“What are you doing? Are you insane? Someone WILL see you, you know.”
My friend hissed these words as she remained safely on the ground. I looked down at her from what appeared to be a monstrous height yet was one of maybe twelve or thirteen feet, tops.
Why was a fourth grader balancing precariously on a bookshelf, in a pleated, checkered school uniform, no less? I’ll start at the beginning.
I was the painfully shy kid in elementary school (though to be fair, I suppose many were). Beginning in kindergarten, teachers expressed concerns about my unwillingness to read aloud. I’d stammer and exert a mental concentration surely equivalent to that of a brain surgeon when holding a book in my hands. But no matter how hard I tried, the words simply wouldn’t come. She may have a learning disability, my tutors insisted. Perhaps she’s just a bit behind. Nothing to be ashamed of. Many kids struggle with reading.
After a few rounds of painful parent-teacher conferences and some tears on my end, it was decided I would attend a summer camp for those needing extra practice in subjects such as reading and math. My parents dropped me off every morning and collected my exhausted self (along with the day’s art projects) in the sweltering afternoons.
Summer camp isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—especially when it revolves around school work. Maybe it was a six-year-old’s daily frustration at being cooped up in a blisteringly hot classroom for four to five hours with a playground begging to be used just yards away. Or maybe it was the continual feeling of inadequacy I noticed after little success at reading in front of others. Whatever it was, something changed in that shy little girl, and one day, to the joy and subsequent bewilderment of the summer school teachers, she began to speak without a single stumble or pause.
This new (and rapid) development resulted in the immediate paging of yet another specialist, one who knocked on the door during classes every morning to lead me by the hand to her crowded office down the hall.
“Read any book you’d like,” she’d instruct in her singsong voice. “And don’t forget, I’ll be asking you some questions at the end of each one!”
After several meetings, she caught onto something the others hadn’t. With a strange expression on her face, the specialist pulled a second book off the shelf, and when I was finished with that one, she selected another, a few more, and eventually several at a time. By the end of our daily sessions together, books were stacked dangerously close to the edge of her desk, and not just any books, but encyclopedias, the classics, and even the Bible.
After some time my parents were called in. They listened with astonishment as my teachers and specialist with the melodic voice announced their daughter “had the reading ability and comprehension of a student at the high school level—or eighth grade, at the minimum.” After leaving that conference, my mother informed me I no longer had to attend the summer camp.
“But, Mom!” I protested. “I don’t want to leave. We’re performing Chicken Little: The Musical next week!”
(Yes. That was indeed the performance I looked forward to that summer. We made beaks from surgical masks. I’m still waiting for its Broadway debut.)
And so I began first grade with the confidence only a pint-sized girl could muster. Teachers learned this unexpected discovery about one of their pupils also meant because her brain would store such huge chunks of information at once, the words would trip over themselves in their effort to escape from her mouth. For this reason, I stayed in the tutoring sessions for several years.
Kids can be cruel. Unbelievably cruel. Surprisingly, some Catholic schools are breeding grounds for bullying (or unsurprisingly, depending on who you ask). To be sure, such an observation doesn’t discredit the Catholic faith. A few bad eggs in a school shouldn’t cause a system’s downfall if its purpose is noble and true. But my teachers were less than supportive, and though they didn’t realize it at the time, their public admonishing and disbelief at my reading ability fueled the fire.
The library became my second home. I would slink away in the afternoons to take solace in the seemingly endless mountains of books ready to be opened. But the others found me after a week or two of disappearances, and the taunts began. Pulling at my hair and sweater, they’d tease me and rip the books I was carrying out of my hands. And it was through these developments I found myself perched on the edge of a bookshelf one day, trying to retrieve the novels the tallest of my classmates haphazardly threw on its surface. I received a stern reprimand from the librarian, but it didn’t matter. They were safe.
As the years passed, my world revolved around that cavernous space. It was in the library I used my Christmas and birthday money to purchase cartloads of new reads during the yearly Scholastic Book Fairs. It was in the library I sought refuge as a seventh grader when even the principal refused to stop the worst of my peers because his own child was on her parents’ payroll. And it was in the library I first developed an understanding of what it meant to be depressed as an eighth grader, though I didn’t know it yet. And it was in that same library, hugging my stockinged legs to my chest, I first wished for an end to it all.
I didn’t want to die, of course, and I wish I realized that in those moments. I just wanted to stop living, or at the very least, “check out” by hitting the fast forward button on my life for a solid ten to fifteen years until I reached a place surely happier and more alive than the one I found myself in.
Today, I still connect with adults far easier than “kids” my age. If I see someone I know on my college campus and my anxiety intensifies for reasons unbeknownst to me, my walking pace accelerates to that of a cheetah after accidentally making eye contact with the wrong lion across the watering hole.
But ask me to summarize a classic or list the memorized names of obscure dinosaur species from an encyclopedia, and I will do so without hesitation and maybe with a little smile.