I cannot remember ever being a confident person. Wait. I take that back. I do. In Mrs. Turner’s 3rd grade class at Grandview Elementary School in Dothan, Alabama, I was, for a brief moment, confident. I raised my hand in class and I usually knew the answers. I was proud of myself when I did, even if the other kids thought I was being a know-it-all. In fact, I probably could be a bit smug, if I am remembering correctly.
I also remember Miss Youngblood’s 1st grade class at Cloverdale Elementary. I was happy. I was a favorite. And when Miss Youngblood married later, I was the only one of her students (at least I didn’t see anyone else my age there) invited to the reception. I was a confident kid. Later on I babysat her kids. I will always think of her when I smell cinnamon because she wore Cinnabar perfume. She had deep red hair, too.
And then there was Ms. Colquitt. I still can be brought to tears remembering that horrible 4th grade teacher. Jay learned that not too long ago. I told him this story and by the end of it I was in tears. I think he felt really bad for me.
She tried to push me. She tried to make me do better. But her methods went against my grain. She operated in humiliation. The idea was that if she pushed hard enough I would get angry or I would prove her wrong. That I would buck up. I simply dug a hole and buried my head in it.
She handed out papers in grade order. If you were the first one to get your paper back it meant you made an A, and you could puff with pride when you stood up to get your paper. If you got your paper last, everyone knew you made the worst grade in the class. And she always told what the highest and lowest grades were. So everyone knew.
I understand now what she was trying to do. I understand it, and I still hate her for it.
I did fairly well in all my subjects, with one glaring exception – math. To this day I cannot recite for you my multiplication tables. If you ask me one I do not know, I have to go back to one I do know and add up to it. For example, I do not know off the top of my head what 7×8 is. I remember 8×8 is 64, but since I suck at subtracting, I cannot figure it from that. I do know that 8×5 is 40, so 8×6 is 48 and then I use my fingers to count up 8 more to 56. This method does not work well when you are doing time tests. I cannot for the life of me just learn that 7×8 is 56. There are probably about a good third of my time tables that I just do not know and have to figure in some awkward way like this. The faster I have to calculate it, the higher the probability that I am not going to be able to do it.
I failed every single time test ever given me in 4th grade. Except one. And it was not given by Mrs. Colquitt.
This might not have been so bad if not for two things.
The first was that Chris B was in in Mrs. Colquitt’s class as well. Chris lived next door to me. He was one day older than me. We were close friends and a good deal of the time rivals. And every time Chis’ name was called out before mine when papers were handed out in class I had to endure the humiliation of coming in second to him. Sometimes he did pick on me on the bus on the way home. But mostly, I don’t think he did. He was not mean to me, really. He was just another kid being a kid and I had to hold my own. But he was a symbol of my either being able to measure up or failing.
The other thing is that very quickly I did not care about the grade at all. The fact that I had a C in math did not bother me in the slightest. I had no desire to raise that grade. All my other grades were As. I could handle having one C. I was really fine with that. What I could not handle was the feeling in the pit of my stomach every single time Math started. The dread. It was overwhelming. Since Mrs. Colquitt knew I was struggling, she paid attention to me. She made me sit in the front. She called on me for answers. She singled me out. And I died a little every time she did. I got the same feeling of adrenaline you get on a roller coaster. My stomach dropped, my heart pounded, my face turned red and I could barely spit out AN answer, much less a correct one. All I wanted was to be left alone to struggle to figure it out in private.
If she had called me up quietly without letting all the kids know and asked what was wrong. If she had tried to work with me with understanding and not singled me out. If she had a tiny bit of compassion and did not make me feel like a colossal fucking idiot in front of every single person I knew. Maybe if she had done just one of those things I would have felt uplifted and understood instead of debased and shamed.
But she didn’t.
She decided I just wasn’t applying myself. So her solution was to take away my recess and make my write my multiplication tables 12 times each. That was 1×1 12 times, 1×2 12 times, forever and ever all the way to 12×12 (which I DO know off the top of my head is 144). I don’t know how long I missed recess to write those fucking numbers until my mind went numb. Someone do the math and figure up how many problems that I had to write, since I obviously can’t. I also had them for homework. Bitch.
Daddy always checked my math. He is a numbers guy. He went to Auburn for electrical engineering. He speaks math like it is a language or something. And he is fluent. I know he did not understand how I didn’t get it. He is not a words guy, so I have seen him struggle with spitting out the right word here and there over the years and I know that he gets numbers like I get words. Daddy is quiet and doesn’t speak that much, but he has a saintly patience I admire with all my heart. And so I know that when he would get frustrated with me when I was trying to understand math that I was really, really bad.
And I will tell you this. 4th grade was when I loved my Daddy more than you can imagine. He did 2 things that year.
First he realized that I had a problem transposing numbers when I copied problems out of my textbook. He had started out just checking the answers and he didn’t understand when my answers were marked wrong. 4932+2587=7519. Except the problem in the book was actually 2394+5287. Big difference. And I could not see it. I could not see the difference until he pointed it out to me.
The other thing he did was give me a timed multiplication test. He gave me 100 problems and told me to do them as quickly as I could and not worry about how long ittook me, just finish. See, in class I’d only be able to get as far as 50 before time was up. 90 seconds to do 100 problems and I could only get to 40 or 50. When I didn’t know I was timed I could finish. I missed a lot because there were ones that I just could not learn (weirdly, they were usually the odd numbers I could not remember), but I still managed to make a B. He had, of course, timed me. And I passed. With a glorious B!!!
Daddy told me after that night to tell Mrs. Colquitt that I would not be staying in at recess writing my time tables anymore. He said I would not be doing it for homework, either. He told me to tell her that if she needed to talk to him, she could call him.
My heart sang with love for Daddy.
But the damage was done. By the time I got to have recess again, all the other kids had made friends and I was the outsider. Worse. I was the stupid girl who couldn’t pass the time tests. No one wanted to play with that girl. I was one step above Becky-Booger-Eater (yes, that was a real kid. That was what they called her. I wonder now how she turned out). I got my snack and went and sat on that stupid cement dinosaur or whatever it was on the playground all by myself. If I tried to play with other kids, I was timid. And kids do not appreciate and understand timid when you are 9. I was easily rebuffed. I was not bold and confident anymore. I was shy and reserved.
And to this day I hate that horrible awful woman. I get a lump of anger in my throat just thinking about her.
I spent from 4th to 7th grade in exile. It was not until I met Starla in 6th grade, we became friends in 7th grade (and are still friends to this day) that I ever felt accepted again. From 9 years old to 12 years old I was a loner. I was friendless. I was the pariah that other kids bonded over making fun of. I retreated in to books. In 6th grade I read every Nancy Drew book the library had. I also read A Wrinkle In Time for the first time that year. It helped. Some. But Meg’s afinity for math made her seem unreal to me, although I could relate to her being an outsider.
But, even now, a deep part of me still feels that insecurity. I doubt any of the kids in my 4th grade class remember me from then. You have to understand that I went from kindergarten to graduation in the same school system, so there are plenty of kids who were in Miss Youngblood’s 1st grade class with me that I also graduated with. We all knew each other. Some of them may even read this as I am Facebook friends with many and I post links to my blog there.
Most of them will remember me as just another kid in school. I will remember 4th grade as the year I met the bitch that undermined and destroyed my confidence.
I know I am 40. I know that was literally a lifetime ago. But I still carry that feeling of keeping my head down and not calling attention to myself in most situations. I still refuse to speak up in meetings for fear of having the wrong answer. And I still pray that the floor will open up and swallow me whole when all eyes in the room are on me waiting expectantly. I still want to get back home to the safe place I have created as soon as possible. I equate being out in the world with being under assault. I feel when I am out here in the open I am being evaluated, and most of the time failing that evaluation. I want more than anything to get back home where I am safe and not being judged incompetent.
I look in the mirror and the face looking back at me does not match the person inside. The person in the mirror looks pulled together. I hear my voice when I answer my boss’ line at work and hear a confident woman. But it’s all an act. I am always thinking, “Just don’t fuck this up too badly. And for God’s sake, TRY not to sound like a blooming idiot!” I am always burning with dread when asked a question and I am not sure of the answer. I second guess myself. And I assume if a mistake was made, I was the one who made it, even though it usually turns out I didn’t.
I don’t know if this is why. But I do know that this was where it started. And there were other things that, had it not been for this deep humiliation, I would probably have handled differently. It is a wound that has not healed in 30 years.
And I hate math and multiplication almost as much as the bitch of a teacher I had all those years ago.