On School, Words, And Imagination

***Names have been changed: no need to embarrass anyone.

I’m obsessed with school. I could talk for hours with anyone about school memories: the teachers you loved, the classes you almost failed, the kid who called you names under his breath during gym… whatever. It’s a curious preoccupation for someone who generally disliked school—sometimes with a passion, others with more of a dull ache, quietly wishing the place away but knowing it was hopeless, and I was stuck.

My fascination stems partly from my sense that school could be so much better. I loved my Montessori kindergarten. I remember reading this book they had about colors: how red and blue mixed together made purple; red and yellow made orange; blue and yellow created green. There were little overlapping circles: blue, red, and in the overlapping space, purple. Amazing. It made sense when I thought about the colors—how they looked and felt—that mixing them worked out this way.

In one corner of our large, open room was a toy castle with miniature wooden dolls, and, whenever I wanted, I could find it and play with the dolls, making up stories about their lives. I spent most of my time playing on my own because I thought differently from the other kids, who often preferred to throw the dolls around and hide them, not make up stories. But sometimes, I joined my classmates, just to see what they were up to, and to get some friendly vibes. They knew I was weird, but they didn’t mind.

I remember once, a whole bunch of them were throwing the dolls around while I was reading a book about lightening. They came over and asked me to join them in a circle. We swayed back and forth, arms around each other, and chanted: “My friend, my friend, my friend” over and over. It was one of the best feelings I’d ever have in school, but I didn’t know enough to appreciate it at the time. Back then, it was just another small good time.

Years later, I discovered that my parents sent me there because a neurologist had recommended it for me. He suspected I wouldn’t be able to draw and play catch like the other kids because I didn’t process the visual world like they did. At a Montessori, I’d be freer to do my own thing, in my own way, with no pressure.

But there was no Montessori school in my area after kindergarten, so off I went to first grade in my local suburban New Jersey public school. I went through that whole year—and the next one as well—not quite realizing that learning in this building was a thing. From what I could tell, this institution’s primary purpose was giving parents a break from their kids so they could go to work or have lunch with their friends at the mall. It forced ill-conceived activities on us because many children were too hyper to run loose in a safe way.

There was a music class, taught by a fabulously high-strung character. I’m sure some kids enjoyed this venture, but I remember it because it gave me my very first sense that I was clumsy, rude, and inept. Mrs. Tabino taught us to dance—or should I say: she taught them to dance and me that, if I tried to dance, I’d inevitably move in the wrong direction and bump into people. As soon as Mrs. Tabino noticed me thumping around in my graceless fashion, she would bang on her piano and scream: “Oh, Steffi, you’re ruining everything!” Gym and art classes were similar, though the teachers were more befuddled than abusive when they encountered my clueless self. I stood in the corner and did nothing most of the time, because the directions made no sense and I didn’t want to be whirling around doing my own thing when the other kids were playing a game, or spilling paint on myself while everyone else made pictures.

I appreciated our regular classroom a bit more, but only because I could relax and daydream. The chief activity there was learning how to read—and since I’d been reading for years, I just kind of sat there and pondered other things. I enjoyed it, in a way, for the same reasons I now enjoy unwinding in cafés: it’s fun to watch other people interact and try to make sense of their world. Often I created little games for myself, like imagining what each kid was thinking, or where each one would be in 20 years.

Occasionally, I was interrupted: “Steffi, why don’t you see how you do with the words on the board?”

“Cat, hat, sat, that, flat, splatter.”

“Good job on that last one! You’re learning fast!”—which was kind of a hot one since I wasn’t learning anything at all: while the lesson was happening, I tuned it out and wondered what different people’s families talked about at night. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even remember my first-grade teacher’s name, though I do recall that she rarely yelled, had dark hair and half-moon glasses, and seemed to take pride in her class. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some people learned while they sat in her room. My situation wasn’t her fault; she wasn’t set up for me.

There’s something outrageous about school: at least the standard public rendition of it. It takes 20-some kids who happen to live in the same area and have birth dates within the same year and teaches them all in exactly the same way despite their diverse aptitudes and challenges in different areas. Anyone whose learning style strays from the standard expectations is basically in a prison meant for other kinds of minds. Often, depending on the task before us, I was either hopelessly confused or bored out of my soul.

For years, I longed for my old Montessori kindergarten, where I read, thought, and grew according to my needs. With two teachers for about 20 kids, one big room, and no outside instruction in areas like athletics or art, it was not an overly expensive place to run. We had gym there, too, but it mostly just encouraged us to move and stretch; there was no doing it right or doing it wrong. I spent some time on the things I sucked at, like jigsaw puzzles, and since I wasn’t familiar with sucking at something as a concept, I had fun in my own way, and the teachers helped me hone my ability to notice details and look for visual clues. I’m sure I was the worst in the class at completing those puzzles, but it wasn’t a competition and I didn’t have to work with the other students, so that didn’t matter. I played with the other kids, held hands with them, laughed with them, but I learned according to my own rhythms. It was heaven and I didn’t even know it, because I didn’t realize that a very mild sort of hell existed a short drive away at the local public school.

To be fair, my local school showed me some wonderful teachers who emphasized creativity and playing with ideas; they figured out ways to cut through the sameness and assign projects that let students show their unique ways of thinking. My gratitude is all the more fierce when I consider the expectations they worked with—that everyone finish a set curriculum at the same time, mastering very particular skills.

The poem below explores one poignant moment during my sixth-grade English class: a rare, ironic thrill with a teacher who didn’t normally connect with me. It captures my love of words, imagination, and spiritual possibility. It also hints at my feeling that school should focus less on facts and memorization, and more on ideas, speculation, analysis, and emotional connection. Years later, you probably won’t remember the dates, terms, or events you memorized for that test unless they somehow touched you in a personal way, or activated your particular areas of curiosity. When you go beyond memorization and strive to make novel connections, you might feel a rush that will stay with you for decades, opening your mind to similar adventures in the future.

If your experience is anything like mine, school won’t encourage this all that often. But you are the captain of your own mind. You can make your own adventures and push an outwardly dull day into excitement, and maybe even mystical bliss.

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The minutes drop
Into some blurry world we can no longer touch
Scraps we flick without noticing
Towards a street that only exists when someone remembers it’s there.

But minutes brush infinity
Each one a prize and a mystery
Filled with emotions that shock my fingertips
And maybe the taste of a juicy rib dipped in duck sauce.

I want to enter each minute
Touch its skin, examine its colors
Stretch out its boundaries
Learn all I can within its walls.

But I’m in sixth grade.
The minutes are not my own
In this desk, surrounded by my teacher’s voice.
A voice that, maybe, is filling my head with ideas that aren’t even ideas
Because they aren’t true.

A girl named Susie, pigtails bouncing, asks: “What’s ‘hybridization’?”
Our teacher eyes the answer key of the standardized test we just took.
“Crossing. Like if you cross the ocean from one side to the other.”

I raise my hand. Not because I want to be difficult, I swear
But because I want the truth to be known.
Words shape our moments.
They sift and define the beam that comes before a thought.
Not all of it, but much of it, maybe even most of it.
Conjure a word, and your moment is sharpened and widened in a very particular way.
Think “hybridization” when you mean “crossing the ocean”
And you have a problem.

“Actually, it means crossing as in combining. Like hybrid plants. A crossing of different kinds of plants to create a combination plant.”
Our chubby, gray-haired teacher squints her face in that way she has.
“Hybrid plants?” She wrinkles her nose. A few kids start laughing.
“From now on, we are going to call you ‘Hybrid Plant,’” Mrs. Sherman says.
Kids are shaking so hard they have to hold their stomachs.
I laugh, too, but probably for a different reason.
It’s a moment like any other, and laughter helps squeeze something from it
Something good, filled with color, maybe even a kind of taste.
Because I’m laughing, I’ll remember how it feels.

Later, Mrs. Sherman sits behind an open dictionary
Eyes darting between the book and my face.
I want to raise my hand and say: “Tell the class.”
I don’t. She says nothing.
Hybridization: our little secret.

And then I feel electric.
She’s been teaching us all year:
Grammar, words, ideas.
OK, “ideas” is pushing it, but still.
What if most of it is wrong?
What if bad definitions and misunderstandings are whipping through my brain
Blackening all my true, good thoughts?
What if I said: “That was a great hybridization across the ocean”
Because I trusted the person who supposedly knows more than I do?

But a megamoment happens.
A moment times a million
Maybe even times infinity, but that’s too much to imagine.
Just one moment, but megamoments spread time out and condense it all at once:
Bullets of being that contain the past and the future
And maybe the present, if we know how to look.

I picture myself in the ocean in a sheer shirt and shorts
Gliding, perfectly dry, through the water
Catching waves that push me towards…
I don’t know exactly where, but I’ll recognize the place when I arrive.

I’m dry because I’m part of the water, and the water is part of me.
It feels natural—not wet, just comfortable and free.
I spread into the ocean, adding my own purple shine.
I know what it knows, sense it flowing and crashing as if it’s myself.

It’s an infinite moment—and if I could keep it forever
I’d have every answer I’ve ever sought
And would glow from the knowledge.

Hybridization: A mixing of the ocean and me.
Not completely, but enough to know much more than I’ll ever achieve on my own.
Hybridization could make me believe in God, maybe
Or whatever word I want to use for the force that could show me my own infinity
The sureness that the universe in my head and my chest will spread out, over, and under
And beyond.
A crazy, unceasing dance.

Mrs. Sherman calls to me: “What is going on over there?”
“Sorry, I was thinking about hybridization—me and the ocean.”
She gives me that squinted-face stare.
I look back and smile
Because really: today was our best class ever.

Can something false be truer than the truth?
I think so.
And when you understand why, infinity might feel real and close
Like your soup’s spicy tang or the steam filling your bathroom after a shower.
Or hybridization.