Not long ago, I went back to my elementary school, a Gothic brick-and-mortar fortress whose Escher-like stairs dead-end on floors that lie halfway between other floors and whose halls branch off into mysterious tunnels that suddenly disgorge a student into the cafeteria, or the girls' locker room, or the balcony of benches overlooking the auditorium that doubles as the gym. Like most people who hated school, I wasn't surprised to find my younger self crying at the back of this or that classroom, or staring up at some adult whose behavior had left me baffled, or wandering the gloomy stairwells, wondering if I would ever find my way out to a sunnier, less confusing, less confining life outside.
What startled me was how often I glimpsed the ghosts of classmates whose existence I had forgotten, the ones whose lives, even then, must have been far more troubled than my own, and who—even though there were fewer than one hundred students in my class—disappeared from my consciousness long before the rest of us had moved on to high school, let alone to college. Seeing those ghostly classmates, I wanted to bend down and comfort them, as I had comforted my own younger self. I wanted to assure them that everything would be all right. But I felt the way a doctor must feel approaching a patient who is waiting for a pathology report the doctor knows contains devastating news.
My own malady wasn't fatal, although it felt so at the time. The symptoms started in third grade, the day a stranger appeared at our classroom door and summoned me to the hall. My classmates and I were making cardboard headbands on which to glue the feathers we had won for good behavior. A good Indian was defined by her ability to walk to the bathroom without speaking to her partner or digging a finger in his spine. (That was the year we discovered just how vulnerable the human body is. Twist a thumb [End Page 62] between two vertebrae and watch your victim writhe. Place the tip of your shoe at the back of his rigid knee and effect complete collapse.) The edges of my headband kept sticking to my fingers. Not that I had any feathers to paste on the cardboard anyway.
"This is Mr. Spiro, the school psychologist," my teacher said. "He wants to talk to you in his office." Then she went back in and shut the door.
I had been causing a lot of trouble. The year before, my teacher had joked that she was going to bring in her dirty laundry to keep me occupied. In reality, Mrs. Hoos had the sense to let me do whatever I wanted, as long as I didn't disturb my neighbors. At the start of each day, I stowed a dozen books beneath my seat and read them one by one, looking up to see if she was teaching us something new, which she rarely if ever was.
I still love Gertrude Hoos, who was as lumpy and soft as the bag of dirty laundry I gladly would have washed if only she had brought it in. But my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Neff, was made of starchier, sterner stuff. By God, if we were reading aloud, paragraph by painful paragraph, I was going to sit there with my book open to the appropriate page and not read a word ahead. If we were learning to add, I would sit there and learn to add, even if I already had learned that skill at home by keeping score when my grandmother and I played gin.
Mrs. Neff gave me a workbook in which I could teach myself to multiply, but working in that workbook was a privilege and not a right. The more bored I grew, the more I misbehaved, for which I lost the privilege of working in my workbook. Multiplication began to seem like a meal I would never get to eat because I was too exhausted by my hunger ever to reach the plate. This continued until Mrs. Neff and I each wished the...