It's the first day of kindergarten, and I am terrified. September 1977. That green thing is a name tag, which someone has fastened to my shoulder instead of the front of my shirt. It rubs against me and pokes me in the face all day, but I never try to move it. I mean, I guess it’s supposed to be on my shoulder for a reason, right?
Yes, those pants are ridiculous, even by the fashion-deficient standards of the day. This actually becomes important later.
Being born at the end of August, I am very near the age cut-off date for starting school. I could either have began school in 1976 and been the youngest kid, or wait until 1977 and been the oldest. Mom looked at my social skills and concluded that I needed another year. And so I begin my school career at age six. Even with the slight age advantage, I am still unprepared and unable to relate to the other kids.
As I enter the classroom, I see jumping balls for the first time. You know, these things:
I am transfixed by them. There are only three of them available, and we're only allowed to play with them for a few minutes at the beginning of the day. By the time I arrive at school, other kids are already using them. I’ll usually stand there by the play area, hoping someone will just… I don’t know… offer me one? Or something. I don’t know how this works. What are the rules? Everyone else seems to know how to get a turn.
Do I ask? Maybe I should ask.
“Can I use the… bounce… ball? Those things over there? Can I use those?” I ask nervously, pointing. The teacher, like all non-Mom adults, terrifies me. She’s about the same age as grandma. (Fifty-ish.)
“Of course,” she says, slightly annoyed. “Go ahead.”
I return to my spot beside the play area, but nobody offers me a turn.
One day I come in to find one of the balls unattended. Hands shaking, I get on and begin bouncing. It's wonderful. How high can you go on this thing? I've always wondered, but I never see any kids going for height. They just bound around in a circle. Can you go fast? How long can you bounce?
“My turn!” says a little girl.
I stop bouncing and look at her. Is she talking to me?
“My turn!” she says again.
My face goes red with embarrassment. I was taking her turn! I didn’t know it was her turn. I don’t know how this works! Nobody explained it to me. How do you get it to be your turn? I get off the ball and sit down. I never try to use them again. I don’t want to be stealing people’s turns, and the whole thing is simply too stressful for me.
“Shamus! Go wash your mouth out with soap!”
I look up at the teacher. I have no idea what to make of her demand. I don’t know what I did wrong or what I said. I have never heard of such a thing. She’s never said this to any of the other kids, and I don’t know how to respond. I stare at her and wait for clarification.
“Go!” she snaps.
There’s a little private bathroom adjoining the classroom, so that the kindergarten kids don’t need to use the public restrooms designed for the bigger kids. I go in and shut the door. There is a bar of soap here. I look at it and try to make sense of what the teacher is saying to me. I know soap tastes bad, and that I don’t want any in my mouth. I decide to stand in here for a few minutes, and then come back out. Maybe she will have forgotten about it by then.
I open the door and peek out. She’s preoccupied with another student. I slip out and return to my seat. She sees me.
“Did you wash you mouth out with soap like I told you?” she demands.
I nod. It’s a lie. This is the first lie I remember telling. She accepts my word on the matter, at least enough to stop bothering me with this mouth-washing business. It never comes up again.
We sit at tables, in the same seats every day. At my table is another boy. Across from us are two girls. In the middle of the table is a coffee can full of crayons. One day when the teacher gives us some work, the boy snatches the can away and hugs it to his chest.
“Hey!” one of the girls protests. “Give those back!”
“Only if you kiss me!” he grins.
Wow, really? That’s a strange thing to ask for. I've never heard of such a thing. But the girls giggle when he says it, so… I guess he said it to amuse them? The next time we need crayons, I snatch the can away and demanded a kiss.
“Eww!” says one girl.
“No way!” says the other.
I release the can and nudge it away, red-faced. I’ve somehow messed up. I didn’t even want a kiss. (Why would I? Ew!) But I can’t figure any of these people out. I didn’t know the rules, or why they find some things funny, or what things make them happy. I'm just trying to fit in through imitation. I want to get along with them the way they get along with each other, but I can’t seem to make it work.
|This shot is a little more candid, and the expression on my face is probably a lot closer to what I was wearing for most of the day. It wasn’t until I scanned this picture that I noticed all the little details. I assume that’s Mom’s reflection on the right, taking my picture. Check out those cars. Sure, they were ugly as hell, but they made up for it by being heavy, which helped us all get rid of all the extra gasoline that nobody knew what to do with.|
We’re learning our numbers. The teacher explains to us how to make each numeral. At one point she says, “Five is like an upside down two, except… blah blah blah.” Five is like an upside down two? Interesting. Is there a reason five is like an upside-down two? Is there a relationship between these numbers? I wonder if any more numbers are like other numbers, except upside down?
Sometime later (Days? Weeks? So hard to get a sense of time at this age.) it is discovered that I am making my fives wrong. She sits down with me and tries to straighten me out. She has me make a five. Remembering her instruction, I carefully reproduce an upside-down two. She draws a five for me. Has me look at it. Then I draw another upside-down two. Then she makes ANOTHER five, has me trace it, and then I make another upside down two. She gets more and more angry each time. My hand is shaking. I just keep saying to myself, “Upside-down two, upside-down two” as I draw the numeral. I know this is what she wants. She said so. I guess she she doesn’t like how my curve is kind of… not very neat. I try each time to make it better and better, and she grows increasingly irritated with me. “Look!” she snaps, “Just like THIS!” I’m red faced and frustrated. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
Eventually I am sent to a special class. I still don’t know why. (Nobody ever tells me anything. They just tell me to go places.) Once a day I leave the other kids and go to a different room. A small room. Sometimes I’m the only student. Sometimes there are one or two others, although they’re not from my regular class. One day I am given a special test, using a machine*. I finish the test and the teacher doesn’t explain to me what what was being tested, why it was being tested, or how I did. It’s just a random thing I had to do for no reason.
Despite this, the machine captivates me. It reacts when I press the buttons. The image changes. It prompts me as the next image appears. It makes no judgments and I can intuit what I need to do just by looking at it. Unlike these confusing people that tease me and laugh at me and make incomprehensible demands of me, this machine has discernable rules. It’s unlike anything I’ve encountered in my life. Like a TV, it has information. Unlike a TV, it responds to my actions.
I use the machine only twice in the school year, probably at the end of some sort of evaluation period. But the device captivates my thoughts every single day. It's a long walk from my regular classroom to the area where my special class is held, and I always spend the trip wondering, will I get to use it today? Oh, I hope I hope I hope…
Man, if only I could use that machine every day. That would be the Best Thing Ever.
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