How Elementary School Taught Me to Hate School
This retrospective is a bit darker than most of my posts, and has almost nothing to do with gaming. It is a big part of the forces that shaped me into the person I have become, but there’s nothing directly related to tabletop. This has grown out of my ongoing work on my mental health, which has taken a special focus (with a home health psychiatric nurse and new antidepressant cocktail) in the wake of having a pulmonary embolism and being diagnosed with cancer. So if reading about the petty ugliness I faced in 1st-5th grade isn’t something you’ll enjoy please, skip this.
I hate school.
Growing up, I was the *only* person in my family who hated school. I barely graduated from High School, and flunked out of two semesters of college in a row. I was also in various “gifted and talented” classes, which I inevitably aced. It drove my parents, grandparents, teachers, and sometimes even my sister crazy.
But I didn’t start life hating school. I was taught to hate school, with lessons that were implanted far more firmly and effectively than reading (which I was already voraciously doing on my own before school gave me primers way below my ability), writing (which I came to only later, and only due to my love of geek media), and ‘rithmetic (which I also only turned to once gaming made it mandatory, although I had a great home environment and advantage for that one, and wow was it stupid for them to misspell one of the things they were trying to teach us when spelling was also on the curriculum).
Now, I’ll say up front — these events are more than 40 years old. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, memories subject to change over time, and children’s impressions aren’t always accurate. There was no Facebook or AOL to record these events back then, and I wasn’t journaling yet. So, the fine details and years might be off a bit. But these are defining moments for me, and my memories of them are extraordinarily clear. And the lessons learned? They were firmly installed and reinforced again and again.
I was among the youngest in my classes at every school. The cutoff for waiting to the next year was November 1st, and I was born October 28th. A few years after I started, they moved it back to September 1st, but I resisted being held back to repeat any classes by the time that happened. I already hated school, so an extra year of it? Out of the question.
I have exactly 0 memories of preschool. So, you know, it must have been fine. Maybe I was okay being taught to share, or blocks, or whatever the lessons at age 3-4 were.
I did half a year of kindergarten in California, because my father was a university professor on sabbatical. We had a cheap apartment in California, in a very multicultural neighborhood, and some of the kids began to teach me a little Spanish. But the bussing program required I be shipped far from that neighborhood to an entirely-white school, where I was told *not* to speak any Spanish, and where the teachers had no idea what turtle doves looked like. (That’s a different story.)
In 1st grade, we got a math problem on an in-class math sheet, which was simply “1 – 2 = ?” Now, we hadn’t been introduced to negative numbers, but my grandfather was a professor and doctor of mathematics. My father had a Masters in math, and was a professor of economics. In 1st grade, I perfectly well knew what negative numbers were. So, I wrote “-1.”
The next day I got the paper back, and that was marked wrong. Just a big red checkmark through it. There were only 10 questions on the sheet, and I got the other 9 right, so I got a 90%. But… why wasn’t the answer -1?
So, I took the sheet to my father that night, and he read it over very carefully, and assured me I was right. And he wrote a note on the back, and I took it back to my teacher. She read the note, and told me “Yes, that would be correct. Except we’re not doing negative numbers yet, so you shouldn’t use them in your answers.”
Back to my father, to explain why I was “wrong” after all. And then, for literally the only time in my life, my father went to school to talk to one of my teachers on anything other than a teacher-parent conference. (And by the time I was in 6th grade his alcoholism had progressed to where he didn’t even attend those anymore.) He wanted to know why correct answers were disallowed. The teacher assured him it was a typo, not supposed to be on the sheet. Okay, he said, but why are correct answers disallowed? Well, Owen got an A anyway, she said. Okay, but why are correct answers disallowed? I’ll change his grade, she said. But… why are correct answers disallowed?
She promised it wouldn’t happen again and, satisfied, my father went home. On my next paper, I was marked off for not writing all my last name. I ran out of room after “Owen S-t-e-p-h-e,” and figured that was good enough. No, my teacher told me, it’s not. And, did I want my father to come argue about it?
Right. Lesson learned.
And then constantly reinforced.
(That same teacher also claimed that men had 1 less rib than women, because God had taken a rib from man to make Woman. I *did* ask my parents about that, and they dispelled the notion. But since I had learned not to correct teachers, when they asked me where I had heard that, I just said “at school,” and never corrected the teacher.)
In 2nd grade, very early in the year, we were told to share something we learned over the summer. I shared, with great excitement, what I had learned about the Gossamer Albatross, the first man-powered flying vehicle to win the Kremer prize in 1977, for controlled and sustainable human-powered flight. The teacher interrupted me, and told me to talk about something real, not fictional. I explained this WAS real, and the teacher told me it wasn’t. The class laughed at me. She sent a note home to my parents, who also did not believe me. I had caught the news, and they had all missed it.
There was no Google to quickly find the news. I was 6, searching microfiche files wasn’t a realistic option for me. (I doubt I knew they existed.) For weeks, everyone I knew told me I didn’t know the difference between fictional shows on TV and news updates.
By the time my parents discovered it was real (and did genuinely apologize to me), none of the kids in class cared. I was the weirdo who thought TV shows were real. The teacher still didn’t believe me until I brought a note from home. Then she said she’d tell the class… and never did. Also, she was cold and harsh to me for the rest of the year.
It was another important early lesson. Being right was no defense to being mocked. Proving school authority was wrong didn’t help, and brought retribution. My parents couldn’t fix things.
Also in the 2nd grade I slammed headfirst into my best friend at the time as I was running out a door and he was running in. Got a lump on my head bigger than my mother’s fist, was knocked entirely unconscious. I had to get staples to hold my skull together. Twenty years later the scar was so bad that when I shaved my head to that it was visible, it made my grandmother unable to sit behind me when I drove her around. I had to grow my hair back out. (I suspect it’s not nearly that bad now, if it’s even still visible.) I don’t so much blame the school that this happened, but it certainly didn’t make me like the place more.
In 3rd grade, I ran into a teacher who rapped my knuckles with a ruler anytime I did something with my left hand, especially sign language. She wasn’t my home room teacher, but was in charge of numerous multiclass projects and assemblies, and would come find me and make sure I wasn’t being left-hand dominant. I don’t believe I was truly left-handed, but I did feel comfortable doing different things with different hands, and a lot of that was smacked out of me.
Also in 3rd grade, I was standing on the top of a piece of playground equipment (which I know was taller than any teacher, and I think was 10 feet tall), when another child pulled me off by my leg. I fell on a foot-tall wooden pillar. I cried my heart out. A teacher told me it wasn’t that bad, and I needed to just walk it off. I winced every time I took a step. When I walked home that day with my sister, she asked me why I was wincing. I told her, and assured her I was walking it off. I was still wincing when we walked to school the next day, and back again that afternoon. So, ignoring my pleas not to tell anyone (I had been told it wasn’t that bad, and disagreeing with teachers always made things worse), my sister told our mother, who took a look. The entire left side of my torso was purple and black. She took me to the doctor. I got x-rays, and it turned out every rib on my left side was cracked 3/4 of the way through. I got painkillers, and a buckle-on chest compression wrap to keep them still.
I do blame teachers for both dismissing the injury, and telling me to walk it off.
In 4th grade, we began playing flag football in PE everyday. I was, at the time, fairly sporty. I played community league t-ball and soccer. But I didn’t know the rules to football. And the teacher overseeing the games made no effort to teach us, or to even tell me what I did wrong when I messed up. And when he yelled at me for ignoring a fumble (I didn’t know it was a live ball), or tearing the flag off someone who didn’t have the ball (out is out, right?), the class would laugh at me for being an idiot.
(I also got driven out of soccer and the baseball tracks, and a little later out of wrestling, but those aren’t school-related stories.)
I could, of course, have asked another teacher or my parents to give me the rules. But I had already learned that proving a teacher was doing something wrong made your life harder, not easier. So, I just did my best to get benched, and swore to never take P.E. again if I could avoid it. (Which I did, from 6th-12th grade.)
Also in the 4th grade there was a girl I liked, who liked me. She lived between my house and my school, so I first ran into her on a walk to school. She liked boardgames. I liked boardgames. We began picking each other as partners for projects at school. Then I began stopping by her house on my walk home for a couple of hours to play boardgames with her. Simple things, like Pay Day (where I first heard the term “Flugelhorn,” which I thought was the funniest word ever). My family ended up adopting her family’s female orange tabby, when she moved away.
But before she moved away, there was an incident at school. She and I would sit at the end of the playground, and play with her ball and jacks. It was out of sight of most people. One day, a teacher spotted us going there, and came and yelled at us for “sneaking away to be filthy.” We were flabbergasted. I honestly had no idea of what we were being accused of. I was 9 or 10. We protested we were just playing jacks. The teacher slapped us both. She grabbed the girl, and hauled her off to call her parents. As far as I know, she didn’t call mine. She told me she wasn’t allowed to spend time with me anymore.
In 5th grade I had the most popular teacher in school. My sister loved him. He taught me a TON about WWII history, and math. (And almost nothing about anything else. — literally he and another teacher switched classes if there was a non-history, non-math topic.)
He also, famously, had a series of paddles for meeting out discipline. They had names. A few had holes drilled in them, so they’d whistle when he swung them. I got paddled more than a few times. This was always done publicly, in front of the whole class. Also, sometimes he’d bring you up, loom over you, and swing the paddle behind you a few times. The whoosh would let you know it was coming… but maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes he took 1-2 test swings. Sometimes 5. Sometimes he just began paddling (to which the class counted off to whatever number he said it would be). Sometimes he took a few test swings, then told you to sit down.
I got paddled more in that one year than the entire rest of my childhood. Of course my parents were very, very sparing with corporal punishment. But the lesson learned was the *most* popular teacher in school, the one my sister and parents gushed about how lucky I was to have, would hurt me more than any other adult I knew.
So, school was where I would be mocked, teachers would often be wrong, correcting them led to retribution, me being harmed was normal and sometimes praised, I could be accused at any time of wrongdoing and lose friends over it, and there was nothing my family could do to help, and if they tried it made things worse.
By the time I moved schools for 6th grade, my hatred of school was well-established and, sadly, baffling to my family. I didn’t tell them about these events, of course. I had learned– that made things worse. In fact, on more than one occasion my mother desperately tried to get me to tell her what was wrong. Why was I silent that day? Why did I hate schooling when I loved learning? Where did that bruise come from? She got so frustrated and worried that I woudn’t tell her, she sometimes cried.
So I learned to lie, fast and efficiently. Make up anything to prevent her from trying to help.
And it has taken a LOT of therapy to even begin to be able to address most of this. Really, this story has no end.
And neither does my hatred of school.
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Posted on April 3, 2023, in Retrospective and tagged Mental Health. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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