I am a very good student. I’m not bragging, I just happen to have been born with exactly the right traits to excel at school; I am interested in learning and do so quickly, I am a facile reader, writer and speaker, and I have an excellent memory. My father was a very talented musician and although he claimed he was only as smart as the next guy, his mastery of the daily Globe and Mail cryptic crossword belied his mental acuity. That notwithstanding, the bulk of my intelligence clearly came from my mother who was off-the-charts smart. She didn’t make a big show of her I.Q. in everyday life, nor did it manifest in her chosen profession. She was an emergency room nurse, highly capable and respected, but competence at her job didn’t require extraordinary intelligence. Every once in a while one would get a glimpse of how truly smart she was, but mostly she kept it under wraps.
My school was of course aware of my scholastic abilities, and consequently just before Christmas in the fourth grade myself and five of my peers were led into a seminar room off of the office. We had no idea what we were doing there. Eventually a woman we didn’t recognize came in and placed a stack of stapled papers facedown in front of each of us. She explained that we six had been selected to take the tests she’d just distributed because we were deemed the smartest students in grade four. We were handed pencils and instructed to give our completed tests back to her before returning to class. No explanation was given as to the purpose of the test, we were simply told that we were expected to finish it and could take as much time as necessary. So I did the test and put it out of my mind.
I didn’t think about it again until just before March break when Mr. Ling, my grade four teacher, called me to the front of the room. He announced that I, along with three students from the other grade four class, had done sufficiently well on the test to merit acceleration. The class was then directed to clap in recognition of my accomplishment, and a half-hearted smattering of applause ensued. I would be placed in Mrs. Jay’s grade five class for May and June, and come September would move on to grade six. I felt some trepidation at the thought of starting the sixth grade so soon as I was already small for my age and not nearly as developed as the grade five girls, but mostly I felt deeply proud at having done so well on the test.
It was time for morning recess not long after this announcement, so I put on my snow gear and headed out with my classmates. There was an ice rink in our schoolyard which was built and maintained by parent volunteers. This strikes me as something which could never exist in today’s climate given the pervasive perception that children are much more fragile now than we were at the same age. I immediately made my way over to the rink because my friends and I had an ongoing game of ice tag and I wanted to get there early to call, “Not it.” I had only just begun gliding along on when I was pushed hard from behind. I put my arms out to break my fall and the middle finger on my right hand hit the ice at an odd angle and broke at the second knuckle.
I was stunned and hurt as I righted myself into a sitting position, cupping my injured hand as I tried to work the mitten off to assess the damage to my throbbing finger. When I finally looked up to see who had pushed me, I experienced a revelation which hurt far worse than any physical pain could. My best friend Andrea stood glaring down at me with a look of disgust and triumph on her face. She furiously spat one word at me, “Browner!”, then turned around and slid away with the rest of my recess friends dutifully following behind.
By the time we reassembled in the room my finger had become markedly swollen and turned completely black and blue. I showed it to Mr. Ling who said I could still write if I adjusted my grip on the pencil or, better still, used my left hand. So I struggled through the rest of the morning, my physical discomfort proving much less upsetting than the mean-spirited whispers all around as classmates muttered support for what Andrea had done. In a split second I had gone from being just another kid in the class to a reprehensible traitor to the entire fourth grade.
Eventually we were dismissed for lunch and I managed to hold in my tears until I got home, but dissolved into helpless sobs as soon as I stepped through the front door. For some unknown reason my father, who was never home during the day, happened to be there. He gave me a hug and looked at my finger, asking why the school hadn’t called home when it happened so he could have come and picked me up. I explained what Mr. Ling had said and my dad, clearly furious at this point, told me that he was going to drive me back to school after lunch. I wouldn’t have to stay for the afternoon, but he needed me with him while he spoke to Mr. Ling.
So my dad brought me back to school in his enormous V8 Marquis Brougham, a car so massive that riding in it felt more like sailing than driving. Mr. Ling shot up like a jack-in-the-box when my dad entered the room and the two men shook hands as I introduced them to one another. Pleasantries accomplished, my father absolutely lit into Mr. Ling the moment they unclasped hands, demanding in his scariest dad voice what kind of idiot would expect a child to do work with a clearly broken finger. I don’t remember his tirade verbatim, but somewhere in there was an unvarnished threat that Mr. Ling would seriously regret it if anything along these lines ever happened to me – or any other kid in the class for that matter – again. My father then turned on his heel and stomped out with me in tow as I beamed with love and admiration for my new found hero.
The glow of that experience wore off when I went back to school the following day and found that Andrea had poisoned even more kids against me. I started to experience frequent “accidental” pushes and shoves, but was otherwise shunned entirely. The pressure on children to conform is so enormous that even my nicest classmates felt compelled to ostracize me, although they usually did so with apologetic looks on their faces as if to say, “What else can I do?”. The next two months were tremendously sad and lonely for me, so needless to say I was very happy when May finally rolled around bringing with it the promise of a new beginning in grade five.
I soon learned that the grade fives hated me for showing them up as much as the grade fours hated me for betraying them. I meekly came to class every day hoping someone would reach out to me. Surely there had to be at least one kind soul in the whole bunch who would recognize that I had neither chosen to be as smart as I was nor to have been placed in their grade. It turned out that the kids in Mrs. Jay’s class were just as loath to go against the tide as were those I had left behind in Mr. Ling’s, and I was once again ignored and subtly bullied until the summer break.
I spent the entirety of July and August friendless, and it was undoubtedly the most miserable period of my childhood. I am a baby boomer and consequently there were always dozens of kids out on the street, playing red rover, tag or my personal favourite, hide-and-seek. All of the kids made it clear early in July that I was no longer welcome in their games, so I would often go on solitary bike rides just to get away from them. Other days I would jump rope on the driveway while they played up and down the street without me. It was torturous to watch them having so much fun knowing I could not join in, but children are notorious for their thoughtless cruelty.
Finally September rolled around. I dreaded going back to school because I knew it would prove to be a continuation of the summer’s ostracism only in closer quarters. I was assigned to Miss Bonk’s class (yes, that was her real name.) Miss Bonk had been teaching since the time of the dinosaurs and was best known for three things; her ancient yet pristine powder blue Cadillac, her penchant for showing films instead of teaching, and her love of smacking students who displeased her with whatever object was close at hand. I saw her hit the same unfortunate lad with a ruler, a board eraser and a dictionary before we even got to Christmas. The three students who’d also accelerated were in the other grade six class so I didn’t have anyone with whom to share my misery, nor any other potential targets to syphon off some of my classmates’ cruelty. I swear I felt more alone in Miss Bonk’s class than I did by myself in the backyard of my house.
The year proceeded and it became clear in pretty short order that Miss Bonk really liked me. She had no patience at all for students who struggled, but she loved me because I was quiet, compliant and did extremely well on all my schoolwork. She made a habit of standing at the front of the room, brandishing my latest A+ paper above her head, and declaring in round tones,
“Children, Margaret has once again received the highest mark in the class and she didn’t even go to grade five! I think we could all learn a thing or two from her example.”
I would inevitably receive extra bullying at recess after such praise and over time I began to really hate Miss Bonk. Imagine being so bone-headed as to be completely oblivious to the nasty looks and shoddy treatment I received every time she held me up as some sort of academic beacon. After a couple months of this, a mantra would form in my head whenever she stood up with a piece of my work,
“Shut up, you stupid hag. Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!”
I think it was November when I finally had enough. Miss Bonk had just finished her latest ode to Margaret and turned to me, glowing with approval and adoration. She came over and carefully placed the paper she clutched in her bony hand on my desk as though it were a delicate flower. My rage at her stupidity finally boiled over, compounded by my ongoing resentment of the intrinsic unfairness of not having been consulted before being thrust into this situation in the first place. Almost involuntarily, an unbelievably disrespectful and rude comment escaped from my mouth. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember it evoked precisely the desired response. Miss Bonk physically recoiled as though she had been hit, and her face crumpled into a look of hurt disbelief. Bullseye!
I was sitting there feeling naughty and triumphant at the same time, unsure of what would come next but aware that my feelings at that moment would make any consequence bearable. In that silence I began to get a sense of some movement and murmurings around me, and as I shyly scanned the room I saw smirks and looks of appreciation on my classmates’ faces. Several even gave me a nod or an eyebrow raise acknowledging their approval of my outburst, and later at recess a couple of girls came up to talk to me and invited me to join their game. I regularly sassed my teachers from that point forward, questioning their authority and undermining it whenever possible, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that I also never went friendless again.
When I look back at my report cards there is a definite point where my teachers’ comments completely change in tone. I was a pleasure to have in class until grade six, and from then on I was an undeniably good student, but that mouth! It’s amazing how one incident in a lifetime of incidents can be absolutely seminal in forming a person’s character. That moment in Miss Bonk’s class accounts for my ongoing deep distrust of authority and my notoriously smart mouth. Those who know me can decide for themselves whether or not they should thank Miss Bonk for that.