As we shuttled my son, all smiley and excited, off to his first day of second grade, my heart was full of happiness, hopes and dreams for him. Watching him bound confidently into his classroom, I had a very distinct memory of my own second grade year wash over me.
In a nutshell… For some reason my beloved teacher, Mrs. Novak was not there and instead of a substitute, we were placed in the “other” second grade teacher’s room. Ugh.
I was called up to the board, which I never dreaded like some of my other pals. It was too early in my academic career to feel the sting of failure and as a confident little Leo, all the world was my stage. After an unsuccessful turn at the board, the teacher showed her apparent dissatisfaction that I wasn’t as proficient at my multiplication tables as she would have liked me to be.
She proceeded to make a big production of my egregious error by marching me (pulling me behind her with my tiny wrist grasped a little too firmly in her hand) to my older brother’s classroom, pulling him from his class and returning us BOTH into my classroom. She ordered us to sit at a table in the front of the classroom away from the other kids so he could “tutor” me.
Looking back as an adult and an educator, I am dumbfounded by the “motivating” technique she employed. I could see the potential for distress, embarrassment, guilt, alienation, and shame. It could have delivered a crushing blow to my love affair with school and learning. But none of that ever happened.
I do remember being embarrassed at first, with my friends either avoiding my glance to save themselves from my horrid fate, or alternatively, making funny faces at me to try to make me smile. But most vividly, I remember my big brother, the wise fifth grader he was, sitting closely by my side. He put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed tight, giving me an assuring nod. Although he didn’t say much in that moment, he told me everything I needed to know. I was safe. I didn’t have to worry. He was there and it was all going to be ok. Unlike that teacher who didn’t know me at all, he knew I could do it.
He sat with me briefly and we went over the multiplication tables that he had taught me earlier that year and all was well. I wish I had a better recollection of the moments that followed to share with you, but I don’t. I don’t remember a triumphant return to the board, acknowledgement and approval from that teacher, or being avenged in some way. My brother simply returned to his classroom, I returned to my seat and thankfully the next day, to Mrs. Novak.
I am a firm believer that each of our experiences throughout our lives mean something. All of those moments strung together haphazardly shape who we are in the present.
That day, I didn’t learn to hate school, or that I was bad at math, or that I was less-than. I didn’t subsequently shy away from my teachers or blame others for my mistakes. I learned about the love and support of a goofy group of second graders and an unlikely 10 year old hero who was better known for wiping his boogers on me. In a pivotal moment which could have brought me down, I was lifted up. I was taught to shake it off and try harder, I was encouraged to continue to believe in myself. All without a single adult in sight.
This was the early 70′s, I don’t know if we even told my parents about it. There was no report filed with the principal, the teacher wasn’t investigated, the school board didn’t offer a county-wide training on teacher-student bullying. And I survived. Today, as I continued to wave goodbye to my son who had long since turned his attention to his friends, I knew that he would too.