Wednesday, October 29, 2008

'Sandy High Top'

As an adult I can come up with several reasons why she volunteered me for the task, but as a child she tarnished my love for her as a teacher.

She taught the 4th grade. She taught an on-going lesson about the American Indians. She taught us to carve trenchers to eat on, and make candles for light. We sat on blankets on the patio. We cooked food that the Indians would have eaten. She was my all around favorite teacher up to that point. I still remember her name.

I was a young girl that had to wear ugly brown shoes that went higher then the high top tennis shoes that are common now. Attached to the right, ugly, brown shoe was a brace that went up to my knee. Braces were heavy then and pulling that brace often left me feeling exhausted. But I loved school because I loved the woman that taught my class.

I had learned to ignore the taunts and ridicule that the ugly shoes and brace elicited from the other children. There was a group of older children that had tagged me ’High Top’ and I used to hear that echo down the hall as I was walking to my classroom. No adult stepped in to stop the intimidation, but things were different then. I learned to stay quiet and ignore the hurtful things that were said about the way I had to walk.

My mother had fought a hard battle to keep me in public school. I didn’t want to be taken from my family again. The year I had to live with my grandparents when the Los Angeles School District decreed that I was too disabled to attend their public school had left a deep scar. The wound was encircled with an overriding fear of being noticed. I believed that if I stayed quiet there wouldn’t be any condemnation from teachers and school nurses. I became shy around my fellow students and an overachiever in the classroom.

There was a campaign that was run through the schools every year. Every student was given a little card with slots. The slots were supposed to be filled with dimes. The dimes were then donated to the March of Dimes and their continuing struggle to find a cure for polio.

The March of Dimes paid for all of the medical/surgical costs incurred in the battle to make my legs function as normally as possible. I have no idea how my teacher found out that everything that had been done for me had been paid for by the same organization that was running the yearly campaign ...but she did.

One morning she asked to talk to me privately. She said that she and the school staff had come up with a wonderful scheme to make the March of Dimes more meaningful for the students. They had decided that it would be a ‘teaching experience’ if I went from room to room and explained why I had to wear the brace. Then I could work that into a speech about what the March of Dimes had done for me, thereby encouraging the students to ask their parents to fill the cards with dimes.

I was horrified. The last thing I wanted was to be made an example. That would call attention to the fact that I was different. On the other hand if I said that I wouldn’t do it they might decide that I wasn’t cooperating and evict me from the school. I was so shy and I was trying to hide by being quiet. This was one of scariest things that I had been asked to do. But I had no choice. I said OK.

Then I was told that they weren’t going to write me a speech. They thought it would work better if I just stood in front of the classroom and told my story on my own. I left school that day and threw up on my way home.

I never told my parents. They didn’t know until I was an adult what I had been coerced into doing. As a child I worked it out that if I did what they wanted and didn’t complain to my parents then surely the school authorities would see that I was worthy of attending their school. I also wanted to protect my mother and father. I remember the tears that they had shed when they had been told that I wouldn’t be allowed to attend school like their other children. The fear was wrapped all around me.

Every day I talked to a new room. The teacher that had escorted me would stand behind me and I would try to swallow past my shyness and tell the story of the March of Dimes and my high top shoes.

At night I would cry myself to sleep. It was so hard for a shy girl that was trying to hide to have to stand in front of the children that taunted her. In my child’s mind it had to have been my teacher’s idea, her fault. As an adult I know that she couldn’t have made the decision all by herself, but everyday I resented HER a little bit more, was a little more fearful of her.

And in the end did it bring in more dime filled cards? I have no idea, I was never told. And did it change the attitudes of the children that made fun of me and my ugly, brown shoes? Not many. They continued to call me High Top, but they now knew my name. I was called ’Sandy High Top’. That makes me smile as an adult, but as achild that added to my fear. And did my teacher think she had done the right thing? Yes, she once put her arms around me and told me I had done the right thing in educating the other children. And was she still my favorite teacher? I still loved the way she taught, but I never trusted her again. And from that day on I have never loved another teacher.

What’s ironic about this story is that as an adult I became a motivational speaker. Maybe she set a compass for the direction my life would eventually take, but I’ll tell you the truth. Every time I was introduced I would get that same feeling I once had in the 4th grade. I would want to throw up. Then I would have this overwhelming desire to yell, “All teachers have to leave through the nearest exit!“.

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