How I survived grade school
As I’ve started to become more active with building this website, an interesting idea has popped up in my mind. I don’t know if it has much to do with the actual theme of the site, but it does have everything to do with me. For atleast a year or so, I’ve been toying with the idea of how to talk about myself more. This may seem easy for a lot of people, but some of the content I want to discuss is a little tougher for me. While everything may seem fairly normal to most people when they meet me today, sadly, it wasn’t always that way. Internally, I still feel like I am fighting a lot of the same battles I’ve always fought. Whether the things that haunt me are actually reality, frankly, I’m not 100 percent sure. However, being born with a syndrome that comes with so many issues is enough to make a lot of obstacles difficult to overcome. Optiz G/bbb syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that affects the midline of the body. Some of the issues linked to this syndrome include wide spaced eyes, cleft lip and palate, imperforate anus, among other things. Some versions of it are less/more severe than others. At the very least, I was born with all of the issues noted above. It has made for an interesting life.
When I thought about what would be the best way to tell my story, I figured there would be no better way to do this than to start in grade school. Sure, the battles were there for the first five years of my life, but it didn’t start to get real until I got into school. I can’t say I remember much from Pre-school, but I do remember that I was incredibly self-conscious. Whether it was just my personality or it was something deeper, I can remember never wanting to participate in recess. The whole class would get together and play games, but I would have to more or less have my leg pulled in order to join in. It probably didn’t help that my teacher thought I needed to be placed in a program with mentally challenged children. From what I’ve read over the year, this type of treatment/perception is typical of teachers who don’t understand children who have a cleft lip and palate. I can remember going to some doctor appointments where my intelligence was measured in order to determine if this was true. I can also remember my mom having a few conversations with my teacher about this topic. Obviously my parents knew this wasn’t what I needed, but unfortunately there still wasn’t a whole lot of education on children with special needs back in the 80’s.
I can recall a lot more detail about my early grade school years. Due to my imperforate anus issue, my mom was pretty involved at the school. She was not only apart of the PTA, but was also there pretty often in general in order to help with my issue as well as to hopefully help improve any issues I might be having with the way kids and teachers were perceiving me. This was especially true during kindergarten as there was always some type of event my mom could show up for and be involved in. This also lead to my mom meeting other moms in the class. Her involvement was enormous. It really helped me to make friends with a lot of kids within my PM Kindergarten class. I attended a private catholic school so crossing paths with snobby kids/parents was inevitable. Despite all of my moms effort, I wasn’t immune to some indifference from a few classmates. Overall, probably thanks to my mom’s involvement, Kindergarten was actually a pretty good experience. With that said, for me personally, this is where the trend of teachers underestimating my intelligence really started to hit home.
Although I was very young, I always perceived myself as being a smart person. This was probably helped along by my mom who spent a lot of time working with me at home. It wasn’t uncommon for my mom to wake me up very early in the morning in order to work on my reading, spelling, and other language skills. This was her attempt to help me compensate for the speech issues that came with having a clef lip and palate. Despite her amazingly persistent effort to use these early morning lessons to help me gain an edge in school, it often went overlooked by my teachers. I spent the first two years of my school career in the lowest reading level despite being told I could read at a much higher level otherwise. As far I can remember, I don’t recall truly being bothered by this until I was in 1st grade. Not only was I broken down into the lowest reading group among the three we had in the class, I also found myself in a new situation as the AM and PM Kindergarten classes had been consolidated into one class by that point. I don’t know how typical this is nowadays, but all of these changes made a huge difference.
I remember the days of my kindergarten graduation and first days of 1st grade pretty well. My kindergarten graduation is significant to me because, as far as I can recall, this was the first time I had met and interacted with the AM class. If I had been older by this point, I would have been able to see that the next school year was going to be different. I can recall a few of the kids from the morning class giving me a little bit of a hard time. I can’t recall anything particular, but I do remember how it felt. Although being a part of the PM Kindergarten class was a nice experience, putting the two together in 1st grade really changed things. The AM class was filled with a big clique containing a group of kids who were from a different neighborhood. A suburban neighborhood that was a little better off than the PM kids who were mostly from the city. One thing that was very clear to the parents, teachers, and kids is that the families from this particular clique ruled the roost. Preferential treatment was given to these kids. This was the group that you somehow wanted to be apart of. Not only was I at a major disadvantage because I was apart of the PM class, I also had a lot to overcome because of the cleft palate and lip issues and the issues that came with having an imperforate anus. 1st grade was also the year I started attending speech class a few times a week. Again, not exactly the coolest way to make friends. I would consider it comparable to being a kid who needed to leave the class for a while in order to receive additional help with Math or Reading, but much more lonely since I was one of the only ones who needed this help.
Any friends I might have made in 1st grade had more or less distanced themselves within the first few days of the new school year. I can specifically remember the first few days of recess. I don’t remember the games that might have been played, but I do remember not being picked. I was pretty much an invisible kid out there. By the time teams had been picked for the game of the day, I found myself just kind of wondering around alone in the schoolyard away from everybody. I may have been young, but I knew I was being outcasted by the kids in my class. Even the friends I made the year before didn’t want to stick up for me. They probably didn’t want to get lumped into the same category I was in by doing so. Sadly, because the class was ruled by a group of people who thought they were better than everybody else, there weren’t too many people along the way who went to bat for me. I saw a similar attitude among most of the teachers I had. My 1st grade teacher, a young nun and new teacher to the school, was one of the worst. Her along with my 5th grade teacher often treated me the same way the kids did. I just didn’t exist and I was severely underestimated. No matter how good I did and no matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do to make myself stand out. My mom often had to fight with the school and teachers just so I had the privilege of reading at church like the other kids without getting skipped over. Teachers were afraid to put me in plays or give me the chance to read in front of anybody because they feared that nobody would be able to understand me. In hindsight, this might have been one of the reasons I wasn’t called on as much as other kids.
By this point you might be asking yourself a few questions. Did anything ever change? Did his parents ever consider changing schools? The answer to these questions are kind of and eventually. See, I had an older brother and sister. They were both born with much milder forms of Opitz g/bbb syndrome. Their issues were noticeable, but not like mine. For some odd reason, my brother and sister had a much easier time in school. I don’t know if it was good luck for them or just the difference between being born a few years earlier, but they managed to have a much better time. They probably had challenges of their own, but unfortunately I don’t know much about this. A long story I will have to talk about in the future. As far as this situation was concerned, my parents were reluctant to pull me out of the situation because my brother and sister were doing so well. They were heavily involved in school activities and made a lot of friends. They wound up doing very well while I was stuck in a really bad situation that was mostly against me. My parents didn’t consider making any changes until my siblings had gone off to high school. By this time, even though the kids all knew each other well, I wasn’t able to win anybody over longterm. A lot of my friendships were phases that came and went with certain students. I never really fit into a group. Unfortunately, this is a niche I’ve grown very comfortable with. To this day, I don’t like groups very much. I prefer one on one friendships much more. This experience might be why I am this way.
Although my experience in 1st grade was a tough way to be introduced to the realities of nepotism and outcasting, I did have atleast one teacher who saw me for who I am. My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs Spangler was amazing. One of the happiest days of my years in catholic school was when she promoted me to a higher reading group. I can specifically remember flourishing in the lower group for a month or two at the beginning of the year. I may have fed off of Mrs. Spangler’s willingness to call on me and treat me like I was just as good as the other kids in the class. She was one of the first people I can remember who truly gave me an opportunity to showcase my intelligence. Unlike most other teachers I had early in my life, she saw me the way I saw myself. Being promoted to the tougher reading group gave me much-needed validation. I feel that her impact helped me to break through with the kids in my class a little bit. I feel like I started making some of those aforementioned individual friendships around this time. It was by far the best experience I had at this school.
Unfortunately, all of the positives that came out of 2nd grade couldn’t be built on. I don’t necessarily think this had that much to do with me as I had the bad luck of having teachers who weren’t completely focused on the best interest of the students in the same way that Mrs Spangler did. My 3rd and 5th grade teachers were going through some mid-life issues at the time I was a student in their class while my 4th grade teacher was a very old nun who often called me by my brother’s name. More than anything, the lack of awareness of what my needs were led to more of the same thing I had experienced prior to 2nd grade. This was so much the case that by 5th grade, I was dying to get out of that school.
5th grade was arguably the toughest year of them all. By this point, both of my siblings had moved on to high school. For the first time in my life, I was in a school without my siblings and with limited involvement from my mom. This is also the year I had my first cleft related surgery in quite a few years. I’m not sure of my parents logic, but they decided to have the surgery in December of that year at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This required me to be pulled out of school for a few weeks in order to recover. The main aspect of the surgery was the bone graft that was taken from my skull. I still have a small indentation on the right side of my head to this day. This bone was used in order to give me teeth and gum where I didn’t have any on the top set of my teeth. The surgery went well, but in the long run, my teeth never actually quite came through on their own. Down the road, I actually needed to get braces for a second time in order to help these teeth to come through. This didn’t happen until I was in 9th or 10th grade.
When I went back to school in the new year, I found keeping up with class to be a little difficult despite having plenty of homework during my recovery. I also wasn’t very happy. Every school year was more or less a repeat of the previous one. I didn’t fit in to the culture of the school the way my siblings did. By that point, I think I was more or less viewed as an afterthought by my classmates and teachers. In most cases, this was not addressed directly at me, but it was always known that I wasn’t “equal” to the others. When you have a teacher who gives you a part in a play and then takes it away in order to give it to another student in the same day, you start to feel like you have no hope in that situation. By the end of the school year, I think my parents had finally figure out that I needed a change.My siblings, who had moved on to a local catholic high school, also weren’t having quite as much success as they had in grade school. This prompted them to finally listen to what I had been telling them for years. Starting in 6th grade, I got my wish and was able to change schools. This put me in a situation where I’d be going to school with the one group of friends I had from my neighborhood. I’ll go into these years in one of my next blogs as this wound up being good for me despite having a lot of the same issues.
With all of these phases of grade school broken down, you might be asking if there was anything going on in between all of the classes, lessons, recesses, lunchtime and other school settings I may have been apart of? Well, I can’t say that I was actually teased very much. If I had a bad day due to my imperforate anus issue, I would hear about it from certain students. This is understandable as it was a very difficult issue to manage. I didn’t start to figure out the best way to manage the issue until I got to high school. No amount of pills, enemas, and other tactics were quite enough to truly help me manage the issue. My parents tried a lot of methods that just didn’t quite work. I was never actually made fun of for the way I looked or talked. Did I endure teasing elsewhere? Absolutely. The kids I went to school with during these years just did everything they could to ignore my existence. Not picking me for a game or being forced to pick me last (and in an annoyed tone of voice I can still recall very well to this day) was all I needed to see in order to understand where I ranked. Otherwise, I was just an outcast among a group of kids who mostly got along and fit in with each other in one way or another. Anybody I was friends with in Kindergarten simply distanced themselves. Oddly enough, a few kids I went to this school with wound up transferring to the same high school I attended years later. They actually proceeded to treat me the exact same way. Despite us knowing each other, neither of these people ever talked to me during the entire 4 year period we went to high school.
The main issues I came across during grade school were passive aggressive. I was very underestimated by teachers and peers. I was rarely actually made fun of or teased to my face. I learned during these years that while people can be mean in more straightforward ways, they can also do this in very subtle ways too. A lot of times, nobody steps up and intervenes in order to make it better. For every Mrs Spangler there are a lot more people out there who are going to underestimate you and judge you before they get to know you. I don’t believe that is the case everywhere, but that was the case for me. The good news is, in the long run, these experiences make you stronger. They help you to grow in ways that other people don’t. You learn to become more resourceful. You learn to dig deep within yourself. You learn to become confident in yourself. You become experienced with the bad sides of human nature. Growing up tosses a lot more lessons like the ones I learned at you. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. The only tough part about going back to this time in my life is that picking out specifics and elaborating on them in more detail is hard. That was over thirty years ago after all! In the next blog I’ll take a look at middle school and dig a little deeper into how personal some of my stories become as I got older.