In third grade I was on a three-strike system at school. Three infractions and I’d miss a fun class event. I was an absent-minded kid, prone to forget things at home like homework or a slip needing a signature or an extra pair of shoes to wear at school during winter. (I remember at least one day of walking around in winter boots all day.) This was also the first year I wasn’t in the same class as my twin sister, who, everyone involved quickly realized, was the one who reminded me about things like homework and signatures and winter boots.
My two co-teachers apparently thought this punitive system would make me a better student, more disciplined and less forgetful. There was no limit to the number of infractions I could receive and therefore no limit to the number of events I could miss. Theoretically this should motivate a kid, even one as young and flighty as me at the time, to become more disciplined so as not to miss fun activities.
First, I missed Cave Day, the culmination of the unit on caves. The classroom was decorated like a dark cave, paper stalagmites and stalactites protruding from the ceiling and walls and a cool tunnel leading to the door you had to crawl through to get in and out of the room. I was not allowed to participate in the fun cave-related activities at all that day. Instead I was sent to the principal’s office to complete what was essentially busywork. (Insult, meet injury: at one point I needed to go into the classroom to get something—probably more busywork—but I had to crawl through the awesome tunnel and see the activities going on, yet not participate in them. I felt like a leper. A bitter leper.)
Second, I missed Jungle Day, which was a huge day in my elementary school. Huge. They’d bring (what felt like then) enormous jungle gyms into the gymnasium and turn the byzantine structures into a colorful, interlocking jungle, crawling with paper vines and canopies and animals that healed you if you got “bit” by a snake while climbing through the maze. Jungle Day was off-the-chain fun in my previous years, but I was yet again on-the-chain in my classroom not participating in it.
Finally, I missed Field Day. Everyone remembers Field Day because it was the last big event of the school year. It was the pinnacle, the prize for making it through the year. We played the entire day: relay races, water games, snacks galore… that’s what we lived for. Yet there I was in—you guessed it—my classroom doing—you guessed it—busywork. There was no point in me being there. The school year was over. I didn’t flunk the grade. Yet there I slouched beneath the flickering florescent lights, toiling through Lord knows what kind of fill-in-the-blank pabulum, and encountering for the first time in my young life the concept of cosmic futility. My sister, pitying her woeful twin, snuck away from Field Day and visited me as if I were in prison. She brought me a popsicle from the festivities, though I’m not sure how she smuggled it past the guards.
So whose fault was this? If we’re getting legalistic here, it was mine. Within the parameters set for my circumstances, I failed to meet the agreed upon standards of behavior. But did these punishments fit the crimes? Or were my teachers overzealous? I’d like some perspective on this, especially from teachers, because, clearly, I’m still bitter twenty years later about this series of unfortunate events. I wonder if my teachers were under some kind of pressure, even before No Child Left Behind and Common Core, to get me up to snuff. Or maybe it was their own idea.
Regardless, the thing about Edna Krabapple having Bart Simpson write a sentence on the chalkboard over and over is that it doesn’t work. It’s not going to reform Bart, and it’s going to make him resent school, teachers, and exercises in cosmic futility. Luckily, that didn’t happen to me (except for resenting exercises in cosmic futility). I mostly enjoyed my K-12 education and benefitted from it, and after getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree I’m currently employed in a profession I like. So why does this continue to stick in my craw?
I got a measure of clarity a few years ago when I visited that school for the first time since I left it in 1998. It was the end of summer, so the school was open for orientation and teachers meetings. My dad and I stopped by the administration offices first so I could ask permission to walk around and thus not become the pair of unknown men wandering an elementary school. The clutch of teachers chatting around the front desk asked who I was; I told them my name and those of my sisters, and one teacher said she remembered us. I rattled off the names of the teachers I had there over the years, and when I mentioned my third-grade teachers, specifically the one I disliked the most, one of the teachers present gave a look to another, as if to say: “Oh, that one…”
And suddenly I realized I, perhaps, wasn’t alone. Maybe Mrs. Three-Strikes had rubbed other teachers the wrong way too, made their lives unpleasant all those years ago. I greatly desired to share my tale of woe with those present, to commiserate and swap stories from the trenches, but decided against it. Instead, I wandered the empty halls, reminiscing about the many better times I’d had at the school that had hardly changed at all since I left it.
The library at the center of the school, now with newer books and no catalog, was still where my classmates and I had coveted Goosebumps books almost as much as Warheads candy. The gym, now seeming a lot smaller after I’d grown a foot or two, was still where once a year the wilderness of Jungle Day had reigned. The cafeteria, now with some upgraded kitchen appliances, was still where in fourth grade I lost in the sudden-death overtime finals of the all-school Geography Bee (congrats, Valerie). The computer lab, now replete with sleek, slim computers, was still where I learned how to use MS Paint on Windows 95.
It’s easy to look back through a telescope with the rose-colored lenses of memory and recall the good times, as I did while taking a literal walk through memory lane. But looking at specific moments through the wrong end of the telescope, as perhaps I’ve done with my misadventures in third grade, can produce a distorted view disproportionate to everything around it. My tenure at that school was one collective memory of many that came before and after. It was a single ring in a tree that’s still adding layers of experience—triumphs and disappointments and everything in between—from other kids who have walked the same hallways I did.
Still, I’ll bet they got to go to Field Day.