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Sheri Grow “On Being Schooled”

Sheri Grow/ Photograph of the author.

I was born in Boise but spent my formative years in Sacramento.  Our family eventually returned to Boise, where I graduated from Boise High.  I’ve had a few adventures along the way, have one beautiful daughter now an adult, and currently work as a pricing analyst at a large company where I’ve been for sixteen years.  I am a non-traditional student majoring in Biology with an Ecology emphasis, after obtaining an A.S. in Biology, Natural Resources emphasis from College of Western Idaho in May 2015.  I like to read, ride bicycles, watch cat videos, go on road trips, and contemplate the fate of the planet. I hope to graduate from Boise State in 2018.

On Being Schooled

School is not a horror movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, straightforward and predictable in its carnage.  It is more something that Alfred Hitchcock might have imagined, subtle but menacing, especially if he’d had the benefit of John Williams’ theme music from Jaws.  Da-dunh, da-dunh – It’s time for Calculus the shark would say, using Hitchcock’s voice.  An epic opportunity to fail is the dialogue in my own head.  Blood in the water from the gaping wounds of my school insecurities. Insecurities which have a solid foundation.

 

A saw is easy, cutting in a line
That makes a single wound
And nothing else
Only an arm falls off or
A finger is lost
But the tool that cuts a heart
Without opening a chest
Is wickedly proficient
And sharp
Enough and is just
A word.

 

Decades ago, when I was a cute little sprout heading off to first grade, I think I was excited.  My big brother liked school, and kindergarten had gone pretty well for me so I was ready for good.  Dry Creek Elementary School in Rio Linda, California was just about brand-new when I walked through the doors.  You could see the school from our house, across fields, single level, buff colored brick and concrete.  I was proud to go there in my little girl heart.  Kindergarten had been at the old school, where everything was painted industrial green and all of the toys and books were old.  It was comfortable and undemanding, just take your nap when you’re told, and share the crayons.  But first grade, real school, I was ready.  My outside self was shy and had trouble talking to anyone, but my inside self was bursting with thoughts and hopes.

First grade, first chance at epic failure, and I delivered.  I remember learning to read as if I already knew how.  I rejoiced, arrogantly and internally, in my success at being able to easily read a complete sentence.  We played some version of King of the Hill with sentence placards, and I read the hardest sentence, which meant I stood in front of the class holding the hardest sentence, and no one else could master it.  Other kids were holding lesser sentences, and being out-read and replaced, but not me. And it went on, and no one took over my placard, and I needed to pee. I didn’t know how to excuse myself from the game, and it went on, and then, inevitably, tears down my face and pee running down over my clenched knees.  That’s how a shy six-year old’s heart and pride get broken.  There really is nowhere to hide.  I think I hated crying worse than I hated peeing.  I really hated failing so shamefully when it seemed I was on the verge of immense triumph.  The fuss from the teachers and my mother made it all worse.  And my six-year old self couldn’t speak up and say, please, don’t make a fuss.  Just let me quietly clean myself up and let’s move on.  That’s what school is.  Fifty-five years, and a small humiliation is a clear memory and a present feeling.  I didn’t know the word hubris yet, but I learned the concept that day.

 

Just before I turned six, my handsome Uncle Gary died. My dad’s brother, father of my best friend and cousin.  Father of her little brother.  We had all moved to California together before I was old enough to remember.  Gary was flying in a CHP plane on traffic duty, and was hit by another plane in the fog. The family talk for months had been my beautiful aunt getting married, my dad’s sister, marrying a pilot (at the Temple, so we wouldn’t be going).  Then suddenly it was a funeral, and there were platters of cold cuts at Gary’s house that nobody ate.  My cousin wasn’t there.  A friend took her flying instead.  My aunt still got married to her pilot, but there wasn’t a party.  And my dad joined the police force in North Sacramento after, and did lots of sit-ups while we sat on his feet.

 

I endured through second grade, where I couldn’t manage to make a straw star Christmas ornament, with a teacher who sternly corrected my pronunciation of my home town.  As if I don’t know how Boise is properly pronounced.  Third grade and we moved to our new house, not too far, but I moved to a new school.  Taylor Street Elementary, another old and comfortable school.  There was a single classroom for each grade, built California style.  Covered walkways between sections, but open to the outdoors.  Kindergarten, 1, 2, 3 on your left, and office, 6, 5, 4 on your right.  We were in a new house, a new neighborhood, I had a new baby sister, and I was in love in with books.  We had a new set of encyclopedias, so I could read all twenty-four red and white volumes of the Book of Knowledge alphabetically; ten light blue volumes of Science and Matter by subject; and eight dark brown, imitation leather volumes of Lands and Peoples, by continent. My first source of information for school papers was our set of encyclopedias.

 

When I was eight and my brother was nine, our dad taught us to shoot.  We didn’t touch the long guns in the closet – the deer rifle and the shotgun, but learned to shoot with a .38 semi-auto at a place where there were brick piles and large berms of dirt. Then we shot with my dad’s concealed gun, a .32.  And with my mom’s .22 revolver, the house gun.  My brother and I don’t like guns, but we can shoot if we have to.  Our dad was a ‘sharp shooter’ on the police force.  That’s what they used to call SWAT.  We knew exactly where every gun was in the house, they were always loaded, and we knew the rules.  We never broke any of the gun rules.

 

I liked my teacher, and Mrs. Taylor liked her third grade class so much she moved with us to the fourth grade.  I was ahead in reading, so with some others from fourth and fifth grades, I joined sixth grade for reading.  The fifth graders included my brother.  I liked being with him in a class, and he hated it.  His big brother rule was that I was not allowed to speak to him at school, on the bus, or walking home.  I was ahead in math, too, so fifth grade for math, joining my brother’s class, except he went to sixth for math.  I think these teachers were being progressive, organizing us that way.  That was my first year with the book, Adventures in Reading.  I moved on to fifth grade, Mrs. Taylor was gone, having a baby.  We had very old Mrs. Self, who was made fun of behind her back.  I hated my parents that year, because the school’s plan was for me to skip a grade, but my parent answered no.  Can’t have my brother and me in the same class.  Bored and frustrated, I went to sixth grade for math, and also for reading.  That was my second year with Adventures in Reading. I imagined I was adopted. That fantasy was ruined when my mother had a long discussion with me that involved a medical book with illustrations of labor and birth, and vague references to impending womanhood.  I was an encyclopedia reader, so I read the medical book, too, and read my birth certificate, and grudgingly accepted that I was not adopted.

Old Mrs. Self gave me papers to grade and let me run the mimeograph.  She even gave me a dime or a quarter for grading spelling papers.  Being in possession of money that didn’t come from my allowance raised the alarm with my parents, so the arrangement ended, and Mrs. Self and I both got into trouble.  I told her I would grade papers for free.  I felt like we were friends.  In fifth grade Mrs. Self was my best friend at school.

 

In fifth grade I was forced to wear my first bra.  It was a horrible ugly thing called a training bra, and it was hideous and humiliating. It looked nothing like the lingerie I saw in movies, or even in my mother’s laundry.  My brother tattled it to his friends as if I had purposely caught the most embarrassing and shameful disease on the planet.  They laughed at me, pointed at a snip of bra strap they could see on my shoulder, and went off to play whatever without me. I was disqualified.  Even so, back to school was hard that year, since for the first time in our lives, my brother wasn’t there.  It was 1967, and he was starting junior high.  A month after school started, following a shoot-out in the next county, apparent Black Panthers took over the school administration office at my brother’s school, along with some other places.  There was another shoot-out out in the county, with Sacramento police and sheriff’s deputies wounded.  My dad spent that night in a gas station on the wrong end of a shotgun being held by a Black Panther.  He thought he was going to die.  When the sun came up, the BP member just left.  We think he might have let him go because my dad was known as ‘the Indian’ and his partner was Chicano.  Not quite white.  They walked the beat in Oak Park, and everyone in that mostly-black neighborhood knew them.

 

Sixth grade with Mr. Tomlinson and his hickory stick was my third with Adventures in Reading, and second year of the same math.  He had something called student court, and taught us how to sue each other.  I was sued for laughing at Harry, who was my neighbor across the street and one of my brother’s best friends.  I don’t remember laughing at him, but I was thoughtless, obnoxious, superior, and lacking in social skills, so I probably did.  It was my job to tutor math in the class, and Harry wasn’t good at math.  It must have been an amazingly stupid question for me to laugh out loud.  I don’t remember my punishment, but I remember having to publicly apologize for something I don’t remember doing.  School really can be a training opportunity for future employment.

 

Boys are pigs and men are scary.  I keep forgetting.

 

We finished off the school year by taking the annual sixth grade trip to the exotic and cosmopolitan city of San Francisco, about seventy miles down the road.  We sold cupcakes every Friday to make the money.  Along with the sixth grade classes from the three other schools in our domain, we headed down the highway in yellow school buses for a day trip.  Ripley’s Believe It or Not (of course I believed), the Red and White boat tour of San Francisco Bay (around Alcatraz, as if to warn about life choices), brown bag lunch at the Japanese Tea Gardens, and an aquarium stop.  The highlight was the sandal joyfully slid through the bus window by a real hippie as we drove through Haight Ashbury, and hopefully treasured forever by the student who received it.  School often provides cultural enrichment, whether or not it means to.  I remember the popular song of the day was, (If you’re going to San Francisco) Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair.  For a brief moment in time, I felt a spark of being present in history.

 

We missed the Summer of Love by one year.  In our house, we had the summer of divorce.  And by winter we were in Boise.

 

In the ninth grade at North Junior High in Boise, I had my sixth straight year of the very same Adventures in Reading.  I could have recited Rikki Tikki Tavi from memory.