Mine was no exception. As a young person feeling my way through school, I viewed my education as something that was inflicted on me and left me with little power. As the story goes, the first day of kindergarten culminated with me staging a quiet, tearful protest under the dining room table.
It is impossible to write truthfully about my experience going through school without writing about my girl-ness, my girl form, the defining body; the way I experience the world. I was a girl in school and so the ways I found to get by were the ones that were expected of me as a girl.
Note: When you are female and small, it is considered perfectly acceptable for male people to touch you and move you around at will.
School was a small, elite, white place in a small, elite, white suburb. It was a state ruled by a single dictator: Irene Dahl, who monitored not only the state of your sailor suit uniform, but also the color of one’s shoes and the number of rings and earrings on your body. You were devastated every time the kids who got the good parts in the school plays were the soccer players who couldn’t act. Much later it was apparent that they were the kids whose parents donated large amounts of money to the school.
In school I was moved around at will. There was no place for alternative modes of being. There was right and there was wrong. There was girl and there was boy.
Boys acted out, girls acted in.
My older brother was the brunt of all kinds of boy-conflicts. He disrupted the class. He got pushed in the ravine. He switched to public school and then returned. He pushed people back. He was funny.
I learned silence. I learned keep your head covered ’til the wrath has passed over. At twelve I was burning the ends of safety pins in candle flames and pressing them into long scratches bumped with blood on my arms.
I hated my girl-body while I memorized facts and couldn’t do math and had my stories read out loud as examples to the class anonymously though it was never anonymous because there were only 25 of us, and we were sick of each other.
There were worlds in my head with rings on every finger, runnings away, the circus.
I learned anger was a thing that bigger, male-er people inflicted on others. I learned anger was not allowed for me. It swelled in lines along my wrists and thighs.
“My body is a witch/I am burning it,” writes Eavan Boland.
If school was a large part of the container for my girlhood– it was– then it was complicit in my silencing. It was complicit in my turning against myself.
School did not teach me the ease, the joy of being in my girl-self.
And because it did not teach those things, it agreed happily with the way things were. School and the patriarchy had a deal. They were confidantes. They were in collusion.
There’s another story embedded within this one. The story of the me that is white, growing up with opportunity. The story of this very same private elementary school, which led me to a similar private high school, which led to a degree from Brown University, where worlds were opened suddenly that spilled cleanly into my heart. Artaud. Rimbaud. Suzan-Lori Parks.
The story of a girl with resources, family support. Finances. The luxury of adventure.
I’ve taught students in many cities. I’ve taught kids in New York, in Idaho, in Austria and India. I am fast becoming a teacher in my west coast city.
And I am discovering ways to build a classroom that in every way urges student to speak– loudly, if necessary. In Spanish, if necessary. Angrily, if necessary.
The fact is, most students don’t have the resources I had.
Note: There are twenty nine boys and four girls in a class I teach now.
The boys act out. The girls speak very softly.
Think if you could turn all of those students toward themselves.