On my first day of Kindergarten, I watched the other five-year-olds. Some were clinging to their mother’s skirts, some had tears and dripping noses, some where even whaling pitifully as they begged not to be left behind. Not me. I was finally on my own and I was going to have a great time. I was sure of it.
Instead, I entered a room full of rules that were as rigid as the wooden blocks stacked neatly in the corner. My fellow classmates and I were called into the school by a bell and not allowed to leave until the bell rang again. We were taught how to raise a hand before speaking. We were required to ask permission to go to the bathroom; how punitive it seemed. It wasn’t the independence I had hoped for when I cheerfully waved good-bye to my mother and set off on my own.
The Elementary School principal had wanted to keep me from enrolling in public school. Her reasoning was that I might be seriously injured on the playground. My mother presented a doctor’s letter certifying that I was fit enough to go to school with the other children. The principal was not assured, and she assigned me to a bench with the naughty children during recess each day. My sentence on the bench lasted seven years. It was enforced when the other children went outside to play and even when they were indoors during recess. Apparently the Principal believed that learning to square dance would also be hazardous to my health.
Some days, I sat alone on that hard wooden bench. Other days I shared the space with another child. We understood what it meant to be labeled as broken, or too much trouble in the classroom. Many of these children became my best friends. I worked at enhancing the myth that the bruises on my legs and arms came from fighting in the schoolyard. It wasn’t hard for me, I had a quick temper and was unafraid. Besides, I had the reputation of sitting on that bench each day while the good children were allowed to play.
There was also a hint of truancy in my files. Each time a report card was sent home to my parents for their signature it noted the number of days absent. The total absent always exceeded the number of days in attendance. Each of the bruises needed ice, elevation and rest to stop the internal bleeding. After a tumble or scraped knee, I would spend at least a week in bed.
The forced inactivity bottled up my anxiety like compressed steam. The longer I was out of school, the less I wanted to return. My stomach would tighten as I realized that soon my mother would be writing one more succinct letter of excuse to the teacher. I worried about what the other children had learned that I had missed. Would there be a test that day that I would fail? In truth I often returned to the classroom having learned more at home than those who had perfect attendance records. That didn’t matter though; I knew I belonged on the naughty bench. That was where the “stupid” children sat.