I was in elementary school when I was told, with a small group of other fourth grade girls, to report to the school counselor’s tiny office once a week. I have no idea who signed us up, but every Wednesday, there we were: Mrs. Case, three raggedy white girls, and me – the only American Indian kid in the school.
I don’t remember much about this “counseling,” other than the glorious novelty of one adult’s undivided attention for 30 minutes, and the fluffy pink key chain our mothers pitched in to buy from the Wigwam as a thank-you gift for Mrs. Case at the end of the school year. Maybe we were singled out because we were the poorest kids in the school, or maybe we’d each let slip something about our “unstable” home situations to an adult at Soos Creek Elementary.
Soos Creek Elementary was my fifth elementary school in five years.
It’s hard enough to know what’s inappropriate at that age; throw in late nights waiting up for alcoholic parents to come home, molestation by Mom’s wayward boyfriend, or a good case of ringworm, and god only knows what alarms get set off. Missing 19 days of school might have had something to do with that, too.
Being assigned to this counseling group was the first time in my life that I was officially identified as damaged, or in need of ‘fixing.’ Although I had occasionally been graced with a loving teacher who lavished tenderness on me, this was the first time a mental health professional was brought in to try to treat me. It was also pretty much the last time anyone made that effort.
Either the school district thought Mrs. Case was a miracle worker and we were all repaired by the end of the school year, or they gave us up as a lost cause; or, maybe like so many other rural, poor girls, we just fell through the cracks … because despite the fact that my home situation only got worse and I experienced still more damage, I made it all the way to high school graduation without any further official administrative interventions. In high school, a few tender-hearted teachers took me under their wings, offered real books to supplement the censored materials handed out in class, praised my creative and scholarly writing, gave me access to AP English classes, and even extra food when I started looking a little too thin. I remember these teachers vividly and gratefully.
But without anyone ever actually saying so, I learned early on that this damage – the wounds inflicted on my body and soul during my childhood - would be left up to me to deal with. Let’s be clear: I did not have a fucking clue.
I found my 4th grade report card the other day. I don't remember ever getting a "C+" for reading in my life. Perhaps I just didn't like the reading material? The teacher marked me as reading at the 5th grade level, so the C+ makes no sense. It may have been my attitude. It may have been hers. Mrs. Burt was a real piece of work and I hated her guts for making me feel like a piece of crap in her classroom. "Completes assignments on time" was "NI" - Needs Improvement; I remember getting lost in my head doing worksheets that seemed so easy, running out of time because I was "daydreaming." I still do that.
I was given a "B" grade for Health, although I received a "+" for "tries to keep neat and clean" and "effort." Apparently, trying was not enough to overcome whatever it was I was dragging in from our trailer in the woods.
"Debbie has written many imaginative stories. She'll receive further practice in writing factual reports," Mrs. Burt reported (misspelling my name, as she always did: it was Deby), "Debbie dislikes arithmetic, but with more patience with herself, I think she'd feel less frustrated." Now I remember: I used to get a well-timed stomachache just in time for math sessions! Because of course Mrs. Burt, my least-favorite of our "team" of teachers, taught math. I was switched to a different head teacher at the semester. At the end of the school year, Mrs. Burt's contract was not renewed. She wasn't "compatible" with the school's open-concept design. Or, I think, with children in general.
But I do remember those "imaginative stories." In those stories, I could control things. In those stories, I could write about what was unspeakable, even if it were entire rabbit families being massacred and disappeared, not people.
In my stories, I could be brave.