my parents split for good and we moved to a new school district. No one knew me as that tall skinny little kid who sat in the back of the room - that weird-o smarty pants.

Sixth grade was the first time I played dumb. Things weren't good at home to begin with - I may have only been eleven or twelve, but that was the year I began to be left at home with three young brothers to look after, and suddenly I didn't really have time to do that English assignment anyway.

In seventh grade, there was a boy - Damon - who made excuses for me every morning when I was late for school. He'd cover for me in homeroom so our teacher wouldn't see that I was hastily scribbling my way through whatever the assignments had been for the night before.

As much as things royally sucked in those years, I finally found a bit of joy in something new...advanced placement classes. Except they didn't have AP English in junior high, just math, but it turned out that I was pretty darned good at that, too. (I just really freakin' hated it. Either that or it was the bitchy ex-nun of an Algebra teacher I had in eighth grade that turned my stomach. Whichev.)

Then, in high school, slacking became an art. Things at home were worse than they'd ever been. My Mom took a job for which she'd fly overnight to Texas one night a week, and even though someone else was supposed to care for my brothers on those nights, for me, they were often spent digging dirty dishes out of the sink so I could wash them and pour cereal for dinner for the four of us.

We often didn't have a phone or electricity, and there was a two or three month period where we were completely homeless. We finally did get a place of our own again, but those green lot stickers from the storage place are probably still on some of my Mom's furniture to this day.

To say there was too much put upon me at such a young age would be an understatement. It was right about this time, though, that I was placed in Mrs. K's AP English class.

I was sullen. I was moody. I was tired and overworked and I was only sixteen. I had just started dating an older guy who had already begun to emotionally abuse me, telling me that 90% of me was was just my face and my still flat chest that needed improvement. He told me if you could stand me on my head, so as to put all the "good parts" up top I just might have something. He told me I would probably never be smart enough or have enough money to actually make it into college. I could go on and on but its not really worth the space.

I was skeptical, too. Here was this stern teacher who finally gave me challenging assignments at a time when I was working an after-school job to literally keep from being on the streets. When she said she expected that we work out our schedules so as to have every assignment turned in on time, no matter what the obstacle, I'm fairly certain she was talking about cheer leading practice and pep rallies. Regardless, she accepted no excuses, and that was probably the best thing for me.

I remember her telling me, in her no-nonsense way that I was bright. So very bright that she wasn't going to accept failure. She encouraged me, when forced to choose a "classic" book for an in-depth report, to pick the longest, most intimidating-looking book from her shelf...East of Eden.

She had faith in me.

I remember coming home from waiting tables, late at night, and picking up Eden. It was like an awakening to me...after all those years, to enjoy reading something again, to have something captivate me. I read the entire book...didn't skim it half-way through and then fake a report and be satisfied with a B- grade. It was the first time ever that I really truly worked hard on an assignment, and really earned that A. (I still remember - I got a 96.9% on that paper.)

And you know what? I saw a glimmer of hope...maybe, somehow...if you prayed and studied and worked until you fell into bed at night with achy bones...maybe you might just get ahead. Maybe I might be able to eek my way ahead, slowly but surely, crawling commando, arm over arm...and some day actually have something to show for my efforts.

The sad thing is I don't even remember that teacher's name. She was the first person ever who made me truly believe that I was smart, that being smart was a good thing, and that I had a teensie bit of potential.

I remember her face...vividly. I think I even made her smile once or twice.

But all of this...this is why...its so hard for me to let go. I've worked so hard to get where I am and I can't just...hope...that I won't be in that position ever again.


WeaselMomma said...

You are not just bright, you are brilliant, strong and beautiful. No, not beautiful, gorgeous! You are a tall eye catching blond with a smile to light up a room. Not even to mention how wonderful you are on the inside. And fun. I am so glad that I got to meet you in person and want you to keep me filled in on info about Blissdom.

Kim H. said...


WOW! Now that my friend was a post!

I definitely believe that the places we've been, even the darkest of dark, make and define who we are. Of course, I can't put it in to words like you can, but I'm pretty much thinkin' you've got more than a teensie bit of potential!

Thanks for always being an inspiration. In my book, U rock!

Mary @ Giving Up On Perfect said...

Incredible, my friend. I don't feel like there's any response I could share right now that wouldn't sound fake. "I understand" or "I've been there, sort of, but not really" or "It'll all work out" - none of those work for me.

So...just...Thank you for sharing your story. The story, the writing and you - all incredible.

Denise said...

I'm guessing that those last couple of sentences are about your current situation, being and over-worked, over-stressed, full-time employee and mama. If I'm right, then keep reading...if not, then just stop here because the rest of my comment will make no sense : )

The character of a person is really, truly formed by their early experiences ... both at home and at school. Sadly, most people that had your home life and school experience turn out much differently. You're the exception to the "rule", Colleen. It sounds like you always have been. Don't think for a second that by chosing to make things easier on yourself in the present you will be going against all that you have worked for thus far. It's quite the opposite. You've worked your a*s off to get where you are so that you WOULD have choices in your life ... choices you were never given while growing up. You have empowered yourself to become the person that you are today. No matter what you choose, you are in charge and entitled to make adjustments to your path as you see fit.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for giving tribute to a teacher that inspired you, even if you can't remember her name. And here is one reader that is thrilled she inspired you because I so enjoy reading what you've written. This, in particular, was a eloquent, very personal piece that was so brave to share.

Dana said...

Are you talking about Mrs Kessinich? or Kessenich?

Wineplz said...

I'm so thankful for that teacher that saw you for what you were and pushed you and knew what you were capable of doing. If she hadn't done that, I'm not sure that I'd be reading you now or would've gotten to meet you at BlogHer. I credit her indirectly for the friend I found in you.

However, I'm still willing to ship flaming bags of poo to that lousy ex-boyfriend of yours. I have two dogs, three cats, and a 2 yr old in diapers....I've got plenty to export. Just say the word and it's done.

Secret Mom Thoughts said...

Beautifully written. It was a nice tribute to your teacher. You really rock. I really hate that ex boyfriend.

Mrs4444 said...

I'm happy for you. Thankfully, I think we can all point to one teacher who made a big difference in our lives. I aim to be that teacher for a kid or two (not sure how I'm doing on that so far, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.)

You could find her name in a yearbook; teacher photos...

Melisa with one S said...

That was AWESOME. I think (in your spare time: haha) you should try to find out what that teacher's name was so you can send her a link to this post. SOMEONE has to know. I'm good at finding people; if you need suggestions, let me know.

What a Godsend she was to you. I love great teachers. :)