While sorting through my bookcase one afternoon, I found this old story and thought it fit well with my hopes for 2017. To once again be that soaring eagle!
When I was in first grade we were separated into reading groups. Those that excelled were the soaring eagles, and those that were well on their way, but not quite there yet, were the leaping frogs. Then there were the learning turtles. They were on the very bottom of the totem-learning pole—fish bait for the over achievers and brainy kids. I was a learning turtle. I loved to read but I struggled, and like a turtle, I had a pace that qualified as “perpetually falling behind.” It would be a while before I could tackle, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I longed to be a soaring eagle. They were like an elite social group that only smarter, cooler kids could join. I so desperately wanted to identify with an animal that was an American trademark, and not one that had the athletic capacity of a paper cup.
Our teacher Mrs. Clone, a short, pudgy woman in her fifties, terrified us to our very core. Her raspy voice and tinted fingertips suggested she was a chain-smoker. Her Donald-Trump hair, haphazardly combed to the side, gave you the impression that she preferred an effortless life, one unconsumed by female frivolities. High heels and pencil skirts were foregone for sensible beige shoes and tweed pants. Mrs. Clone was practical and never minced her words. I remember an afternoon crying while I went through my workbook, erasing all the math problems I had so courageously decided to do on my own. “You won’t do something unless I tell you to,” she barked, as my classmates looked on in fear. Math homework never seemed so traumatic!
One December morning we were all ordered to the front of the class and formed a single line. I watched as, one by one, the students formed a row, our black and yellow plaid uniforms creating a menagerie of colors and print. The boys and girls meandered to the front over the sound of desks clamoring and seats being huddled to the sides. They twisted their elbows nervously; the girls tended to their locks, making sure their pleated skirts were tidy. The closer I got to the board, the stronger the smell of chalk, bananas, and cigarettes became.
Slowly, Mrs. Clone took out our reading book from a small metal drawer that clinked loudly when shut. She turned to her left where Jonathan stood meekly. Jonathan was a light-haired introvert who was a soaring eagle. What he lacked in confidence, he made up for in spelling. He glanced around the chalkboard probably wishing it would open up to a hidden vortex leading to anyplace but there. Mrs. Clone handed him the book and commanded, “I want you all to read this story one by one.” Jonathan nervously began to read, but before he could get to the second sentence, he was abruptly cut off. “Next!” Mrs. Clone shouted. The book was passed down the line, like a tasty Thanksgiving dish, only not as appetizing. After each child had read the same sentence, Mrs. Clone yelled, “Next!”
The students stood completely bewildered, questioning why they were all being dismissed so erratically. And then it dawned on me. I knew why Mrs. Clone was frustrated. Each student was forgetting to read the title before diving into the story. When it was finally my turn, a small red-head handed me the book, her eyes defeated. I took the book, swallowed hard, and began from the very top, expecting that husky voice to interrupt at any moment. But the words kept flowing and eventually I finished. I looked up, suddenly aware of the palpable tension. An audible “Good” escaped Mrs. Clone’s lips. She then motioned me with her index finger, and as I got close enough, she said something even more erratic and out of place. “After the Christmas holidays, you’re going to be a leaping frog.” I stared blankly, letting it all register.
That moment alone erased all the excruciating Math classes spent in humiliation, all the long hours tackling nouns and verbs, and all the moments of being intimidated by cigarette breath. My fears of the cursed turtle were replaced with new hope of someday getting to the top of that totem pole; of wanting more, of eventually being an eagle.
And a few months later…I was.