In high school, I laughed too loud and too long. Shushed a thousand times, I never realized how annoying I was until our French class videotaped a comic recital. When we re-watched it after school, my lusty guffaws drown out the players on stage. My whole body blushed. Adding to my mortification, our teacher, Ms. Lucia, commented, “And here is Lori laughing…”
She did not say this in a jovial manner, to ease my embarrassment. She sounded defeated, sad for me, as if my laughter was a sign of incurable illness or impending disaster.
This hurt. I thought Ms. Lucia enjoyed my good spirits. After all, I spent hours writing comical journals and assignments for class. Classmates encouraged my boisterous antics and skits. I longed to be her favorite! But that honor went to another. Michelle. Plop a Tonya Harding haircut on Snow White, add mom jeans and a Peter Pan collar and you have Michelle. Starched and stalwart, her seriousness contrasted sharply with my over the top exuberance. If I sat next to her, she scooted her erasers and highlighters opposite me. (I was in the habit of transforming them into smiley faces mid-lesson). She stifled her discomfort but eventually, I felt it–an electric current of stay away.
We did not begin as adversaries. French class meant the world to me and I liked Michelle. She worked hard for every quiz, test, and assignment. I, however, aced exams and sailed through lessons with barely a glance at the material.
Since routine classwork bored me, I created little narratives. I never handed in six-sentence verb exercises or blasé paragraphs about the library. Instead, I illustrated three-page epics replete with new vocabulary and painstakingly researched grammar. My teacher commended my stories, but since I took my time handing them in, I seldom got credit.
Michelle, however, was always on time. She completed assignments as instructed, in neat and precise handwriting. I worked, when and how it suited me. Below average grades on my late masterpieces didn’t matter because I enjoyed writing them. Michelle worked with daily determination for good grades. She was the ant, and I was the grasshopper, except winter never came.
My senior year showed me where I stood with Ms. Lucia. Without enough students for a French III class, the ambitious could petition to study an extra year under her guidance. Michelle was accepted, and I was not. When I made a fuss, Ms. Lucia handed me a book and told me to study on my own during a free period. Without support, I drifted away. Decades have passed, but her rejection still visits me. In dreams, I sit forever alone before an open textbook, sad, bored, and failing French III.
Twice-exceptional* students struggle with rote and repetitive classwork. This grind is hard in a non-intellectual way. Results seem so distant that it feels like climbing an endless stairway to a pointless destination. Just sitting still was an effort for me, so I respected Michelle’s tenacity as she hauled herself up each long and boring step. I managed by completing projects with a flourish. Unfortunately, the world finds flourishes less valuable than deadlines, so I’ve failed plenty of courses. Every time, the recipe was the same–I mired myself in interesting tangents and details while neglecting routine assignments. Somehow, I skipped over skills that others had been building since kindergarten.
I’d like to change the past–but not to improve my grade. I want to go back for Michelle. She never realized that I equated her between-class studiousness with my story-writing industriousness. We both worked hard for French and thus, were sisters. I tried my awkward best to be friendly, to make her smile, but somehow I managed to only alienate her further. The more I bumbled, the more anxious I became. Anxiety fueled future stupid and off-putting behavior, to my eternal chagrin. Friendship isn’t something Michelle owed me, but if she understood that my behavior was neurological and not conceit or ridicule, my heart would be at ease.
In retrospect, I wonder if Ms. Lucia was worthy of the affection I held for her. She could have spoken kindly to me about my unintended laugh track. She could have sat me further from the microphone. She could have paired me with Michelle instead of setting me adrift in an empty classroom. Michelle and I could have collaborated and emerged twice as capable. Come to think of it, Ms. Lucia’s every wince, sigh, and impatient gesture taught students like Michelle that I was somehow less-than.
Fortunately, the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” educational philosophy of the 80s is vanishing. Feeling less-than, unliked, and discarded can haunt students well beyond grade school. I am grateful my son’s school has a progressive and positive atmosphere. When his neurology kicks into overdrive, his teachers support him and set a strong example of acceptance. As I write, he has found his own Michelle, and I cannot wait to see what they create together.
*My exceptionalities are autism and Tourette’s syndrome