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Monday, November 16, 2009

My Life With the Turtles

My wife and I have been fighting about the best way to educate our son. In Kindergarten he came home with less than stellar grades in reading. We have since decided that the teacher did not clearly communicate her expectations to our son or us. We also realized that she probably doesn’t know how to teach. Until these recent revelations, the conversation around the dinner table had been getting rather tense.

In this corner we have a verbal sparing champion and eventual victor, my wife. In the other corner, weighing in at a mere twelve pounds, we have the eternally defeated, me.

“We need to get him caught up to the rest of the class. I don’t care if we have to drill every word with a flash card,” my wife said.

“But . . .” I weakly countered.

“But nothing. This is not acceptable. He has to give the teachers what they want.”


It wasn’t that I had given up, though I kind of did, but I had finally realized why I opposed academic capitulation. Unlike most of my physical scars, I actively strive to hide my emotional ones. Throughout my educational career, I have had to constantly prove to others that I am an above average reader and writer. In math I was a prodigy, but it bored me to death. With writing I was able to express my bizarre thoughts, lame jokes and insightful wisdom, but these gifts are always under appreciated.

This resentment buried deep inside was rising to the surface again, and if I didn’t learn to confront my issues with literacy, it would eventually affect my son.

I became intensely aware of my issues in the second grade when I was placed in the turtle group. In order to understand the turtle group you must know that the other groups were named eagle, cheetah, gazelle, stallion and porpoise. Not really, but you get the idea. I could tell by looking at the slack jaws and lazy eyes that it was the wrong group. I don’t remember exactly how I got out of that group, but I eventually did. I vaguely recall directing my fellow turtles in a ridiculously elaborate dramatic interpretation of a story in which we had to play elves, trees, and some distant cousin of Little Red Riding Hood. We spent weeks designing scenery (cutting trees out of butcher paper) and rehearsing (me yelling at the turtle to hurry up and finish cutting the butcher paper). I don’t know if it was the play that did it or U.N. sanctions against my dictatorial treatment of the turtles, but I was moved up not long after. It would not be the last time that I would be relegated to turtle status.

The slow and steady tortoises crept up on me again in the fourth grade. I am competitive by nature, so when the teachers devised a monthly reading contest, I was determined to win. For several months I would consistently come in second. The winners were invariably girls, and each month it was a different one. I began suspecting that they all belonged to the same reading coven and had conspired to have each member win an award. I also became convinced that they were doing so by reading the easiest books possible. While I was reading intricate mysteries involving Encyclopedia Brown and the Three Investigators, these girls were delving into the adventures of Smurfett and the Smurfiest Smurf.

I had my fill by February. The night before that months deadline I pulled every Mickey Mouse (I mean that literally) Golden Book that I could find. I had already padded my stats by reading a twenty-five page book about each of the fifty states. I also read the entire natural disaster series: Tornadoes, Floods, Earthquakes, Fires, Hurricanes and Tsunamis (I’m pretty sure they were called tidal waves back then). In all I read nearly eighty books in one month. At the time I thought I was cheating, but since I still remember the books and now consider myself an expert on useless geography and climatic catastrophes, I guess it was worth it.

So, I was back in the lead. However, as is probably obvious by now, I had a little attitude whenever anyone questioned me and would suffer from bouts of anger whenever I was not entirely successful at writing essays, answering questions or hitting a baseball. Luckily for adult me this is no longer a problem since I no longer fail, but unfortunately for my son, it must have been a trait encoded in my DNA. And unfortunately for my wife, I am reliving my tragic literary career through him.

As my fellow scholars and I matriculated to the seventh grade, a clerical error most likely perpetrated by a former turtle resulted in my name being left off the list of those recommended for honors English. At least I hope it was a clerical error and not based on the fact that I was a regular visitor to the principal’s office because of my penchant for adversarial and defiant behavior when it came to teacher regulations. Whatever the case, I immediately embarked on a “shock and awe” campaign to topple the dictators that so cruelly imprisoned me in a regular English class. By the end of the semester I had a solid A that demanded their immediate attention, and in January I was back with the intellectual elite where I stayed until the end of my junior year.

For five years I soared with the eagles, leapt with the porpoises, sprinted with the cheetahs, glided with the gazelles, galloped with the stallions and left the turtles behind. My talents, or at least my test scores, indicated that I was more inclined to success in math and science, but I was doing well all around. That was until a bout of hormones awakened the defiant snapping turtle that had lain relatively dormant all those years. The teachers weren’t the ones that held me back. It was the menagerie. Apparently, there was a jungle animal council in which they all got together (Except for the porpoises who lost a contentious motion to meet under the sea) and decided that my latent turtle ways were holding them back.

Mrs. Dunnington, my English teacher and role model for most of what I do now in the classroom, called me in and delivered the speech. In it she told me that she was sorry, but she had to ask me to leave the class. At that time testosterone was doing most of my thinking, so I was able to see this as a badge of honor. In retrospect and in light of my son’s struggles, I now wish that I had been more diligent in my efforts to remain in the class.

I have been carrying around this bitterness for quite some time, and now that my son is in school, it has come to the surface like a wart on a toad. The arguments that I have with my wife are projections of the dinner table conversations that I had with my mother. Both of them implore me to look at the situation logically. My mother would constantly tell me to give the teachers what they want, and my wife says that Evan needs to do the same, or he too may be placed in a terrarium with other turtles.

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