The image below is tangentially connected to what I’m talking about in this post; I needed something to use as a page break, and it seemed appropriate because when I was in elementary school, some of my classmates and I listened to a book-on-record (yes, vinyl — that’s how long ago it was) of the first part of this story. Certainly made the old fallout shelter signs around the school building seem even more creepy afterward…
Anyway. ‘Nother true story about yours truly:
When I was in the 4th grade, I was placed in a special program for ‘gifted’ students. Everyone was shocked, of course: ‘What do you mean, you’re sending Thomas to the gifted class? He’s a free-lunch kid!’ (Free-lunch kid was slang/shorthand for student from a low-income household and therefore incapable of achieving any success in school or in life because non-rich parents invariably raise stupid children. I delighted in shattering the common preconceptions — when I wasn’t getting beaten up by someone who didn’t approve of a free-lunch kid doing better in school than the offspring of the wealthy.) This particular ‘gifted’ program involved busing the participating students all to the same location one day every week: Mondays, and I’m not going to tell you the name of the school because I don’t want you to do an internet search for it. (That school’s cafeteria — where I wasn’t allowed to eat because I wasn’t a free-lunch kid there — smelled strongly of bad tater-tots: greasy and bitter. I’ll always remember that smell.)
So. Every Monday, off I went, along with about a dozen other students from my school, all boys, and all from well-to-do households except for yours truly, to this other school where we’d spend the day until it was time for us to be sent back, hopefully arriving in time to catch the bus home. (The other boys didn’t ride the bus anyway — their mothers drove them to and from school every day — so it hardly mattered, did it?)
I dreaded Mondays.
The teacher was a sadistic bastard. Loved reading to us with all the lights off, no illumination in the room but the pen light he used to see the pages. Horror and post-apocalyptic science fiction were his favorites; the more graphic, the better he liked it. He’d also sometimes show us films of the same sorts of fiction.
Keep in mind that no student in that classroom was older than twelve.
One thing that always stood out in memory was the time the teacher made us do the modernized version of the ‘lifeboat exercise’ — the ‘fallout shelter.’ (This blog post by Subby Szterszky, the only description I could find online, discusses the lifeboat version, but the premise is the same.) In my opinion, this is NOT something that a nine-year-old (Did I mention that I was also the youngest in that ‘gifted’ class? All the other kids were 5th or 6th graders.) should have to think about, even as an ‘intellectual exercise.’ Making us listen to a recording of the imaginary candidates for who got to stay in the shelter and who got left outside to die (and the teacher made damn sure we knew exactly what being left outside meant!), with their arguing and pleading for their lives…
Most of my classmates thought it was cool. They liked this exercise.
After the second hour, I convinced the teacher to let me go sit in the hall instead. He made fun of me for that and called me a crybaby in front of the other students. (I didn’t cry. I calmly explained that the exercise was making me very uncomfortable, and that I didn’t like hearing my classmates joking about people dying horribly, imaginary or not.)
Later, the teacher’s explanation for my bad behavior: “He’s just scared because he doesn’t understand.”
That never made sense to me. Here’s this elementary school teacher saying that a nine-year-old is frightened (and disgusted at the attitudes of his classmates, but let’s not go into that now) by the idea of nuclear war and deliberately leaving some people to die only because he doesn’t understand, implying that if this child did understand, he wouldn’t be frightened or disturbed by the concepts addressed in the exercise.
Anyway. That is just one example of what went on in that classroom. Even aside from the problems with the teacher, there were problems with my classmates. I wasn’t One Of Them, and everyone knew it. Alas, the only requirements to be in this ‘gifted’ program were to have an IQ over 140 and to have shown ‘scholastic excellence’ or whatever. In other words, technically any kid who got good grades and scored really, really well on those achievement tests we took each April was qualified, and parents’ (or pseudo-parents’, in my case) income was never taken into consideration.
I don’t remember what, if anything, we ever did in that class that would be considered normal school stuff.
Close to the end of the year, I was called into the principal’s office and informed that I was being removed from the ‘gifted’ program. The reason given: I couldn’t be as smart as my teachers and the school administration had previously believed, because I didn’t know much about computers, and any intelligent person would know all about computers and have one at home and stuff.
The year was 1981.
Maybe my memory is faulty, but how many people had home computers in 1981? How many children had regular access to one then?
Maybe those teachers really did think that never having used a computer (at a time when generally only wealthy people owned them) was the same as being… intellectually disabled, as the current terminology goes. I doubt it, though. Even then, I had the suspicion that the real reason I was kicked out of the class for smart kids was that I wasn’t a rich kid. Allowing me to be in the ‘gifted’ class put too many holes in all the ways the rich kids and their parents justified their own privilege.
I didn’t like being in that program, but being kicked out of it was bad, too, because the next year brought yet another round of ‘Maybe Thomas is actually retarded‘ as a result. No reason they should have thought otherwise, actually. The pseudo-parents thought I was retarded, and never forgave me for it — for ‘making them raise a defective child,’ as the pseudo-mom put it. It was irrelevant that I was doing very well in a grade level a year or more above that of my age-mates; what mattered was that ‘Thomas is weird — we think there’s something wrong with him, the way he reads all the time and doesn’t have any interest in hanging out with the other children. Also, he talks funny.’ You’re reading my blog, so you know that I still ‘talk funny’, going around using polysyllabic words and generally behaving as if I managed to steal an education somewhere rather than living according to what is proper and acceptable for a person of my low socio-economic status.
Also, I get sarcastic when angry.