“Shamus, you’d be a good student if you just did your work.”
Teachers have been saying this to me for ages, but this is coming from a fellow student. A student who never usually talks to me. I nod. I don’t know what to say in return, and I don’t want to screw up this moment of non-abuse. The really curious thing is that this is the third person to say this to me today. Kids who have always ignored me are now suddenly admonishing me to do my work, and suggesting that I could be a good student. The problem is that the title of “good student” has no value to me. It wouldn’t get me any closer to a computer, which is the only thing I care about at this point.
I’m not very socially aware or sophisticated, but I’m together enough to see a pattern here. Someone put these kids up to this. It had to be a teacher, since the encouragement is coming from more than one clique of students. It could have been either of our sixth-grade teachers. (The two classrooms swap students for certain subjects.) Certainly the talk would have taken place when I was in my Special Ed class, away from my peers. Maybe Mr. Markle arranged it? He seems to understand me better than anyone else in this place.
While I’m not suddenly motivated to begin working, I am encouraged by the effort. Someone is looking for ways to motivate me in ways besides offering punishments in the distant future (bad grades) or meaningless rewards (stickers and such) in the short-term. Even more interesting is that these kids went for it. They’re not particularly diplomatic about it, and one of them gives me the backhanded encouragement of, “You’d be really smart if you did your homework!” but they didn’t have to do this at all. We’re in the hall, and the teacher can’t hear them right now. The kids are doing this of their own volition.
My perception of my fellow students is re-aligned. In previous years, I’d lumped them together as a sort of gestalt entity, a single bully with dozens of faces. That wasn’t really fair. There are differences in the way I’m treated, and those differences have been growing more pronounced over the past couple of years. Some kids ignore me. Some say mean things if I interact with them, but otherwise leave me alone. Some pick on me only when their friends do. A small number – maybe four or five boys – are instigators of the bullying.
One girl (let’s call her K) treats me like she treats everyone else, which is incredibly valuable to my sense of self-worth. She’s not nice to me out of pity – she simply doesn’t have anything negative to say to me. She never laughs at the pranks. The other girls use cutting remarks to chase me off if my behavior bothers them, and I’ve discovered that being insulted by a girl hurts a lot more – and for a lot longer – than a beating from a boy, but K never does this. Her attitude towards me sort of acts as a baseline measurement of “normal” treatment.
Still, some of these kids have gone out of their way to encourage me to be a better student. Therefore, some of these kids don’t hate me. In fact, the number of kids who actively hate me is probably much smaller than I’d previously estimated. My self-esteem is boosted by this effort, even if it does nothing for my scholastic performance. I now see the “bullying” as a problem with a small group of boys, and not the whole classroom.
|Left to right: Grandma, Shamus, Ruthie, and Pat.|
One day we’re given an odd bit of mathematics work to do. Instead of times tables and drills, we’re given an in-class assignment that asks us to fit a bunch of long numbers into a grid, like a numeric crossword, or a Sudoku where you have the contents of rows and columns in a list and you just need to fit them together without conflicts. (I can’t remember the exact details of the assignment, but I remember it was mostly logic and only a bit of math.) The assignment immediately tickles my brain. I get an intense, sort of excited feeling when I look at what we’re being asked to do. I usually only feel like this when I get my hands on a computer. Instead of staring out the window or doodling, I dive into the assignment.
A couple of minutes later I walk up to the front of the class. The teacher looks at me like he’s expecting me to ask a question. I’m sort of at a loss. I never turn in assignments, and I don’t know where to put this on his desk. I offer him the paper and several of the kids in the room let out grumbles of outrage or disbelief. The teacher looks at the paper and compares it to his answer sheet, then hands it back to me. Nope, wrong.
Dejected, I take the paper back to my desk. A couple of the boys let out a sigh of relief. I wasn’t trying to compete until I discovered how upset they were. Some of the shocked kids were among my bullies, and now I’m doubly motivated to finish this before they do. I go over the entire assignment a second time, and find a spot where I’d transposed some numbers. I fix it, and turn it in again. This time the work is accepted.
I sit in my chair, looking straight ahead, smiling. I don’t get out my doodle pad. I don’t look out the window. This is a sort of mental victory lap for me. I sit at my perfectly clean desk and listen to the sounds of pencils scratching and easing, and kids muttering. It’s another five minutes before the next student turns in their work. A couple more follow in the next minute or so. The vast majority of the students take another five minutes after that. Many don’t finish at all.
We’re never given another assignment like this one, but this is enough. I wasn’t just “first”, I was first by a long way, even though I had to do the problems twice. I have learned something. I have learned that I am smart. People have been telling me this for years, but I needed to prove it to myself. Now I believe.
(Also during this time period: My friend David got a computer, which I wrote about here.)
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