Saturday, February 8, 2014

Where It All Began?

Well, as you probably noticed, I didn't post anything during the week, because I didn't write anything during the week, because...

I didn't want to.

I think the teaser for this story will probably end up being more exciting than the story itself, just because actually writing the story, for me, is not turning out to be very much fun. It's freaking me out a little. It's hard to make this exciting for you. 

Because that's what this is all about, as you know. ;)


Okay, it's actually a long story with a long back story, so it might take a few posts anyway. Might as well get started. The muscles in my arms and legs are already burning with cold fire, my hands are shaking, my body is buzzing like a strummed guitar. 

Here's what I'm about to tell you: the story of the origin of the headaches and the shame. They started at about the same time, and for the same reason. I hadn't ever put it together before, and certainly not in this context, but last week, talking to Dr. Oz, a well-worn detail of an old, old story suddenly took on new, relevant meaning.

I say it's an old, old story because it is: it all happened when I was 6 years old.

As it turns out, this story, which has nothing to do with the accident at all, has been at the very heart of everything that has happened to me since: the headaches, the shame, the PTSD, the paralysis, the fear.

Here goes nothin'...

I was in first grade at a Catholic school in Southern California.

Before we go any further, I'll stop you right there and say no, it's not that. There is no sexual or physical abuse in this story.

Or priests or nuns, for that matter. My teacher was a civilian.

Anyway, as a first-grader, I LOVED school. I was very bright, very advanced for my age. I was already a voracious reader-- I'd been reading for several years by then and was testing at 8th or 10th grade levels or something like that. I was very quiet and shy, but I liked doing well at school and was proud of my abilities. 

I still remember this so clearly: every morning, the first thing the teacher would do was write the beginning of a sentence on the blackboard. Our job was to complete the sentence however we wanted to, and then draw a picture of the "story" we had created.

Already a budding writer, I loved this daily assignment with the heat of a thousand suns. I would make my sentence as complicated and interesting as I could-- I wanted to tell a really good story so I could draw a really cool picture. 

And, as an advanced reader, I had a significant advantage over my classmates: I had a broad vocabulary of words that I could not only read but spell, as well.

Most first-graders are limited, in an activity like this, by the relatively small number of words they've been taught to spell so far, so my classmates' sentences were short and simple.

I began to get a reputation.

And then: I began to get a line of kids beside my chair, asking me for help to spell cooler words so they could write cooler sentences.

Because the teacher wouldn't help them, and I would.

Before long, students began to get in trouble for being out of their seats. There would literally be a line of them next to my desk every morning, and she'd have to disperse them and send them back to their own.

The teacher bought little paperback dictionaries and passed a classroom decree: You may not ask Katie how to spell any more words. If you want to know how to spell something, you may look it up in one of these dictionaries.

Problems with this plan included:
  1. First-graders don't know how to use dictionaries, and she didn't teach them.
  2. It is very difficult to find a word in a dictionary if you don't know how to spell it.
So nobody used the new dictionaries... 

...Except for me! I pored over them every chance I got! New words! New meanings! More to learn!


Nothing much changed, despite the teacher's insistence that nobody ask me for help. Kids still did, and I still helped. I loved to write. I loved to spell. I loved to help people make cool stories. 

The line beside my desk remained.

Another cool thing about first grade was Reading Group. I was in the highest level reading group, and instead of one reading textbook, we were given several books at a time to read and discuss over a few weeks.

I took mine home and read them all on the first night, thrilled to have a brand new pile of books to read.

Somewhere around this time, the teacher decided that I was the problem.

I remember her doing little vindictive things. Singling me out in front of everyone for the smallest of infractions. I was a very shy, quiet child-- it must have been difficult to catch me doing anything out of line-- but she managed. And she made a big deal out of humiliating me as publicly as she could.

Mostly it was little things-- she knew I was shy so she'd call on me in class or make me come to the front of the room.

Or small, mean injustices-- I was made to sit out a whole recess because I'd been shoved into the boys' restroom by some unruly boys.

I didn't understand most of it-- I remember it, but I don't remember knowing that it was directed more at me than at other people. I didn't have a sense of unfair treatment, yet.

But then, one week, we had "reading tests," where children were called up, one at a time, to sit with the teacher at her desk and read through lists of words, each list representing a grade level, and you continued until you missed too many words on the list, and that indicated your level of reading aptitude.

I couldn't WAIT.

I remember watching other kids going up there, and fidgeting in my seat, waiting for my turn. I was going to get the highest score in the whole class, I knew it, and I couldn't wait to see what it would be. I wanted to read all the way through the high school lists. I wanted to read like a college student!

I could hear kids reading, haltingly, missing some here and there, and the teacher corrected them now and then, and they kept going until it became too difficult and they couldn't read any more.

I was going to try not to miss any.

When it was finally my turn, I went up and sat next to her and began reading down the lists.

So easy.

Kindergarten. Ha.

First grade. Second grade. A snap!

Third grade. No problem! I read down the list, one word after the other, and it happened so fast that when I mispronounced the word "few," I had already read the next word before she stopped me.

"Stop." She pointed at the word. "What did you say?"

"Foo," I said.

"It's FYEW." she corrected me, loudly.

"Fyew," I repeated. I frowned. I didn't know that one. 

The teacher slammed the book closed. "That's it." she said. "These words are too hard for you. Third grade is too hard. You can't read past a third grade level."

I stared at her. "I can," I whispered.

"You CAN'T" she said. "Go to your seat." And I saw her mark it in the grade book.

And I knew, then, that she was trying to catch me out. I knew, then, that she was lying in wait for me to make a mistake, and that I was not safe in that classroom. That I couldn't tell her what I knew, or I would be in trouble.

I learned, from her, to feel shame not for what I couldn't do, but for what I could. For who I was. 

That was the first thing.

The other thing that happened that year was Minute Tests.


I was not an exceptional math student.

I was a normal math student.

For a student who was as exceptional as I was, verbally, it was extremely difficult to understand and accept being non-exceptional mathematically. 

I was the first thing I'd ever tried to learn that was hard, and that in itself was terrifying. I didn't know what to make of it.

As you might have guessed, the teacher picked up on this fear and exploited it for all it was worth.

Every Friday, we had Minute Tests, where we got one minute(or was it five minutes? anyway-- a short, finite amount of time) to answer as many addition and subtraction questions as we could.

I had extreme anxiety about these tests, because the teacher would stand by my desk and grab mine first when the time was up. 

Or she would make me come up to the blackboard to work out ones I'd missed in front of the class.

Or she would announce my score in front of everyone.

It was like she'd found a way to bring me down to size, and she was going to use it. I even remember her smiling while she did it.

I also learned, from her, to feel shame for what I couldn't do. There was simply no way to win.

I was six years old. I was shy, quiet, a lover of reading and writing and learning and school.

Until that year. My first year.

That year, on Minute Test days, I began to get debilitating headaches.

I started missing school.

I started missing a lot of school. Especially all the days when we had Minute Tests.

My mother noticed the pattern and found out about the minute tests. There was talk about me being a normal math student. There was talk about my headaches being psycho-somatic.

I also remember there being talk about me having an ulcer back then, but nothing ever came of it. I didn't have one. But I was that anxious, at six.

That was the first sign my parents had that anything was amiss at school. Apparently, I was so quiet that I never said anything about what was going on there. Maybe I just thought that was the way things went, at school. Maybe I thought I'd get in trouble if I told. Maybe I just thought I had to handle it myself. I don't know. What I do know is that I took everything that happened there and I turned it inward. 

It must have been the way I was oriented to do it from the very beginning.

At some point, my mother went in for a conference with the teacher, and was told that I had trouble staying with the rest of the class. When pressed, the teacher admitted that the "problem" was that I was reading ahead, not falling behind.

It was then that she decided I wouldn't be going back to that school the following year. For my parents, that was a pretty big deal-- they both went to Catholic schools for the majority of their education. My dad did for all of his-- all the way through college. So pulling me out after first grade was a big gesture, and I'm glad they did it.

But the damage was done, I'm afraid, and it was incredibly far-reaching.

After that first year, I missed an unbelievable amount of school throughout elementary and junior high. Nearly a third of the school year, some years. If I hadn't been such a good student, there's no way I would have passed my classes. 

I was always an extremely anxious student after that, too, and wary of recognition, although I craved it to some degree and high achievement was required of me by my parents. I always just sort of slid by with As and Bs; just enough under the radar to feel safe from scrutiny. 

School was an uncomfortable fit, instead of a creative breeding ground. I was mortified by too much praise, and too anxious to raise the bar too high for myself, but too smart to allow myself to slip too far.

But this, like PTSD, doesn't resonate so strongly in a vacuum. I was of exactly the disposition to be ruined by that first grade teacher's vindictive methods. She shaped the way I was oriented toward my education for years afterward, and she planted seeds of shame in me that I am still fighting against today, 36 years later. I found roles to fall into in my family and in my social circles that reinforced these orientations. 

We don't find truth outside of us so much as we find it within us and then find things outside of us to match what we feel on the inside, right?

I did that for years, with regard to school, because of that woman.

When I was a junior in high school, I suddenly decided to take the power back (I think this was my idea of teenage rebellion. Was I a nerd, or what?). I knew I was capable of straight As, I knew I was the only one who would benefit from them--or not-- if I chose to make them happen, and so I chose. 

And I got them. And I got them from then on. Through the rest of high school, and through college, and through grad school. Straight As. On my own terms.

It was an I Want To Live moment, even before the accident! It was a real instance of me taking a look at what was holding me back and saying nope, not having it, and kicking it to the curb and choosing a different path.

It worked, to a great extent. But it didn't erase the shame, or the habit of holding back, never showing my hand or performing to the extent that I was truly capable, or the fear and paralysis of knowing I'm not safe here. 

Those things hung around, in the deep framework, and after the accident, when the deep framework was all there was to hold things up, ta-daaa, there they were: very strong, well-formed bones, all ready to build a life upon.

So. There's the back story. Headaches and shame (and math anxiety!) sprung from a single origin, way back in first grade.

Next week, I'll tell you how this stuff came slamming into the present in a big, fat way. 


  1. really wonderful to see how it's all coming together. can't wait to read what's next!

  2. So artfully told,Kate, yet, terrible to hear the indelible mark such a self absorbed teacher can leave. And why, why, do such people want to teach children if they are so jealous of their gifts? Baffling.

  3. This is such a great story-- I KNOW that teacher. Your story will resonate with a lot of people and will help them identify the first person who shamed them for expressing their gifts-- the first time they felt that prickly, guitar-strumming feeling. Such a terrible thing, and sadly, probably something that happens in schools quite a bit. The more we can identify those moments where we felt and feel shame will help us, I bet, to avoid feeling it in the present.