Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Highway Rest Stops and the Dreams of a Special Five Year Old Girl

Before my parents separated, I was what people would consider an "Air Force Brat". I was born into and grew up on a military controlled base where everything was extremely regimented. It's tough to explain how tightly every aspect of your life is controlled, unless you're directly employed by them, are a spouse of a military member, or are a kid born into the system. But the fierce domination definitely exists, especially when you live on base, as we did when I was extremely young.

I have no idea what the process was for regular kids entering kindergarten in the 1980s. But I do know what it was like for a five year old residing at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State. Fairchild is a base that is primarily used for preparing soldiers for Combat Search and Rescue and has numerous instruction fields with rope climbing walls, man-made lakes to swim through, simulated landmine exercises (and how to avoid stepping on one), and dedicated areas where men could practice jumping out of airplanes and perfect their pararescue methods. The process to qualify and train for combat rescue is intricate, extensive, and incredibly arduous. A lot of soldiers can't hack it and end up entering other military occupations.

So it should come as no surprise that on a base that prides itself in training the toughest beasts in the Air Force would have the most severe battery of physical and mental tests to qualify a five year old to enter kindergarten.

It's been 22 years, so I don't remember the exact details leading up to that day. I think my mom probably tricked me into cooperation by saying I was going to get to play a lot of games that afternoon. I was extremely gullible, as is any typical five year old. I was also easily persuaded by these French imported petit fours my mother always seemed to have on hand. All she had to do was give me one of those tiny little cakes, and I would happily do whatever was asked of me.

Big mistake that day.

I stared around the school gymnasium and was wholly terrified at the amount of sheer young children and adults. Several booths were setup and these adults were grilling children and asking questions like "If I take away two pennies, how many pennies are left in this pile?" or "Point to which block is BLUE" or "Put on these headphones and raise your hand every time you hear a beep."

It looked brutal. By then, my terror had given way to resentment. These were not games; they were tests. I rebelled. My mother patiently explained that by doing well on these tests, I would get to start school with all the other kids.

So I agreed to cooperate.

Kind of.

I ended up failing every single test presented to me. I didn't count the pennies correctly, I pointed to the block that was yellow, and I didn't raise my hand when the headphones instructed me to do so. I fell down when they asked me to walk down the yellow taped line on the floor, and I didn't appear to know the difference between a cat and a dog.

I ended up in Remedial Kindergarten as a result. This was the technical term for the class, but every adult referred to it as special. We were special children, unlike those other regular kids. Therefore, we got to be in the special class with the special teacher.

I remember when my mom got the news. I was in the living room, which was only a few steps away from the kitchen where our house phone remained.

"My child is special? Special?! So really, you're telling me my kid is retarded???" my mom blurted out.

"We don't like to use that word," the woman on the other end told my mother.

So the word that was used was special. It was always special when it came to my classroom and the kids that were in it.

But no one really told me I was special. It kind of came as a surprise. And not like a "Oh hey! It's your birthday and we threw you a party!" kind of surprise or a "Congrats on getting married! We're sending you on a cruise!" No. It was the kind of surprise where you go to use a public bathroom stall and realize the person before you didn't flush, and you really have to use the bathroom, but the mess they left behind will definitely NOT FLUSH, and there aren't any other stalls available, and a line of angry people are staring at you and waiting for you to hurry up and go pee so they too, can go pee.

I remember my first day of kindergarten perfectly, as if it were yesterday. I had picked out a matching two piece blue/black striped shirt and skirt combo with black Mary-Janes. I remember holding my brand new lunchbox with my brand new little backpack stuffed full of paper, pencils, crayons, a ruler, and a compass that would never ever be used (probably because we were special children). My mom took me to school, and I tightly held her hand as we walked through the long corridors to the classroom. My classroom. My special classroom. My mom took me inside, helped me put away my backpack and lunchbox, kissed me goodbye, and left.

That's when I started looking around the class.

All around me were twenty or so kids, but that's where our similarities ended. Most kids were spaced out. Some were drooling. A few were crying. One kid was in the corner of the room, rocking back and forth. Another kid was banging his head rhythmically into the wall. Furthermore, no one I said hi to, said hi back. They seemed confused and terrified by my interaction. But to the teacher and her assistant, they appeared to accept this as all perfectly normal.

But even I knew it wasn't normal.

I remember heaving a very sophisticated five year old sigh and plopping myself down at the desk that was clearly marked with my name on it. No, I didn't quite know how to read at that point, but my parents had taught me how to write my own name. Therefore, I could recognize it. I remember the teacher, Mrs. Beetle, giving me an over-enthusiastic high-five and a sticker for finding the desk that belonged to me.

Over the next several weeks, I felt more and more like I wasn't quite in the right class. I continued to receive unwarranted and zealous praise for doing the most simplest of tasks: Like remembering to pull up my pants after using the restroom. Or sneezing and using a tissue, instead of wiping my hand all over the wall. Obviously, I didn't know I was in remedial kindergarten. All I knew was that we got a special recess time and the kids in my class sucked at playing jump rope. They just stood there, gazing off into the distance as the rope hit their stationery feet. Every. Single. Time.

You would think that the head teacher would have caught on almost right away that I wasn't meant to be in remedial kindergarten. Unfortunately, I confirmed to the school authorities that I probably did belong in remedial kindergarten on several unfortunate and sadly serendipitous occasions.

There was the day that the school abruptly replaced the beautifully soft and exquisite black sand in the playground with smelly rough beauty bark. And when I saw the change, I bawled my eyes out and refused to come out of the classroom, despite the coaxing of my teacher that it would be okay.

"Sometime it's hard for special children to accept changes in life," she calmly said.

"I WANT MY SAND BACK!" I blubbered and hid under one of the desks. For the rest of the year, I adamantly rejected the concept of participating in recess.

Confirmation number one.

Then there was the three-foot tall plastic red shoe with the huge white laces that was supposed to teach us kids how to tie our shoes correctly. I don't know why, but that shoe terrified the beejezus out of me. We would have to stand in line and were given one minute each to tie the laces together properly. And every single time that it was my turn, I would start bawling and would hide under one of the desks.

Confirmation number two.

Then came the granddaddy day of them all. As part of teaching us communication, critical thinking, imagination (and other bullshit ideals that elementary school pumps us kids with), each week we had show and tell. Sometimes there was a theme, and I remember one week the theme was the colloquial "So what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Kids suck at this answer. They always have, and they always will. If you talk to a group of kids, you will quickly realize that in their world, only four or five occupations exist. Total.

Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher. Astronaut. Princess. And the last one doesn't even count. Stupid kids.

I remember that I was the last one to go that day, according to the order of the circle we sat in. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to be while each kid went their turn. When it came my turn, I felt confident in my answer. Mrs. Beetle pointed at me. I bravely stood up (not a requirement of show and tell), looked around the room, smiled at my fellow classmates, teacher, and her assistant, and I confidently said:

"I want to be the person that sells cookies and coffee at rest stops along the highway."

You see, I admired those people who had those little stands at the rest stops. It appeared they had their own business. They got to pick whatever kind of cookie and coffee they wanted to sell. Heck, sometimes they even baked them themselves! These people got to sit out in the sun and talk to different people every single day. Their booths were always so busy and the people selling the cookies and coffee were always friendly and smiling. Plus everyone likes eating cookies and drinking coffee, so it seemed these people got to make other people happy.

As a five year old, I didn't realize these were generally charities. I saw it as a complete business - and one that could be outdoors as well! I liked nature. I also liked talking to different people, so my career choice on this show-and-tell day seemed perfectly appropriate, fitting, and very smart.

I looked around the room for affirmation.

Instead, I got silence. Total fucking silence.

Final confirmation. Strike three: You're out. Call the parents and tell them that their child is no longer special; she's just flat out retarded at this point.

But as we all know, this is not how the story ends. Although I finished remedial kindergarten, I did not enter remedial first grade. In fact, I never had another special class ever again. Despite my transgressions, penchant for crying and hiding under desks, and wishing to work at locations primarily dealing with portable toilets, Mrs. Beetle managed to realize that the people who conducted the entry-level kindergarten tests had made a mistake. A big freaking huge non-special mistake. My mother said it had something to do with eventually teaching myself to read and then trying to get the other kids to learn how to read as well.

"Your child should have never been in this class. In fact, I'd suggest skipping first grade for her and having her enter second grade." Mrs. Beetle told my mother over the phone.

My grandmother was visiting at the time. My mother shared the news with her, and they both rejoiced. My mother would tell me of the conversation she had with my grandmother years later: "I knew Sarah wasn't handicapped all along. I knew they had made a mistake. I knew she was incredibly intelligent."

I do remember that my grandmother pulled me aside that day and had me sit on her lap in our living room. "Sarah," she softly asked in her perfect North-Londoner clip, "Why did you fail all those entry tests to get into kindergarten, if you were so smart all along?"

I looked back at her with my big honey-colored eyes and told her the truth: "I thought if I failed those tests, then they would say I couldn't go to school. And I could stay home with mummy everyday and watch soaps and play games with her."

My grandmother was speechless. She stared at my mother. My mother doubled over and starting laughing in a manner I had never seen her do before.

"Oh, those poor people that tested her" she said gasping for breath, "Oh my God...if only they had known they had been played by a five year old girl!"

No comments:

Post a Comment