Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Beth Owens
English 201
Essay 1
October 2001

But I Didn’t Know How to Be Different

Mrs. Anderson, my first grade teacher, has just announced to the class that each of us are to pick up our chairs, quietly and orderly, and move them to the front of the classroom for "reading circle." Just like so many other mornings, we willingly comply by arranging our chairs in a semi circle facing her. As one of my classmates begins to read I have my own idea of how to improve today’s reading circle. Slowly and deliberately I slip my hand into my pocket to locate that hidden jawbreaker. I must be very quiet so that the teacher won’t find out. When Mrs. Anderson turns her attention to the classmate that is currently reading aloud, I quickly pop the hard candy into my mouth. Yes! She didn’t catch me. While I sit back in my chair, smugly sucking on my sweet treasure, I suddenly and unexpectedly hear "Beth, will you please begin reading?" As all of the kids turn to face me, it feels as if their eyes are boring right through me. My heart begins to race wildly, my face feels hot, and the palms of my hands become sweaty – slowly and very deliberately I begin to read. Only a few words slip past my lips before I begin gasping for air. Oh no… I’m choking! Unable to breathe, I struggle to cough up the jawbreaker. Seconds felt like minutes. . . .

This choking incident in my first grade class was only the beginning. Years of rebellion and embarrassment or possibly the other way around, embarrassment and then rebellion allowed me to slide into a justifiable future of underachievement and the acceptance of the underachiever role. I lacked basic social and learning skills that my classmates seemed to possess. This reality filled me with a constant feeling of anguish.

Mrs. Anderson was not interested in helping me get around those feelings of anguish and despair. And she was definitely not interested in letting me get away with constant daydreaming and distractions, or the poor work that these generated. I did my best to fill in the blanks and match answers to the questions, but one by one, the worksheets would eventually slide off my tiny wooden desk onto the black and white tiled floor – lost were the worksheets and my attention. Trampled and smudged, almost beyond recognition, I would retrieve them to continue working. Adding to the current state of messiness, I would do my best to erase any mistakes, but what I got were tiny triangular tears caused by the metal casing around the worn down or nonexistent pencil eraser.

The torn and messy papers I turned in must have been pathetically unacceptable. Mrs. Anderson took it upon herself to construct a large sign made of stiff cardboard, looping a connecting string through holes in the upper corners. Handing me the sign, she instructed me that I must wear this throughout the entire recess. As I turned the sign over to slip it around my neck, I saw what it said… "PIG."

It was scary to be so conspicuous on the playground. My classmates and the "older" kids stared, pointed and laughed. They definitely laughed. I felt like running away, but where could I go? I wore my sign and endured the embarrassment. Why can’t I just fit in? I just wanted to blend in like everyone else. Why can’t I be different? I wanted desperately to be different – but I didn’t know how to be different.

Equally as embarrassing as having to wear the "PIG" sign, was when Mrs. Anderson divided the class into groups based on our reading abilities. The books we received were color-coded. Each color denoted the reading level – Dark blue was for the best readers, next came green, then black, and finally … brown. That dreaded color, brown. I cringed as that brown book moved closer and closer to my desk. Once again, it seemed if all of my classmates’ eyes bore right through me. Inevitably there would be subdued snickering and nudging amongst the smart readers. As always, the kids would know I was in the "dummy" group. Oh, how I longed to be a dark blue reader. The longing was palpable. I felt an intense jealousy toward all of the smart readers. I hated every last one of them…but most of all – I hated myself for not knowing how to be different.

Even when Mrs. Anderson handed out the "Weekly Reader" booklets for us to look through, an inner voice still screamed dummy! Dummy! Everyone knows I’m a dummy reader. As we sat at our desks deciding which books we wanted to buy, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement. We got to order books and then take them home to read. I promised myself each week that this time would be different. I was going to read every single page, just like my older sister, Ramona, always did. My mom was so encouraging when she allowed me to pick out my new favorites. Looking back, I’m sure she must have known from my history that I would not finish them – I never had – and yet she never uttered a single word. When I brought my treasured "favorites" home, they would eventually end up lost on the school bus, left out in the rain, or simply left lying around my bedroom, untouched.

First grade proved to be a very difficult beginning. I carried the scars of frustration, humiliation, and most of all, feelings of inadequacy through elementary school right into junior high. It was painfully clear that I wasn’t measuring up to the expectations of my teachers, parents, or myself – but I didn’t know how to be different. I felt trapped.

As I entered junior high, the academic stakes were higher. To conceal the truth of not knowing how to keep up with my classmates, or even how to stay focused, I decided to be very good at being very bad. I was determined that no one would ever make me wear a sign again, and no one would have the upper hand, except ME. I was going to be the one in control.

In class (and even outside of class), I was the troublemaker. I spent a good deal of my time scheming at what I could do to get attention from my teachers. A perfect example of this defiance was seen in eighth grade, Mrs. Sanders’ social studies class. One day I took it upon myself to represent my classmates and their disdain for her. I intentionally poured perfume in the old class radiator to intentionally set off her allergies. This went against the previous warning that the "young ladies" in her classroom must NOT wear perfume. In Mr. Shwitters science class, I just happen to make off with his thermometers. My friends would join me outside to break them open and play with the mercury.

Lunchtime proved to be no different than the time I spent in the classroom. I challenged the principal with the "no contact" rule by intentionally timing a kiss on a boyfriend’s face, right as the principal walked by. Worst of all was when the fire department had to be called to the school because I set the woods on fire while I smoked with my friends. Twice I was expelled from school. There were so many more incidents that I don’t need to detail, but the point that I’m trying to convey is the sheer desperation of a young girl slipping through the cracks (me). I was crying out for help, but nobody was able to help. My poor parents didn’t have any idea what to do with me.

My parents were frustrated with me, and their frustration was legitimate. They observed my study habits (or lack of), and had no recourse but to lock me in my room, figuratively speaking, to "encourage" me to complete homework assignments. "Don’t come out until all of your homework is done!" they would declare. I can’t recall if they ever looked over the finished work, because homework grades were pretty marginal.

If it weren’t such a struggle for me to grasp what was being taught, I don’t think I would have felt the need to put on the "tough girl" façade. I don’t believe I would have created such havoc for my teachers and parents. Where were the tutors that could have helped? Why was I allowed to continue from one grade to the next as if there wasn’t a serious problem? Again, I didn’t know how to be different.

As I entered high school, some maturity kicked in, and I began to grow tired of all the negative attention. But by this time I was so far behind that I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to know. I had become very good at faking it. I found the best way to fake it in high school was to get "involved." I could get around the academics by getting involved in sports, government, or whatever – I chose the "whatever" by trying out for cheerleader, and was chosen. I discovered quickly that teachers allowed more liberties to these "involved" students; so involved I became.

Now there would always be a supposed "mandatory" meeting to attend, or something that had to be decorated for a particular upcoming event, or a sign that had to be made, and the teachers believed it. Gosh, did I ever think I was getting over on them. I continued to slide through classes, not learning what I should have been learning. At the time, I thought the joke was on them, but over time, I realized the joke was really on me. I’m the one that’s going to graduate high school semi-illiterate.

For my senior year, I got to go abroad. My father was transferred with his job to Italy, so I completed my last year in a military school. I needed so few credits to graduate, that the year was spent traveling – and definitely not learning. I spent a total of 2 ½ years in Italy before returning to Washington. Upon returning, I entered the University of Washington as a freshman, where I began sitting through lectures that seemed to spiral faster and faster. So much of what the professors taught went right over my head, because I didn’t know how to take notes properly (or fast enough to keep up), or how to stay focused, or even how to incorporate study habits into a very unstructured lifestyle. It came as no surprise that I lasted two very long quarters before dropping out. I was only 20 years old at this point, and I decided school must not be for me.

There came an unexpected turn in my life at the age of 27. A girlfriend invited me to join an in-depth bible study. She explained this was a class that would take hours of preparation and study each week, but I knew there was no grade involved, so I decided to accept her invitation. It was as if someone had flipped a switch on that had never been flipped on before. I actually felt somewhat competent and secure amongst these women my age. For the first time in my life, I was sitting in a classroom setting without feeling judged. I even began picking up a novel here and there, until my reading appetite became voracious. I ended up completing 5 years of studies in this program.

It’s not clear to me why, at the age of 27, my life changed so drastically – particularly in light of my past learning difficulties, inferiority complex, and overwhelming frustration with the whole academic system. What is clear, is that a spark ignited somewhere deep inside of me, continuing to burn hotter and hotter over the past 16 years until I had to squelch it, or literally go up in a ball of flames.

I enrolled at Whatcom Community College at the age of 42. Being in a school environment again was terrifying at first. I began to hear that old familiar voice screaming—dummy! You’re a dummy reader. Everyone is going to know. . . .I still have anxiety about doing something embarrassing in class, just as I did so many years ago, I still have anxiety about not measuring up everyone’s expectations, but I know it’s the chance I have to take to complete my schooling and feel like I’m on the same playing field as my contemporaries. I read a piece by Langston Hughes that summed up my innermost feeling:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it just explode?


Copyright 2001
Beth Owens


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA