It was 1983. I was in fourth grade. This had been one of the best years of my life. I gone from being child struggling with reading, spelling and math to an above average student. This dramatic change was due to one person- Mrs. Graham, my fourth grade teacher. Mrs. Graham was amazing. Her classroom was filled with plants and books and sharks in jars.
Yes, sharks in jars. A large shelf along the wall had deli size pickle jars filled with flormadhyde and sharks and deep sea specimins. The light pouring through the classroom widow would shine through the cloudy etheral liquid. There was another world inside those jars, a world far away from alcholic fathers and miles of waving wheat. This was a world of crystal blue oceans and summer deep sea dives. I would stare at the jars for hours and would see beyond the floating deatlhly stillness. I would not sorrow for the baby shark, its life cut short, I would marvel that there was another day and another way to live.
In this reverie, Mrs. Graham spoke to me. She understood that I was not dumb, merely struggling. She created an IEP for me years before I would even understand what those intials meant. She went back to the begining, to cat and sat, while my peers worked on words like encyclopedia. She would draw happy faces on my homework and tests, as I turned in the work of a first grader in a room of fourth graders.
She helped me learn how to shine.
It felt odd to be good at school. I had been a failure for so long. I had failed first grade and ever since had been in the same grade as my little sister. My sister Esther was very good at school. Her work was neat and orderly. She had many friends and knew "her outside voice from her inside voice." She was small and somewhat shy, and she was an excellent student. I had always been her older sister and sometimes protector, but I had never been the smart one.
At the time, I had never heard of dyslexia and could not explain why reading and writing was so hard for me. I remember telling my Mrs. Graham how to spell my name on my report card and getting it wrong. I said it was MCcanless when it should have been McCanless.
The next morning Esther and I hurriedly gathered our school supplies and I gave my father the report card. My father was furious at the error in capitalization as he signed the card. He began to write hurtful things to Mr. Graham in the comment box. I grew worried and upset. It was not her fault. As my face grew red, I stammered "No, Daddy. It was my mistake. I told her to write it that way. "
My father looked up at me. I had been brushing my hair moments before. My pink hair brush lay on the table beside me. It was a pretty brush. It was pink translucent epoxy resin. The bristles were white and were sunk deep within the resin handle. Like all brushes of its ilk it was very heavy.
Dad's hand moved like lightening. He grabbed the brush off the table spilling my pile of school books and stuck me across the side of my face. I fell back and out of the corner of my eye I saw my little sister Esther dart out the front door and run on to school. Dad stood up and towered over me as he screamed at me. He said my teacher was stupid for listening to a girl who could not even spell her own name.
I crawled around the floor picking up my books and papers as I listened to his tirade. I pulled my body away from his feet and hands and numbly gathered the rumpled report card and left for school. I was going be late. My fingers touched the side of my face. There was going to a large welt.
When I got to school, I waited in the hall for Mrs. Graham. I apologized for the sad condition of my report card and for my father's comments. I explained that I had gotten in trouble for my incorrect spelling, hence my swollen face. Mrs. Graham sat beside me on the stair step outside of the classroom. She held my hand and said she would help in any way she could.
I sat beside her for an eternity as the dust motes fell within the beams of light coming through the hallway window. As students sat within the classroom, copying line after line of spelling words. I told Mrs. Graham about fists and switches and fathers who tell their daughters stories of birds and bees when they are much too young. I told her all these things and trusted she would find a way to help me out of the hellish life I was living. I had never told an adult outside of my family about abusive life I lived. Mrs. Graham hugged me and gave me a Kleenx to dry my tears and I went into the class.
And that was that. Perhaps Mrs. Graham thought it was not her place to intercede. Perhaps she was scared of my father too. This was the time before teachers and doctors were required to report abuse. I would spend the next seven years living with my father.
I still loved Mrs. Graham, but I did not trust her anymore. I had learned a final lesson from Mrs. Graham. Sometimes when your life is hellish, you have to save yourself.