Mar 19, 2007

About 10 years ago, I read a book, but I can't remember the title, damn it, (I sound like GW, don't I?). Now, here I go off on George Bush again, who obviously thinks he can read more than "Tip and Jane". Tip and Jane, a first grade primer. In first grade I used to cheat and read ahead. We were divided into reading groups back then, the Bluebirds, best readers, the Redbirds, good readers, and the blackbirds, doing their damnedest to hang in there. I was reading 4th grade material when I started first grade. Not to brag, but to illustrate my first encounter with prejudice.

Coming from the poor side of the holler, where the honeysuckle twines, I went to school with kids from a new part of the community--the suburbs. Their houses looked like mansions to me, and even at six I became acutely aware of the vast difference in life style between my school mates, and myself. For one thing, they went to town to buy their clothes, while my mom got ours through the mail. Which meant when they got their new shoes, they actually fit! No blisters, no agony, just shoes. This was back in the day when little girls wore dresses, and boys wore long pants that fit. I was a tomboy, and putting me in a frilly dress was like putting a new suit on the town drunk. It looked OK, but just wasn't right, somehow. And I actually lived pretty close to the town drunk, who was a fascinating man in that my mother told me how very wicked he was. My older sister, the neighbor boy, and myself spied on him every chance we got.

Anyway, I digress. In school, though, when called on to read, I glanced at the page, looked up and told the teacher what was written there. She admonished me for not looking at my book when I read, which frustrated me as there were about four or five words on each page, and was that really reading? I was a Redbird. I read better than most of the Bluebirds, but I was still a Redbird. I couldn't figure this out. Was it because I was tall? Up until high school, I was usually one of the tallest kids in my school. (I was 5'5" in the sixth grade.) So I was decidedly different from the other kids in that respect. I also called a paper bag a poke, I did not have inside plumbing, (a secret I soon guarded from my classmates), I had never been to a movie theater, and I didn't know any of the other kids. I felt out of place, and wanted nothing better than to run away and become a jockey. I loved horses with a passion, and my best friend was a pony named Bill. But that's another story.

It didn't really dawn on me that we were that poor until we started doing handstands and cartwheels waiting for the bus after school to take us home. Since ours was the last stop, all the 'city' kids didn't see where we lived. As for the handstands, the girls were required to wear shorts under their dresses in order to do this. I mean, we didn't want the boys seeing our panties did we? I did not possess any shorts, so my sister got the idea that I could wear a pair of Daddy's boxer shorts. So I did, and the next day, while waiting for the bus, I did my handstands and cartwheels, and one girl started laughing at me. I stopped and looked at my sister. "What is she wearing? Bloomers?!?" the girl laughed. Which of course made the other kids laugh. I didn't really care, but looking at my sister, 4 years older than me, seeing the way she stood, head down, tears in her eyes, but bravely defending me, I decided not to do anymore handstands or cartwheels. Right then, at that moment, I realized we were different. We were poor. We didn't live the same way as my classmates. And it just popped in my head, 'That's why I'm not a bluebird!' I wasn't good enough. Not academically, but socially. I didn't know these words, but the I knew the gist of them. And I decided at that moment to keep our home life a secret. I would never have a friend spend the night, unless they were related to us in some way. And I would never fit in at school. I would still always dream about running away, but my mother had me convinced she would die if something like that happened, so I was stuck. I missed as much school as I possibly could, and still made the honor roll, but not one teacher ever wondered why. They pretty much just bitched at me in front of the class for missing so much school, which really made me a target for even more ridicule.

I learned how to not draw attention to myself. Oh, I wasn't entirely friendless. I always got along with a few kids, and of course there were times when I had fun, but mostly it was a waiting game to get out of school. I always felt much older in some ways than the other kids. And, there was always my Mother to take care of at home, full of her fears and delusions, which was another big secret. My parents never went to the schools for PTA, or for special programs. My mother never left the house period. I learned later this was agoraphobia.

But the thing that sticks out in my mind the most, when all is said and done, is not being a Bluebird. Would my life have been any different if I was? Should my life have been different? Would I still be able to relate to all kinds of people, regardless of their social standing, or economic status, in the same way? Poverty is like a coating of dust that clings to you, no matter how much you rise above it, that thin film is always there. But, it does make you resourceful, and teaches you to survive in whatever situation you find yourself in. And it helps you understand that you are no better than anyone else, and, ultimately no worse.

I look back now and wonder what secrets my classmates hid, and if their day-to-day lives were that much better than mine. I may not have been a bluebird then, or a bluebird now, but I'm the best damn mockingbird you'll ever find. Damn it all.


Anne said...

What a great post. I never felt like I fit in at school either, and the teachers always seemed to underestimate me. I'm not sure why. I did the work just the same as any other kid, but the teachers seemed to play favorites. That has always annoyed me, and makes me wonder if my life would have been different if they had been able to appreciate my talents. To this day, I have a very negative opinion of most teachers, and I'm surprised when I meet one who actually seems to care and understand children. I've learned a lot more on my own than I ever did in school.
It's amazing how many of us felt like oddballs when we were kids. You make a great point, maybe a lot of us actually felt that way but didn't show it.

No said...

I remember reading Tip in kindergarten..I loved that book..I was actually kind of slow to reading and had to go to summer school, but once I started reading, I couldn't this day, my favorite thing to do is read...I was in the slow group in kindergarten (called the green group) and damn, I never did make it out of that group!!!

Bardouble29 said...

Wow, I feel like I just read a story of my own life. I too was poor. My mom bought me close at garage sales (she would say if its over a dime, its too much!) or I got church hand me downs. My mom also made me climb through trash bins to pulls out bottles and can so we could get a few bucks to buy bread and milk. I always felt out of place among my peers too.

Sorry, didn't mean to write so much, I wanted to say thanks for stopping by my blog. I would like to link you if you don't mind.

The Future Was Yesterday said...

You obviously have touched the heart strings of several, and here's one more!:)

My "thing" was basketball. I'd watched a few practices before I walked home, and had a vague idea of how the game worked, but no formal instruction. But the first time I could try out for the team, I did. I was better than 99% of the rest right out of the box. But I never got to start, becaause nobody had ever explained the rules of the game to me. That was always my "Redbird."

Thank you, for a wonderful post!!!

dawn said...

Thanks for leaving me a comment I'm glad to see an old friend. This was a powerful story but you made it out fine. I grew up in the city not rich or poor but I see the difference now with my kids friends,next to them we are poor(money wise) but much richer in life in general.

betmo said...

you seemed to be writing my school story too except for some reason the teachers expected more of me than the others. perhaps it's because i didn't cause any trouble. i was painfully shy so i tried to blend in as much as possible and i don't remember much. i think kids who are smarter or read better are often stigmatized and if you are poor and smart- it's heresy. our culture reveres popular not smart. i am glad that you persevered. :)

just me said...

I think all of us carry some baggage from our school years. And the ones who didn't fit in, the nerds, the poor, the minorities, seem to be the ones who are driven to accomplish their goals. For many the years they spent in school will be the high-light of their lives. And that to me is sad.