School girl

I thought all girls -- regardless of color -- were heading toward vast opportunities. Then I learned the truth.


Thylias Moss
October 12, 1998 8:01PM (UTC)

Louis Pasteur Elementary School was one of the kiosks of paradise in which I sought refuge. It was the place that offered me the profundity I craved, each semester expanding concentrically, the universe enlarging as my mind did, so that my knowledge of it never actually increased; in fact, its expansion rendered me practically invisible so that I could explore undetected, without upsetting the natural progress of events. That which is unseen is also unmolested.

What I loved to do was demanded of me at school. It was my natural habitat where language swelled and swirled cyclonically, careened and dazzled as words made sense of concepts and allowed me to put them into practice, linking everything, the roads infinite, the destinations accessed by those roads infinite. School gave me an idea of what was possible for myself, transformed my dreams, challenged me in ways that increased my delight; I raced through my classes, eager for something to learn, something else to enact and embrace; I wanted to be full yet never was, despite how ravenous I was for books and everything they contained.

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When I began kindergarten, I was ready with an impressive juvenile library in my room; hundreds of books, one each week since I was a year old; now, in kindergarten, I was getting a library card and printing my name on a tracking card in the back of each book I borrowed; I surely signed all the books in the children's room, taking home seven, eight books at a time. Of my own books, the first to have lasting importance to me was "When They Were Girls," a perfect square, as I recall, five inches by five inches, in my possession when I was six.

I drew so much life from that book. "When They Were Girls" was about the childhoods of great women; their lives when they were like me. I used to rub the dark green cloth cover that distinguished it from the glossy cardboard covers of most of my juvenile books. It was not one of the "Little House" books or the Bobsey Twins books that I bought at the drugstore or at Woolworth's. Most likely it was a gift from one of the women my mother worked for, and I was meant, as I indeed was, to be encouraged by the mostly unspectacular beginnings of women who later became influential and autonomous. But since the women did not reconfigure their early lives themselves, certain dreams and thoughts, certain subjective and personal nuances were absent. And these distillations of experience into memory are what most interest me for their truth of how life is felt and perceived, for their revelation of the relationship with facts and not just facts themselves. It was a book written by someone who compiled facts, brief generalized chronologies, but who did not include the woman's own interpretation of her life, not the transformation of detail and subtlety into her daily poetry. The actual language of their lives was not there.

Even so, the facts themselves were stunning. In the book I found two mentors: Susan B. Anthony and Saint Maria Goretti. The book introduced me to many possibilities. I didn't think for one minute that little white girls and little black girls couldn't aspire to the same destiny and success. It didn't matter what culture the girls represented; I thought all girls shared something and that we were heading, all smiles and braids, to vast opportunities that we were free to imagine and reimagine. Nothing had told me otherwise. In my childhood, I was: Marie Curie, Sacajawea, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, Annie Oakley, Maria Goeppart Mayer, Margaret Mead, and Madam C. J. Walker.

I was so busy learning that I was not aware of my plainness, the unflattering way in which my hair hung of its own accord in crinkles and waves, often braids, a density of hair too great for such a narrow face, for which the eyes also were too large, the mouth too conspicuous, the forehead too high and prominent to ever appear without bangs. Yet cliffs that offer spectacular, breathtaking views jut out just that way. My parents treated me as if I comprised loveliness upon loveliness. Breathtaking view after breathtaking view. I was treated the same way in school by teachers like Mrs. Stupak, Miss Porter, Miss Matthews, and Mrs. Bullock, all women, all from Louis Pasteur Elementary School, all nurturing; they allowed children to flourish, gave us the room to grow and blossom unfettered in such an intensity of light, intensity of books and experiments. It was the ideal atmosphere for discovery. I did not feel judged. I did not have to compete. I was not given a ceiling.

Those teachers were extraordinary women for whom I shined because I was free to shine without my efforts toward shining judged. There were no obstacles. What if you had to build a castle? What would you do? How would you begin? Out of what would you build it? A castle of water? Of corn? How? What shape? Where would you build it? Why would you build a castle at all? How will you know that what you have built is a castle? In such an environment, everyone was smart, gifted, even those who eventually tested otherwise. These questions really asked: What if you had a dream? How would you realize it? How would you protect it?

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There was also French without books with a teacher who looked like de Gaulle. Years later in a graduate linguistics course, I learned that my first-grade French had been part of a study to determine whether or not there were benefits in beginning foreign language instruction in first grade instead of in fourth grade where foreign language instruction was usually introduced into the public school curriculum for the academically talented. The conclusion was that there were no significant gains as children whose initial instruction was delayed until fourth grade quickly caught up with those who had had a three-year advantage. That may be true, but the only French I can still speak with ease (although I can read and comprehend much more) is what I learned with de Gaulle. Ou est le professeur? Le professeur est devant le tableau noir. Il a un morceau d'argent a la main. He would give us licorice and silver coins for correct responses, and from the beginning conducted the class only in French. I thought that he couldn't speak English. Outdoors, de Gaulle had us lie on the ground and name with his help what we could see in the clouds. The Bastille. His face.

Those fine teachers at Louis Pasteur did not indicate to me that they thought I performed in any extraordinary way, and in their restraint and avoidance of fuss, I blossomed and thrived, at times led the class, contributed fiercely to discussions, wrote plays, shared some of my poems, played the violin as if I were inventing it and it were inventing me. All in the class perceived of ourselves as ordinary and equal. We assumed that all classes were like ours. There was no individual emphasis or glory except by accident, such as the day Jackson tattooed both of his arms in green permanent marker with expressions of undying love for me. My name up and down the full length of his arms.

Beyond that, I was left alone to discover on my own little pieces of the vastness that I did not find overwhelming, but stimulating; I would never exhaust the world, never be bored, never need to lament my inability to know everything as the vastness said such absolute knowledge was impossible. The vastness was relieving. I was surrounded by the unknowable. Louis Pasteur Elementary School, what I needed, what every child needed, now is closed.

That was so fine, discovering, not being told, but figuring out something perplexing, becoming aware of something present all along, but that had been blocked by ignorance or darkness, and then, a little speck of ignorance recedes and you are increased tenfold: sand dollars, horse shoe crabs, sea stars appear like sudden wealth, like the gushing oil well, the millions of barrels of crude that sustain you for life. You have been looking, scraping, peeling, digging, tasting, straining, and eventually there is a small result; you see for the first time something millions before you have seen, but to you it is new, as if it is coming into the world for the first time; you have seen the way the grasshopper hops; you have timed the interval between the flashes of a firefly's fire; you have turned the television to a VHF channel your area does not receive (you don't have cable) and watched and listened to the pattern of static and electronic snow for echoes of developing tornado, whispers of destruction; you have used yeast in excess, yeast insufficiently, baking soda too, Epsom salt that yielded crystals when the water evaporated, and you know some things without anyone having to tell them to you.

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I had in Louis Pasteur school the freedom to be inconspicuous yet essential because not all discoveries a child might make will duplicate discoveries already made and documented. Children are capable of genuine revelation. The teachers there were open to and even hoped for our discoveries

This freedom is something I lost upon my transfer in the middle of fourth grade to Benjamin Franklin school, where what I valued was taken away and nothing more was expected of me than the little I effortlessly gave. This academic disillusionment happened because we moved to a safer, mostly white, mostly Croatian and Serbian neighborhood, many Jewish families; we always dwelled among such families, my pale father welcomed most anywhere. The owners of the delicatessen, they lived on Trunt Avenue too (the wife's name was Deborah), where I bought jugs of milk, rye and white bread, Dandee pretzels, and Dandee barbecue potato chips, always gave me a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup when I came in; a whole carton of thirty-six for my birthday; they asked my father every year for one of my school pictures and let me sell penny candy and dill pickles from behind the counter.

I resented the new teachers and administrators for stripping me of my identity; I had so much contempt for them that I was almost ruined by it. A consuming nastiness. They thought that I was inferior, dull, should not have been in the accelerated classes I had been in, that I should not be distracted from the probably insurmountable rigors of making up my academic deficiencies -- wasn't I black? -- by instrumental music and foreign language instruction. So those activities ceased. For me, it was placement in the regular classroom.

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And I said nothing. I didn't believe it would do any good since my written school records had been disregarded, perhaps because most of my teachers at Louis Pasteur had been black women, as incompetent and inferior as I was. The official record was invalidated by white women. I watched the violin, for the last time, as it was locked in the office while the principal escorted me to Miss Bishop's regular classroom where even there, some children, you could see their haughtiness, were selected for French study and would leave room 201 while we read fourth-grade literature that I had read in second and third grades. "Little House on the Prairie." "Charlotte's Web." "Caddie Woodlawn." Why did this school want to diminish me? What had I done to them?

School could no longer be for me what it had been. It was now poisoned by attitudes not based on fact nor on performance. I ceased to be an individual. All my work was evaluated before I did it; nothing I seemed to do affected the premature assessments. School had been books, science equipment, music stands, and sheet music. School had been maps, globes, number lines, the place where any action could become an equation that turned everything into search and discovery with n, and with solving for x. School had been the periodic table of the elements that was in my third-grade classroom -- third grade! School had been a model of the atom, introduction to the joy of molecules that could be put together like linking cars in a train. School had been learning variation, cutting an apple in half along its axis and seeing wings or lungs, then cutting the apple in half at its equator and finding a star.

Just like that, dreams were over, and for the school's having snatched them so cruelly, I decided to give the school nothing else, certainly not my voice, my ideas, my participation in their discussions of books I practically knew by heart; I would not point at great cities on the map to locate the Acropolis or the Taj Mahal; I would point my finger at those teachers and administrators if I pointed it at all. I even stopped raising my hand and learned to hold in everything, even toileting needs, until I got home. I lost my primary refuge. So I became as vegetative as I could without risking placement in an actual remedial setting. The school had them. The only classes with a majority of black students.

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After a month in Miss Bishop's regular class, I became one of the smug regular students taking French, but it was nearly a year before I was fully reinstated in the gifted program and sent to Miss Pinzic's room where I remained until graduation from elementary school. The ceiling was demolished, but not the effects of having had one.

I spoke only when I was certain that I was in control of the situation and would not be challenged, and when I did speak, there was no amplification from deep within; I offered a shallow voice appropriate for the shallow treatment I received. Although once again I was educated among the so-called gifted (it was soon obvious that the gift some had received was no more than white skin), I did not reinstate my voice. I kept myself for myself.

Withholding so much, I must have appeared incapable of creativity or imagination or battle. Certainly I was not considered a sensation destined for greatness as were others in Miss Pinzic's class, some of whom went on to super gifted studies, sometimes after having appropriated my work as their own. Taking my mathematics workbooks and spiral notebooks out of my cupboard and erasing my answers, writing in sums and quotients at random so that none of my solutions were correct except on quizzes and tests. A page where all the answers were the null set against all probability. A world of only obtuse angles. Taking my written reports and erasing my name, or copying them over and accusing me of plagiarizing. I said nothing. My parents said in conferences that they would help me produce more consistent work. No one suggested therapists or counselors.

At least in Miss Pinzic's class I wasn't rereading textbooks, although I loved reading enough to be willing to experience the same book endlessly. There was always a different way to interpret the story. Sometimes I would pretend that I was someone else in a life much unlike my own and would find different parts of stories memorable for reasons unique to that life. With Miss Pinzic, I read "Wrinkle in Time," "Lord of the Flies," "Platero and I," "The Witch of Blackbird Pond," and "Profiles in Courage." I wrote a book report on Anne Frank's diary and presented a morning talk on whether or not she had been cheated because her diary would live longer than she may have lived even if the Gestapo had not found her in the secret annex. She wanted to become a famous writer, but had she lived and published books and articles, she probably would not be as famous a writer as she was for having perished before becoming one. Miss Pinzic, after that talk for which I had no assistance, began to realize a reality of my reports and my identity. She barely got to know what I could do before I was promoted to junior high school. She asked me who had given me the idea for that talk, as if the idea could not have been mine, as if I who had long in her classroom been appropriated from was an appropriator. I managed a whispered, why did you ask me that? Miss Pinzic seemed caught off guard by the question and said that she was just wondering because it was such a good idea. I meant to say, weakly, thank you, but turned and walked away having said nothing.

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Thylias Moss

Thylias Moss is a professor of English at the University of Michigan. She is the author of six volumes of poetry and two children's books.

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