[CW: Child abuse, Self-Harm]
“Okay, class! Pop quiz.” The aged educator, Mr. Crowe, swept into the room drawing an agonized groan from the collective students. No one was more discontented than I was at that moment. It was just another quiz I was going to fail. The stack of papers hit my desk as a soft breeze blew from the slanted windows on the far side of the room. “Take one and pass it back.” Mr. Crowe was a lanky man with thinning wisps of gray hair that sat flat against his head as if they had been painted on. I couldn’t bear to look up at him as I shuffled the papers together and placed one on my desk before handing off the rest to the row behind me. I always took the first seat as I walked in because I wanted to be able to leave as fast as possible when the bell rang. I found myself staring at the door wishing it was time to run out of the room and on to whatever came next.
The test was simple, in theory, Mr. Crowe would call out one of the twenty-five words we had spent the week learning at home and we had to write it down. At the bottom, we could write a single sentence using any of the words to show comprehension. The more words we could put in that sentence correctly the more bonus points we could earn.
“Language.” The bird-nosed elderly man called. “Language.”
“Why am I even here?” grumbling in my head. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. I don’t know these words. I’m never going to know these words. “But I also can’t turn in a blank page.” I scribble down my best attempt. “Langauge.”
“Diagram” came the next word as I barely finished getting out the last couple of letters of the first word. “Diagram”
My brain feels like it is going to explode, and I am only two words into this stupid quiz. “Dieogram.”
The quiz didn’t get any easier. I missed about a dozen words because I was still attempting to spell the one before and, in the end, I maybe got one or two correct. Kids around me were writing out their bonus sentences, others were starting to get up and walk to Mr. Crowe’s desk at the back of the room to turn in their tests. My palms felt hot as I tried to fill in a couple of the words that I had missed and hoped I remembered from the assignment. I had sucked in a breath at some point and had forgotten to release it due to the tension I was holding. It wasn’t until the blackboard started going squiggly that I realized I wasn’t breathing and gasped for air, accidentally drawing the eyes of those around me. I just wanted to die and maybe be a ghost who didn’t need to read or spell. Plus, then I could haunt all the bullies and make books attack them. It was a small smile that I kept to myself as I got to my feet. The sooner I turned this in the sooner this would be over, like ripping off a Band-Aid.
The dragging of metal feet on the tile sent shivers down my spine. Keeping my eyes on the floor, mostly watching for someone who might kick their bag or hang a foot out as I went by, I moved towards Mr. Crowe’s desk. The paper clenched in my hand so hard it was starting to crinkle on the edges and the sweat of my palms soaked into the fibers. Stopping at the corner of his desk I gave a last glance at my work. I knew it was abysmal, but I had to turn it in. Reaching out I placed it face down on the pile on the corner only to watch Mr. Crowe scoop it up and give it a once over. A soul-shattering click of his tongue as he tsk’ed and put the paper back on the pile face up.
“You know, we only have a couple more months of school. You might want to think about taking some of my extracurricular worksheets home.” His voice was soft and calm but there was a clear hint of annoyance that I was still failing after the better part of a year with him. I thought if the frog in my throat grew any larger it might croak and alert the whole class to my humiliation. I gave a nod and took a couple of the papers he handed me. I wouldn’t do them. I think we both knew that. I was in detention at least once a week for missing homework assignments across all my classes and at least once a month I was given in-house detention for all the detentions I was given. Why would voluntarily add more work to a pile of work I wasn’t doing?
It's not like I was skipping assignments because I was off doing other things. I wasn’t playing with dolls or Nintendo. I certainly wasn’t hanging out with friends; I didn’t have any. When you can’t read well the homework assignments that take most of the average fifth grader 20 or 30 minutes usually takes you hours. I had six classes a day all assigning 30-60 minutes of homework a night. So, on my hour bus ride home I would take out my assignment notebook and rip out the page from the day, re-write only the assignments I thought I could handle, then use the colored pens I kept at the bottom of my bag to forge the teacher’s initials on the fresh page. Even still from the time my father got home from work until bedtime, which for my household was around 10 o’clock, I did homework with only a break for dinner. And still, I was missing a dozen or more assignments a week.
Eventually, the teachers and my father gave up on them initialing my assignment book. No one could figure out how they were signing off and he was checking I had done everything in said notebook, but I was still not doing it all. This tipped my father’s scales from understanding to fixing the problem to punishment. One day of grounding for every assignment I missed, however, when a letter is getting sent home every week with as many as 14 assignments missed… there was no end in sight.
I heard my father’s car pull into my Grandmother’s driveway from my playroom off the kitchen. The pop quiz had been graded and returned to us earlier that day. A big red 20 in the upper right corner of the paper with a frown that had a tear dripping from one eye. Mr. Crowe had written a little note under it as well. For a spelling teacher, his penmanship was ghastly. It was in cursive and most of the words were flat or had very little distinguishing features. To the best of my ability, all I could read was “sad.” I didn’t want my father to see it, just another reason for him to be upset with me. Crumpling the quiz up I quickly stuffed it up into the pull-out sofa that sat at the back of my playroom. No one had ever found the previous test I had stashed there before like a rat’s nest.
Zipping up my bag, I said my goodbyes to my Grandmother. Sometimes wondering if it might really be my last. My father had a strict hands-off policy but made up for it with a vicious tongue that always cut to the quick. I, on the other hand, often thought about ending my own life to escape the misery. My father and older brother were bullies, the kids at school were bullies, and my mother was a recovering addict who had switched her addiction to religion. My father’s mother was my only support, she was much more of a mother to me than the woman who had birthed me. She still had some rose-colored glasses that her baby boy could do no wrong.
Head down I climbed into the car and settled my backpack between my feet.
“Seatbelts.” My father chimed.
“We’re only going next door.” My older brother gripped from the front seat.
“I don’t care. Put it on.” He had a bad day. I could tell from the scratchy rasp in his voice and the way he placed his hands on the wheel. Not wanting to try him I quickly did as I was told.
“You’re not putting on yours.” My brother complained aloud as he was reaching for his own belt.
“Do as I say, not as I do.” My father’s favorite proverb was unceremoniously dumped on us once more as we pulled out of the driveway and drove the thousand feet home.
I climbed the edge of the 2x4 lined stairs that were supposed to be filled with gravel and dirt that my father had just never gotten around to finishing. Dad and my brother just walked the hill and jumped on the edge of the deck pulling themselves up like Uncle Jessie getting into the General Lee. The front door opened into the dining room with an attached kitchen, and most of the table was cluttered with past-due bills and junk mail. The far end was cleared, and I could feel my mouth dry as I looked at the spot.
“Kiddo, start your homework.” Motioning to the clear spot at the table. My brother, Mister straight A’s even though he skips half his classes, breezed past me down the hall to his room. I shifted the bag off my shoulder and dragged it to the table. I sat. My father tossed his keys into the pile of papers before heading to the kitchen to get himself a beer and a frosted mug. I pulled out my assignment book and papers, on today’s bus ride I decided to work on the handouts given by my math teacher, a science chapter and its questions, and a history lesson about Greek mythology. We were going to be making puppets to act out stories which made it exciting enough to struggle through the reading.
If by chance those three assignments didn’t take me the rest of the night, then I had to take my chair and face the corner of the dining room until bedtime. No one was allowed to talk to me. I couldn’t use the phone. I couldn’t watch tv. Radio was also out. No toys or entertainment of any kind. And so, I sat listening to the voices from the television in the other room where my father sat. Occasionally an image reflected in the framed print on the wall above me and I would get to pretend like I was sitting with everyone and enjoying the show. I had to be careful, if I let my legs tremor or sway, or if I looked around too much and it made noise, or my father saw then I would get yelled at for screwing around. Getting caught not being a statue meant another day might be added to the already endless sentence.
I looked forward to being sent to bed, I had a small radio shaped like a Tropicana orange that used the iconic straw poking out as an antenna. I would hide it and at night, after my father had turned off my light and closed my door, I would retrieve it and put it under my pillow. It could only receive the classical station, but I didn’t care. It was something. I would turn the volume so low you could barely hear the sound through the pillow because I didn’t want to risk it getting taken away. Listening would help ease my racing under-stimulated mind create stories and craft dreams to help me fall asleep.
My father’s alarm clock was making a horrible beeping noise that I could hear from two rooms away. 5 in the morning already. Without getting out of bed I reached over to my dresser and pulled the clothing I wanted for the day while the room was still dark. My eyes were heavy, and I was sluggish after getting about five hours of sleep. Shifting under the sheets, I struggled to switch from pajamas to jeans and a sweater. Even though it was spring, early in the morning it was still cold. The oil heat had been turned off a month ago to save money so the room felt icy beyond the cocoon of warm blankets I had piled on top of me. My door pushed open without so much as a knock. Dad just flicked on the light.
“Get up.” He barked before walking across the hall to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
“Dad! The door!” I shrank like a vampire from the sun, equally as hissy. I had to rush to finish getting dressed before someone came in and pulled my covers off. It was just another usual start to another usual day. My brother and I were dumped at my Grandmother’s house so she could cook us breakfast and get us on the school bus. Another hour-long bus ride from our far corner of town to the other corner of town to pick up the kids no other bus would touch because of their behavior and then finally arriving at school, already exhausted.
Most of the classes and teachers barely made a dent in my memory because I slept with my eyes open until after lunch. I liked it best when I had an art class. It was the only non-academic class we had aside from gym class. The school just didn’t have money for all those fancy classes like home economics or industrial arts. Unfortunately, today after lunch was spelling.
As per usual, I was one of the first kid in the door. Most of the other kids were in the hall talking to their friends before they went their different ways. Setting my things down on my favorite desk, I lifted my eyes enough to see Mr. Crowe setting up some sort of game on the blackboard. If I had to guess, some sort of hangman or jeopardy. It wasn’t like me, but I wanted to work on being a little bolder. I softly cleared my throat, my eyes already starting to water with nerves.
“What are we playing?” I tried to sound as casual as I could despite feeling like my nerves were on fire. Instant regret washed over me. Mr. Crowe had wheeled himself around, almost throwing the chalk at the lip on the bottom of the board. Taking three long steps towards me, looming like a lion about to devour his prey.
“YOU’RE NOT PLAYING ANYTHING!” His voice boomed like a cannon as he shouted down at me. His fingers wrapped around the top of my left arm. His grip was so tight that my fingers were starting to tingle as he jerked my body away from the front desk. Dragged to the back of the classroom, my feet tripped and stumbled unable to keep up with him. Without letting go of me he tugged a chair back out of the line before he tossed me down onto the compressed brown plastic seat. Half seated and struggling to get my balance he wheeled a desk around and it slammed into my left thigh. While I tried to right myself and make sense of what happened, he collected some of the extra credit worksheets and slammed them on the desk in front of me. “YOU’RE DOING THESE!”
Students were already starting to come in from the hall and take their seats. I could feel their judgmental eyes and hear their snickering. I could feel the bruises forming under my clothing. While I knew crying wasn’t going to help, it would only make me a target for further mockery. I cried.
“It was all my fault. What business did I have asking him anything when I am so shit? I deserved this. If only I could be better. If only I could be like everyone else. If only I could be smarter.” I muttered in my sobs for the rest of the class.
I never told anyone what he had done that day. I thought that was how adults were supposed to treat kids. I thought I was the one in the wrong; for not being able to read or spell, for not living up to the expectations of the adults around me, or for not having any peers to notice any of the bruises. They stayed on me for weeks; the one on my hip where I impacted the chair, the line on my left thigh where the desk was thrown into me, and the thick finger marks that wrapped around my upper left arm. No one ever saw them, or they didn’t care. I still don’t know which.
It would take years to undo the damage he caused in that single moment. Not just in how I see myself but in how I expect others to react to me. I am sure for him there was a slow build-up of anger after watching me fail and give up all year. Maybe even some selfishness of not wanting to fail a student before he retired at the end of that year. At that moment that isn’t want I saw. My experience was asking a simple question and having rage explode at me.
I was almost a sophomore in high school when I finally taught myself to read. Spelling and grammar still give me trouble, but I keep striving to improve. Adults taught me but not in the way I think they probably wish they did.
Every story I write, every word I read, and every breath I take is done in defiance. My life grew on the wings of spite and that carries me higher every day.