There was once no internet. That’s right—no Wikipedia, no search engines, no YouTube, no smart phones, and no Navis; personal computers were once uncommon. If you had a favorite TV show, you had to watch it on time and make sure as hell no one interrupted you. You had to wait until the commercial break to grab a snack or go to the bathroom. You wrote letters by hand(!) or with a typewriter, any mistakes were clumsily painted over with “correction fluid”. Dictionaries and encyclopedias were physically intimidating—powerful objects to be respected. They could be used as weapons, literally. Dense, large, hard-bound, they weighed as much as a chubby toddler. One thick volume accidentally killed my beloved hamster, Snowball. She was crushed to death by an Encyclopedia Britannica. “M-N” I think it was. I held her mangled body and wept. It was a grief that shook an eight-year-old’s core to the depths of being.
So in 1988, as I stood under the weight of not one, but two massive volumes of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary—shiny yellow, hard-bound, with half-moon finger-holds for each letter—I began to shake and to sweat. I was a frail, skinny child and no match for the combined weight of the dense tomes. My third grade teacher, Ms. Grider, was punishing me. If a child disobeyed or made too much noise in her classroom, the naughty child was made to stand in “the corner” and lift a heavy dictionary over his or her head. How long depended on Ms. Grider’s mood and how much she disliked you. One boy, Mo, the class loner, had to do it nearly every day, sometimes for close to a half-hour. He must have built-up some really strong arm muscles because he never looked pained, more likely, he was just good at hiding it.
I was another case. I was not an “oddball” like Mo, I was a “disappointment”. That day, my crime was asking another kid to explain the assignment that had been written on the chalkboard when we were all supposed to be silent. Ms. Grider expected us to have our books already open to the correct page, heads down, quietly writing, as soon as she wrote the lesson on the board. Deferential, obedient and industrious, that’s what we were supposed to be. And those words were an accurate description of me—for a time.
For a time, I was her favorite. For a time, I could visit her at her desk with its pink scented tissues and cushioned chair. For a time, I could bring her water in her ceramic mug, fresh water from the hallway fountain. For a time, I could be trusted to run errands outside the classroom. I would always return promptly, to bask in her praise.
But it all changed. After a few months being the teacher’s pet, I became accident-prone. I became forgetful and careless. I stopped handing in my work on time, I missed homework assignments, I started making stupid mistakes. Her hard eyes began to scrutinize me more and more, her wrinkles creased, lips pursed, head shaking, “You changed,” she accused me, “You are a disappointment.” This would become routine.
Now, she glared at me. I was slowly buckling under the dictionaries. She had punished another kid with me, my accomplice, but she had long sent the other girl back to her seat. Only I remained. I met her gaze, sweat dripping from my brow, my elbows shaking, threatening to cave-in at any moment. At any moment, the two Webster’s Unabridged would come crashing down on me, slamming my head violently, overwhelming me with their gravitas. Which one of us would turn out to be more substantial? I could feel her disgust. It simply wasn’t enough for her, my pain. Finally, in exasperation, she shrieked, “Go back to your seat!”
How could I communicate to her my suffering? How could I tell her that I was in more pain mentally? How could I even begin to explain something that I didn’t understand myself? When she refused to help me or to even listen? It was easier for her to believe that I had become just another bad person. A once golden apple gone rotten. At the end of the third grade, Ms. Grider was going to flunk me. I was once a shining example, a straight-A student, but I had been cast down as swiftly as Lucifer. I was to be held back a grade. And all I could do was stay silent and try not to make things worse for myself.
But, to everyone’s surprise, the threat of flunking set off an invisible trip-wire. My parents, who normally would not have intervened, became alarmed. They had absolutely no idea what had been going on in the classroom and would not have done anything had I simply told them. I tried my best not to burden them anyway, they had enough problems of their own. They would have considered Ms. Grider a stern teacher, but not unusual, they had known enough stick-wielding authoritarians in their time. But when the report card materialized, with its very real pronouncement to hold me back a year, they took it seriously. To my surprise, the two most publicly submissive people I had known started fighting the establishment.
My older sister, who spoke better English, was sent to plead on my behalf. I was brought to a doctor, who quickly ascertained that there was nothing wrong with me—nothing that is, apart from my eyesight. My problems at school were caused by something so ridiculously simple, something so glaringly obvious—it was absurd no one had noticed it before: I was near-sighted. I needed glasses. I couldn’t finish the assignments because I couldn’t see what was written on the chalkboard.
Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. (Occam’s razor)
Well, my problem had a simple solution. The dysfunction of the adults around me, not so much. In the end, after much pleading and pressure from my family, Ms. Grider finally allowed me to continue to the fourth grade on account of the medical evidence. Although she put the blame squarely on me, “You should have spoken up about it.” I happily joined my classmates in their new classroom wearing my new rose-colored glasses (conveniently, also a metaphor). The following year, with better teachers, I quickly soared to new academic heights, surpassing those I had known before. As it turned out, I had a knack for spelling and memorization. I began competing in spelling bees and poetry readings. Apparently, those Webster’s Unabridged dictionaries had another use.
Now, nearly thirty(!) years later, I sometimes find myself still that little girl, shaking under the dictionaries. Will the enormous weight of all the things I should be, or should have been, and all the things I am not—will they prove to be more substantial than I am? Will I be crushed under the weight of the world before I can figure out the solution to even the smallest problem?
Text and photos by M.P. Baecker.
Note: This is a true story. Ms. Grider was a real person. I have only altered Mo’s name to conceal his identity.
With better teachers, I found a way to thrive after this experience, but others did not fare so well. After enduring a year of physical and emotional abuse from Ms. Grider, which included name-calling and isolating him from the rest of the class, Mo became violent. He was subsequently expelled from our primary school. I hope that wherever Mo is now, he has found love and acceptance. Ms. Grider is, most likely, at peace now, resting in the earth. I wonder if this will be the last thing anyone will remember of her, before her memory fades into nothingness.