I peaked socially in the second grade. That was the year I entered public school for the first time, after spending my early formative years in a private school so my mother could circumvent the cut-off date for Kindergarten and get me out of the house a year early. I was just six, and since it was 1977, I was allowed to walk to school unaccompanied.
I clutched my Trapper Keeper, full of three-hole-punched folders festooned with kittens, braved the wild streets of Zionsville, IN, and entered the halls of Eagle Elementary School. Wearing my smocked calico top that made me feel like Mary Ingalls, I took the desk that my smiling teacher pointed out to me and put my Trapper Keeper inside it. I lined up my pencils and plopped my pink eraser next to them.
The teacher assigned a beautiful girl with shiny honey hair to be my buddy and show me around the school. That girl went on to one day be a cheerleader and homecoming queen, and to this day is at the top of the A-List. She very importantly showed me the ropes of Eagle Elementary and let me play with her friends at recess. This lasted for a couple of weeks, and it was glorious. I really thought I had made it! I was in! I jumped rope and played four-square and got chased in kissing tag by the cute boys. My future was clear to me at age 6. I would be POPULAR.
Of course, it was too good to last. Being smart often means being weird. The day things started to crumble was the day I was pulled out of class during reading time. I went off with a special teacher who specialized in advanced readers, as it had been determined that I was reading on about an 8th grade level and would certainly be bored stiff in a second-grade classroom offering color-coded SRA cards and phonics worksheets. I adored my time with this teacher, who sticks out to me to this day because she had Breck-girl hair and seemed to understand that words, to me, were like oxygen. I needed them, or I would die. When I related this sentiment to the girls at recess after a particularly exhilarating reading session, they crinkled their pretty noses at me, called me a dork, and ran off.
At the time, I didn’t understand nuance or how to recover from insult. Fat tears streamed down my face and plopped right onto my copy of The Hobbit. Thankfully, no one noticed and I slunk off to read under a huge tree for the remainder of recess. That became my norm at recess. Once in awhile, I ventured over to the swings, but my brush with popularity ended as soon as it began.
During the rest of my elementary career, I collected an assortment of equally strange and wonderful friends who also loved words, saw everything in a different way, had the words, “is smart, but daydreams too much,” slashed across their report cards, and had to replace their library cards every three months or so because they got worn out. The high water mark of one summer was, in fact, the day the library acquired a laminating machine. Indestructible library cards! Oh the technology!
Throughout my school career, books grew in importance. Since we have established the rise and fall of my social status, one can well imagine how amazing it was to disappear into books, where any girl could captivate the popular boy. Or have secret mind powers that frighten the government. Or go through a wardrobe into a magical land. Or live in the shire. Nothing delighted me more than DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time in class. When a teacher uttered those words, I gleefully took my book out from its hiding place, usually behind some 70-pound textbook, and relaxed as the words soaked through me, changing me and my perspectives on the world.
Middle school brought on young adult books with racy themes. I remember furtively tucking my copy of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret between my math and history books so no one would see it. The Outsiders had violence in it I had never imagined in my small town. Gone With the Wind had the word “damn” in it. I spent countless hours at the town library reading Young Harlequin Romance novels, which I never admitted to a soul due to the shame of it (which was replicated in adulthood as I devoured the entire Twilight series in about 48 hours).
In high school, I discovered Hemingway and Steinbeck and Eliot and Tennyson and Joyce and Cather. During lunch, I would often read as I ate, the stories more important than the food. Sadly, I often ate alone, as my weirdness had only increased through the years. I had my tribe; the ones who understood me, but we were all kind of loners. I somehow muddled through.
Now, I am an English teacher. I still get the thrill of going back to school each year, and the immensely satisfying work of getting kids to see the joy in a book. I see myself in many of the readers – the glazed look, the glasses (which we all need because we squint a lot trying to read under the covers after lights out as youngsters), the 48-pound backpack. I am still not a social dynamo, but I’m okay with that. They still make books.