Friday, May 6, 2011

Long Day's Journey Through Childhood


Over breakfast with some friends the other day, one woman, a mother, brought up the social and peer pressures kids now face in kindergarten. She was particularly distressed by the little Lucrezia Borgia who rules, mercilessly, over her daughter’s 5-year old set.

Oh, no! said everyone, aghast, hearing tales of bribery, intimidation, and social injustice. Not in kindergarten!

Not in kindergarten? Where did these people go to school?

I remember kindergarten as a thrilling experience, and not because we wore daisy crowns or skipped through meadows. Kindergarten was a mine field, a hotbed of intrigue, alliances, deception, redemption, betrayals, all laced with spilled milk and sticky fingers.

For many of us, it was the first real taste of both freedom and confinement -- moving beyond the grasp of parents and into the vise like grip of peer pressure that would tighten with every passing year.
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It was like getting thrown into the middle of a playing field without a ball. Without even a specific game. We had no rules, no object, no stated goal. In spite of this, we formed teams, and within our teams, we jockeyed for position. It was beginning to look like this whole life thing might be mainly a matter of position.

To this end, some of us developed, cultivated, specialties, primarily based on audience approval. For example, a public meltdown and temper tantrum over a piece of blue chalk could win genuine awe and respect, whereas a potty accident might ruin one’s entire social season.

My personal and most popular gambit was to correct the teacher, and this I did when she tried to teach us common German phrases. I already spoke German, so would helpfully point out any of her mistakes in grammar or pronunciation. “Miss Berry! Miss Berry,” hand waving wildly. “You’re wrong!”

This continued until she sent a note home with me one day. My father thought it so funny the story joined others in family legend; my mother, on the other hand, was appalled, and the homeschooling ended abruptly.

I don't think I felt ashamed; I'm sure I didn't. We were cute and sociopathic little puppies; doing the right and the wrong thing mostly by accident. Equally surprised by punishment and praise. Too young to read a moral compass, we put more of our energy into figuring out what it was adults wanted to hear. No wonder we needed a nap.

Back at kindergarten, I formed a posse, and recruited new members with shiny objects. We traded our glass jewelry and trinkets, not out of generosity, but to secure friendship, loyalty, and when necessary, to have something to take back again.

Niffer wore my pearls. Niffer wasn’t the brightest bulb, even I could see that. But I liked looking at her – so tiny and perfect. She'd do anything I said, so it was like playing with a living doll.

I met my first boyfriend in kindergarten, although I don’t suppose he knew it. I loved Todd Fisher. I loved Todd Fisher as much as I loved my dog – fanatically. Todd would walk to kindergarten with his holster and six shooter and white cowboy hat. He wore a string tie.

Todd stood apart, by himself on the playground, but he didn’t look scared or shy or anything. Just, I don’t know, somehow more knowing than the rest of us. He had big ears that stuck straight out from his head, and they’d turn red when the sun was to his back. I would slide my hopscotch marker way out of bounds, hoping it would land in his direction.

One day Niffer didn’t show up for hopscotch, she was standing with Todd in the playground. And when we all came inside for song circle, I saw Niffer wearing a string tie.

I cut her from my gang with a cold and surgical precision that I could only hope she noticed. As I said, Niffer wasn’t bright. Certainly not bright enough to correct a teacher.

Funny, at that age we may not have been able to count past 20, but that didn't stop us from trying to add things up.

38 comments:

  1. This so takes me back to my childhood days ".....doing the right and the wrong thing mostly by accident. Equally surprised by punishment and praise." I think I, too, must have lived in a haze during those early school years. One day my favorite teacher slapped my hand out of the blue, and I had no idea why, until I saw that all the other kids had packed up and were waiting to go home.

    I'm not going to feel sorry for Niffer - I think she got through her childhood OK if she lacked the ability to perceive the complex, unspoken language of girls.

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  2. I went to 3 different kindergartens in one year (my idiot parents moved amongst relatives' houses) and so don't remember it. I do remember getting up one morning for first grade at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, and learning it had burned to the ground overnight. Ach! The devastation! And, of course, the interactions with the bigger kids at the housing project's playground. Complex. People need to let their kids learn to stand up by themselves, no matter how much it hurts.

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  3. I would say we are all through the childhood analysis ... or are we not.

    Interesting subject!

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  4. I remember once once ...

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  5. Ahhh...memories of Kindergarten came flooding back after reading your post, although oddly enough, I seem to recall only two things: I peed in my pants the first day of class (skirt, actually, cuz it was a Catholic school), and I developed an unnatural fear and loathing of rulers (maybe because it was Mother Superior's weapon of choice). And we weren't even Catholic, but alas St. Vincent de Paul's was one of Taipei's few English-instruction schools back in 1970. Those were the days!

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  6. It's strange that you should decide to write about the vicissitudes of childhood socialization/socializing. It's been weighing heavily on my mind as of late due to a recent incident, maybe that's why I've developed a fascination with POV: Niffer could have been young for her age, a dim bulb, or completely nonplussed by all the hoopla, it just depends on your/her point of view (idea of truth). The business with your mother teaching you German and then quitting because she thought it was hurting your chances of fitting in - I have to wonder what I would have done in so many situations if I had had a girl instead of a boy. I don't know that I would have been as good a feminist as I like to believe I would have been with a daughter. It's kinda complicated.

    As for my kindergarten year, I fondly remember our class locking our teacher out of the classroom one day. It was in Nice, France, and we were located on a lower terrace level and there was a row of French doors for an entrance (I think it was an old estate home). We thought it was hilarious. I wonder how many of those students went on to protest during their university years?

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  7. All right, Lucrezia--
    my excuse is that I have no memory of kindergarten. Really. None.

    It must've been REAL bad!

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  8. Bellis, I'll quote your "complex, unspoken language of girls."

    Marjie, you and I moved a lot, and maybe that's why we tend to agree on many things.

    Cas, oh, that's a hard beginning.

    Paula, my dad taught the languages; my mom only knew Norwegian and English (which is at least one more language than I grasp today), but she feared the precocious.

    Des, but I'll bet you have good facial-recognition. Mine is horrible.

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  9. Niffer was a little tramp.

    Your kindergarten was much more memorable than mine. I liked Mrs. Blakeslee, the teacher. I remember playing in the sand box during recess, drinking warm milk from a wax carton, painting with water colors (I still have a painting where used a small sponge to swirl purple paint on a piece of paper), and playing musical instruments. Even then it was obvious I had no artistic musical talent. I wanted the triangle but always ended up with the sand blocks.

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  10. I'm pretty sure I was too much of a geek to be in your posse back then. Maybe now you'd let me in???

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  11. they say that everything you need to know, you learn in kintergarden. It looks like you already knew most of it! A five year old gigolo sporting a string tie can be quite a draw.

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  12. You have shattered my false memories of kindergarten innocence. Actually, I'm like Dez. I don't remember a thing.

    So, is that you at the head of the table holding court?

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  13. I'm in the Desiree/Susan camp. I remember next to nothing of kindergarten except vaguely what the room looked like. My mother kept a note the teacher sent home: something like "Petrea is a friendly child who needs to learn to share talking time with others."

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  14. I lost my undies in an unfortunate kindergarten accident, the details of which are simply too embarrassing to recount.

    I tossed 'em in the bathroom trashcan and returned to class with nothing under my dress (no pants for girls in those days). I thought the worst was over until my teacher announced that it was time for tumbling.

    I can still remember sweating bullets waiting for my turn to somersault. It never occurred to me that I should tell my teacher about my dilemma, but somehow I must've gone head-over-heels so quickly, and my skirt and petticoat (remember those?) were so voluminous, that nobody glimpsed my bare behind. Or at least nobody said anything.

    That was the first of many narrow escapes in my childhood. When I got home and lifted my skirt my mother just about fainted. We laughed and laughed about that somersault for years.

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  15. Wow, you have a good memory on you. All I remember from Kindergarten is playing house and peeing my pants once because I was laughing to hard. Perhaps, then, I was one of those potty-accident kids. But, I guess if I was laughing that's a good sign. I do think I liked Kindergarten. My teacher was young and pretty and kept a very rigid routine. Hmm, look at that, I guess I remember more than I thought. I

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  16. I love how you see and act in your world. 'Precocious' is probably an understatement...

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  17. I never went to kindergarten, but on the first day of first grade I and one of the neighborhood boys decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. It was quite a hike, but we knew (or thought we did) a short cut through a park. Needless to say when we didn't get off the bus, both mothers were in a panic. They ended up calling the cops and we were found at the park on the swings having a great time. You can only imagine the hoopla that ensued. Quite a memorable start to my school days.

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  18. So many things going on at such a young age. I wonder if Todd still wears bolo ties and Niffer prefers pearls. I too hardly remember kindergarten, except getting in trouble for refusing to color (and stay inside the lines) on a ripped-out page of a coloring book. I demanded a blank page, which did not go over well with the teacher.

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  19. I love some of these stories, and yes DB, I remember waxy milk. Karen's tumbling story wins the Almost Scarred for Life trophey.

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  20. I don't need to remember kindergarten. The stories here are memorable enough for me.

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  21. Wow, your kindergarten experience sounds like a season of 90210.

    I think I had it easy because for some reason there were only 2 girls in my kindergarten class. So we were best of friends and didn't have to fight this bond with any other girls. We also made one of the guys play house with us...the fact that he's gay now could totally be our fault. Or mayby we couldn't count to 20 but subcontiously knew somehow. hmmm.

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  22. Well....in the middle of nursery school I contracted the relatively new and misunderstood Mononucleosis...(one of the neighbor boys had it...we all used to play softball, football, and hide and seek...of course, I was teased no end about having the kissing disease along with Kent!!!) I was kept home from nursery school the second semester and from kindergarten the first semester. So by the time I got to kindergarten, bonds were already formed....My only other real memory of Kindergarten was when I pushed a wooden block off our little fort wall (towards the principal who was telling us we shouldn't have put it on end but instead laid it down to be more stable)....needless to say, I was in big trouble with that one!!! Other than that...I remember two of my favorite dresses and lots of blonde curls (that lasted for about 5 seconds before they were straight again)
    You certainly are masterful at painting the pictures that draw on our memories...and the photo!!! Who doesn't have one of these fab photos floating around in their box of family photos??? Perfection!!!

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  23. "May I have Miss Jones."

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  24. Oh Chieftess, mono in kindergarten? You were way more precocious than I.

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  25. If you had waited a few more years to be born you'd be experiencing your kodak moments in an array of magenta tinged ecktachrome prints.

    I was sent home with a note by the teacher suggesting my parents have me tested for retardation. True story; the bytch

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  26. Hah, this one is magenta, but I found the color so disturbing, I b/w'd it.

    I hope your mom didn't tell you what was in the note, not for a long, long time anyway.

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  27. I'm with Petra. Kindergarten is locked away in a place I don't want to look... your stories are close enough!
    Plus, reading your writings avoid the pitfalls my brain falls into!

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  28. Good story and a very good point. Kid's aren't the little paragons of innocence we paint them to be. I remember when I was a kid we knew if there was a dead cat in the neighbourhood was and would periodically go and check on itto see what was happening as it decayed.

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  29. PA, you were mos def way ahead of your time. We all know better, sweet child.

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  30. Most enjoyable. And to love ol’ Todd as much as your dog?! He musta been a hunk, ears or no ears. On another note, I bet you make at least five statements or implications about that age (at least with you and your crew) that could make for interesting discussion. (Well, I haven’t read the others yet; maybe it’s already begun). On a third note, I remember absolutely nothing about kindergarten, and it seems to me that most people who do are your gender. If that bears ANY accuracy, what do you think it amounts to?

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  31. The daughter of a friend of mine showed up at kindergarten one day with no underpants. She explained to the teacher that her mom, a physician, "is not too bright, but she tries hard."

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  32. Now I've looked at the others and see that a lot of us don't remember k., regardless of gender. So what's the profile of who does and who doesn't? I need a theory right now, or there'll be one helluva tantrum.

    P.S. I'm not 100% sure I even went to kindergarten.

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  33. What I remember from Kindergarten is Mrs. Wolfe, the teacher, nap time lying on the floor with blankets, the floor was warm with radiant heat, the cubbies where we kept the blankets, graham crackers and milk, and the time I thought I could make the walk home without first going to the bathroom.

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  34. Ohhhhh Banjo, you and I will always disagree on one point. I think very little of our personality is gender-specific. How and why something stays within our memory, that I don't know. What makes a signpost, what marks the trail?

    I know Earl's made me feel right cozy, though.

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  35. The science of memory says that it's the emotionally charged events we particularly remember: Things that caused great fear, joy, embarrassment, anger, etc.

    That's true in my case. The few fleeting memories I have of Kindergarten all have strong emotions related to them. The ho-hum days are not accessible to my memory at all.

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  36. I slapped a boy for kissing me. He cried and I looked very busy.

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