When Dad passed away, his archives became available to us. Years of records, a file folder on every child, every property, every pet, every business. Most of my folders included drawings, birthday cards, the occasional award or picture but a fair chunk was dedicated to the history of my education, non-traditional that it was.
I was a parenting experiment. All children before me attended some form of traditional schooling, public or private, skipping a grade here or there. Raoul and Linda both started college at 16 but otherwise the older seven kids were within the range of common. My parents decided to buck the industrial schooling system entirely with me: Total home education. What this meant in the 1980s is that once a year I would go to the local elementary school for a few hours a day one week a year to participate in standardized tests. Providing I performed at or above grade level, the state would allow us to continue home education.
This once-a-year testing event was my only contact with children who didn’t share my genetic makeup. All those experiences you may not even register as experiences were new to me.
The first day of third grade assessment, my mother dropped me off at Mountain View with Miss Fredericks. Mother pressed some money into my hand. “You’ll need this for lunch. Just follow the other kids.”
Miss Fredericks showed me to my seat as I watched the other children file in laughing and joshing. They had backpacks, lunch bags, Thermoses. I had only a dollar in small coins and a number two pencil and sat quietly.
Miss Fredericks called the students to attention. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
I stood. The other children did as well, placing their right hand over their left side. I imitated. Staring solemnly at Miss Fredericks, they started speaking in monotone words I had never before heard. I moved my lips and mumbled along, not knowing what I was saying or why. “Please sit.”
My favorite part of test taking is filling out the Scantrons. It’s soothing and there’s something lovely about seeing everything line up so beautifully. Everything matches. There’s only one correct answer. Also, I complete tests like nobody’s business. The timer started, I was the first one to finish. Miss Fredericks took my sheet and I went to leave the room.
I turned. “Yes?”
“Where are you going?”
I blushed. “To the restroom,” I stage-whispered.
“You need a pass.” Someone in the class giggled. I walked back to the teacher’s desk.
“Yes, you can’t leave this room without a pass. What are you going to the restroom for?”
If it were possible, I blushed deeper. “I need to go.” Did she want me to be more specific?
Miss Fredericks leaned over her desk and scribbled on a small slip of paper. “You have five minutes.” I slunk out of the room, embarrassed that the need to use the facilities was now classroom knowledge.
The rest of the day was a similar fish-out-of-water experience. Standing in line to get lunch, opening milk cartons, addressing teachers by their last names was challenge enough eclipsed only by trying to find a place to sit at lunch. On the way out, a pair of girls walked up to me.
“Hey, aren’t you taking tests with us this week?” asked one. “You’re not normally in our class,” stated the other.
“Yeah,” I smiled, happy to have someone to talk to. “I’m home-taught. Just here to take tests for the week. I live over there,” gesturing to a house on one of the hills a short distance from the school.
“Yeah, we get kids like you here sometimes,” said one. I nodded and kept walking with them back to class. The other girl grabbed my arm. “Hey, I just thought you’d want to know. There’s a hole on the back of your shorts. We can see your panties.” And just like that, they were gone. I went home and raided my older sister’s closet for something to wear the rest of the week. A midriff bearing t-shirt on Lynette was still full coverage to me, no JC Penny bargain basement hand-me-downs for her.
Occasionally I was allowed to stay at the school for the entire day’s learning. This could’ve been as likely facilitated by my parents’ inability to pick me up on time as it was to allow me to see what school was like. Later in the week Miss Fredericks announced we could bring in our favorite book to share or write a short essay to read in class. I brought my collection of short stories by Oscar Wilde.
Brooke raised her hand to be the first one to share the story she brought. As she walked to the front, I could see she had glasses, too, with thin wire frames. Her hair had a spiral perm and she wore high-tops.
The Baby-sitters Club. I’m proud to say it was totally my idea, even though the four of us worked it out together.
Several girls inhaled sharply, a few whispered “Oh, I love this book!” I’d seen books like these but wasn’t allowed to read them. Miss Fredericks smiled encouragingly at Brooke. Inwardly, I shrugged.
Zac, a thin boy with spiky blonde hair, brought his own composition. I was impressed since my writing accomplishments as of that time included a few jokes submitted to the local newspaper and a couple made-for-home-video screenplays involving my sisters and an over-sized stuffed bear.
I have a stuffed dog that looks like Spuds MacKenzie. He is a white Bull Terrier with pointy ears and a black nose. He is dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. If you turn him over you can see his poop-hole.
The teacher and the class laughed. Poop would be one of the many words that itself was forbidden use in our home but had a dozen euphemisms. I was shocked.
It was my turn.
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
I peered owlishly through my glasses. Brooke twirled her hair around her index finger and I’m fairly sure Zac was picking his nose, wiping it on the underside of the desk. The other children appeared, well…bored but I kept reading. Miss Fredericks walked over and placed her hand on my shoulder. “That was lovely, thank you.” I returned to my desk. No cheers, no tears, no comments from the students. Just a feeling that I’d totally missed my mark.
That night, Dad and I had one of our nightly talks when I shared with him how sad this reading made me.
“Why didn’t they like the story, Dad?”
“Because, honey, they just read whatever is popular. You study what is classic. They won’t understand you.”
“But I want them to like me!”
“Who cares? You only need to like yourself. I think you’re smart and pretty. Who cares what those other kids think?”
“Dad, I want to go to school with the other kids.”
“Honey,” he said, “I’m not going to send my daughter to a public school where they try to tell you what to think.”
“But, Dad, I want to have friends! Why do I have to always be in the house?”
He pretended to think for a moment. “I can send you to school with your mother. Maybe you can take classes there.”
“At the university?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Because I’m 8.”
Dad got his impish look and gave me a half-smile. “Who cares? Let’s try it.”