Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Gifted Class

Skipping ahead a bit in my memoirs to the nightmare that was 6th grade. Names of people and the school have been changed, and I've intentionally left out the name of the town. Warning: this contains some material not suitable for children. It's pretty sad when something that happened to you at 11 is "not suitable for children," isn't it?

The Gifted Class
By Deana Nall

Loaded down with books, my gym bag and a clarinet, I trudged into the school building. Baker Middle School. We students called it Baker Mental School. It housed our small town’s 6th and 7th-grades. Despite its location well within the borders of the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, Baker functioned as an isolated, totalitarian society. There were no extra-curricular activities. Those didn’t start until 8th grade, in junior high. Baker had no sports teams, no school colors, no mascot, no yearbook and no student government. Teachers were stationed in the hallways between classes, yelling at us to “keep to the right” while we changed classes and making sure we only went to our lockers before school, during lunch, and after the day’s last bell. Going to our lockers any other time was strictly forbidden.

School wasn’t pleasant for anyone, but my 6th-grade year had dealt me an especially cruel hand. In elementary school, I had been the funny girl—the one who made everyone laugh. Upon entering middle school, I discovered my sense of humor was no longer wanted. In fact, it was annoying. My friends from elementary school had mostly abandoned me for new social circles. Meanwhile, my body had morphed from cute little girlness into absolute preteen horror. I still had some baby fat, but I was extraordinarily bony. This made for an especially unattractive combination. Other girls were already wearing bras, but my boobs were nowhere in sight. I tried to maintain some optimism, telling myself that my development was only slightly delayed. If I had known that I was to remain flat-chested until my mid-20s, I probably would have killed myself.

Ugly and friendless, I reluctantly pulled the door open and walked in. At least today was Friday. Friday was the only bright spot in my week. Every Friday after lunch, all the 6th-graders who had qualified for the gifted program met in Mr. Renner’s room. Mr. Renner was the gifted and talented class teacher and very popular with students. We did fun things in his class. We played games and had fascinating discussions. Mr. Renner had new and imaginative things for us to do in his class every week. One day, he set up a mirror on a table and had us put a piece of paper on the table next to the mirror and try to write, looking only into the mirror and not at our paper. When we drew a line to the right in the mirror, it drew it to the left on our paper. It was incredibly frustrating. After we had all given up, someone asked why he had asked us to do this.

“This is what it’s like for someone with a learning disability to write,” he said. “You kids will never have to worry about that, and now you know how hard it is for them. I know you will never make fun of those kids now that you know what it’s like.”

This was a valuable lesson to us, and we somberly digested it.

One day in Mr. Renner’s class, we were playing a history game when World War II came up in our conversation.

“Did you know some people think Hitler was a virgin his entire life?” Mr. Renner asked.

What? I thought. I had only heard the word “virgin” associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. I thought it was part of her name: Virgin Mary. What could anything connected to Mary have to do with someone as evil as Hitler?

“What’s a virgin?” I asked.

Mr. Renner glanced at me nervously.

“A virgin is someone who has never had sex before,” he answered.

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. If I had known the answer had anything to do with sex, I never would have asked.

The bell rang, and everyone gathered their books and began filing out the door. I was the last one, and before I could leave, Mr. Renner grabbed my arm.

“When you asked me what a virgin was, did you really not know, or did you just want to hear me say it?” he asked. He wasn’t angry, just inquisitive.

His hand was still on my arm. I didn’t like how it felt. Why was he asking me this?

“I…I really didn’t know,” I said.

“OK. Well, see you Sunday,” he said.

He released his grip on my arm and I left. He would see me Sunday because he also went to my church. I was glad he did. Mr. Renner was the most popular teacher at school, and the fact that our families mingled at church increased my pathetically-low cool factor. At least I hoped it did.

The next week, I forgot about the weird encounter with Mr. Renner. When I walked into his classroom that Friday afternoon, he gestured toward some books he had propped up on the blackboard’s chalk tray.

“I brought books that are a little more advanced than the ones in the school library,” he said. “Feel free to borrow them and bring them back next week.”

I looked at the books and chose one that had two teenage girls on the cover. After I got it home and began reading, I realized it was about two high school students who were in love with each other, even though they were both girls. I had heard about people being gay, but the concept was still new to me. In the book, the girls try to keep their relationship a secret, but an older boy at school finds out. Consumed with rage and disgust, the boy forces one of the girls into his car, drives into the woods and rapes her. The concept of homosexuality was new to me and I didn’t really understand it, but the fact that the girl in the book was raped for being gay traumatized me. The rape scene was so graphic that its words burned into my memory and it replayed in my head for months afterward. The book also included some detailed sex scenes between the girls, but the violent rape scene is what stayed with me. I knew that I had read something I probably should not have read at the tender age of 11, but Mr. Renner had said these were advanced books. Grown-ups read about different things than kids do, I reasoned. He’s just trying to challenge us to read about grown-up issues.

After I returned that book, Mr. Renner gave me a new one. It was Halloween, the book version of the popular horror movie. I took it home and began reading. The story opened with a teenage girl and her boyfriend having sex. Afterward, the boy leaves and the girl is brutally murdered by her younger brother, who had watched the sexual encounter. After the first chapter, I threw the book on the floor. I was beginning to think I was not cut out for “advanced reading.” Maybe I wasn’t really gifted and had been allowed into the program by mistake.

The next week at school, an announcement came over the loud speaker that the gifted class would not meet that Friday. Rumors were soon flying around school that Mr. Renner had been fired. I got home and learned it was true. Mr. Renner was gone and the gifted class, the one bright spot in my life, would not meet for the rest of the year.

One day, a girl stopped me in the hall.

“I just think you should know that everyone knows you got Mr. Renner fired,” she said.

I hadn’t done anything but bring the books home that Mr. Renner had described as “advanced reading.” I went home and told my dad what the kids were saying. He said he had found the Halloween book in my room, found Mr. Renner’s name written in it, and went to confront Mr. Renner. Before my dad could say anything, Mr. Renner told him he had just been fired for giving students inappropriate books to read. Apparently other parents had complained, but, because word got out that my dad was upset about the books, everyone thought I was the reason Mr. Renner was gone. The kids who had been simply annoyed by my sense of humor now hated me.

That spring was my ballet recital. During intermission, I was sitting backstage in a costume that accentuated every awful thing about my body. My hair was wound into a tight bun on top of my head, and a mob of little girls in white tu-tus swarmed around me. I felt a sickeningly familiar hand on my arm. I looked up into Mr. Renner’s face. His little girl Michelle was one of the white tu-tu girls. He sat down next to me. He had stopped coming to church, and I had not seen him since the day I had chosenHalloween from the chalk tray.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

I said nothing. I wanted him to leave. Michelle spun past us in her white tu-tu.

“Look at me, Daddy!” she said.

Mr. Renner nodded at his daughter and said, “I miss being at school. That was a fun class.”

I stayed quiet. Mr. Renner kept sitting there. He tried again.

“I didn’t want to leave, you know,” he said.

Still silent, I shifted nervously, and my tulle-laden costume crinkled in response.

Michelle spun past us again, her white tu-tu brushing across both of our legs. She stretched her arms up and executed an awkwardly floppy cartwheel. We sat quietly and watched her.

“Watch me, Daddy!” she said. “Are you watching?”

We both sat there in silence in a sea of white tu-tus.

Finally, he slowly stood up and walked away.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Roswell (incomplete)

I grasped the knob of the color TV set with my 5-year-old fingers and turned it to the right to produce a satisfying “click.” As the screen crackled with static electricity, the picture gradually formed. Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman appeared to save another day, and my Saturday morning had begun.

We had moved to Roswell, New Mexico, several months earlier for my dad to take a ministry job. Roswell was a normal, quiet town then. No conventions for alien enthusiasts yet. Just a dry, dusty town, but the view of the famed El Capitan mountain in the distance helped make up for the town’s drabness.

The TV was new in our house. We had replaced our black and white TV with this new Curtis Mathis color set and now, Saturday mornings were the highlight of my week. My parents warned us not to wake them up too early on Saturdays, but my brother Brian and I were never tempted to. We were content to watch Saturday morning cartoons in this vibrant new world of color television.

On this particular morning, my mom was out of town while my dad slumbered on in their room down the hall. Brian and I perched ourselves on the couch and became entranced in Wonder Woman’s adventures. I wanted those bracelets of hers that could deflect enemy bullets. I think Brian just wanted Lynda Carter. Suddenly, Brian yelled and jumped from the couch. I sat frozen, aware of the fact that if something was bad enough to rattle my older brother, it could be even worse news for me. But then again, it never took much to freak Brian out.

From where he stood in the middle of the living room, he pointed in mute shock at our cat, Tippy, who I thought had been curled up asleep just a moment before. She had something under her paw. Something small that moved. At first glance, I thought she had caught a mouse and was eating it. But a closer look revealed that Tippy was holding a newborn kitten in her paws while her rough tongue cleared the placenta away.

In the few seconds it took me to assess what was happening, Brian had run down the hall, kicked my parents’ bedroom door open so hard that the door knob thunked into the wall, startled our dad out of a deep sleep, and yelled, “Tippy’s having kittens in front of the TV set!”

We had known for weeks that Tippy was pregnant. I just thought it was something of a permanent condition and never imagined it would culminate in such Saturday-morning excitement. Brian dashed back to the living room and pointed at Tippy amid breathless chants of “See? See?” to my dad, who had sleepily stumbled down the hall behind him. Our dad confirmed that yes, Tippy had become an active participant in the miracle of life right there on our living room floor. And mommy cats like to be alone when their babies are born. So my dad found a shallow box for Tippy and her rapidly expanding family, and we quickly dressed and left the house, Wonder Woman forgotten.