The View from a Library Bookshelf and Other Stories About Private School

By the end of our daily sessions together, books were stacked dangerously close to the edge of her desk…

Advertisements

“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.

Ten Days in Kraków: Part Three

Twenty-four hours later, I found myself in a crowded hospital room. Flies escaped from the open windows as music trickled in from the main road. They provided two blankets and little else. Before coming to see me, the doctors asked, “American?” And gave each other knowing glances.

I left the next day with the diagnosis of heatstroke, a splitting headache and without a pair of shoes.

Under strict orders to rest, I insisted on going for a walk in the country. My eyes taking a few moments to become adjusted to the glaring sun, I stumbled into the middle of the day. Chickens roamed across the road as we walked single-file down the concrete path. A menacing German Shepherd barked from behind a wooden fence—and an elderly woman several hundred yards away replied fiercely. Speed limits were ignored as drivers would palm the wheel and read from the sports section of the newspaper. Children rode their bicycles without fear—there was no need for helmets. Without a schedule, a constant need to plan every event in their life, they introduced to us the idea of living with greater freedom.

On our final morning in Poland, we stepped into the fog to board our bus, robotically munching on bananas during the drive. The landscape shifted to the industrial buildings of Warsaw once again, only this time there was no droning by a frazzled tour guide— and we were very much awake. The driver, both hands gripping the wheel, stared straight ahead. We had interrupted their leisurely pace of life with World Youth Day. They were tired of us. But we were not tired of them.

One year later, I turn on the news in the United States to witness whatever occurred that day: a shooting, workers’ strike, street riots and so on. But if I close my eyes, I see a stone-faced Polish soldier in fatigues eagerly accepting an American flag while exclaiming, “I love your country!” I watch as a group of international students chant, “USA! USA!” as we board our train. What is it about our nation that I am not seeing? The only answer I can provide is this: sometimes I must leave to appreciate what is waiting at home.

 

Ten Days in Kraków: Part Two

While others followed the crowds, we would duck into convenience stores to sample Polish candy or stop at food stalls to try grilled cheese and cranberries. Rather than use meal tickets during our first full night in the country, we bravely downed glasses of beet juice at a fancy restaurant, the taste lingering for hours. The second-oldest church in the nation was discovered a half-mile from our hotel on the third day, its crumbling doors revealing the carefully preserved interior of a building still filled to capacity every weekend.

The days melted into one another until Saturday arrived. We woke before dawn, trying in vain to rub the sleep from our eyes while hurriedly stuffing supplies into our packs: a sleeping bag, flashlight, scarf, water bottles. We began our journey as the sun rose, our steps illuminated by the purple shadows of the sky. The cobblestones beneath our feet became paved roads as we continued the nine-mile trek to Campus Misericordiae, the Field of Mercy. Packed tightly together like sardines, the pilgrims marched on. Lunch was slightly smashed apples and sandwiches eaten in a cornfield, the grasshoppers settling themselves on the blades of grass before leaping onto a girl’s food.

After hours of walking, we neared the end. The dots in the distance morphed into cottages with thatched roofs and curious villagers peering outside at the frenzy of activity in the streets. The feeling of celebration was contagious; children ran to the gates to proudly wave Polish flags. An elderly man, garden hose in hand, balanced on top of a brick wall to send showers into the crowd. His efforts were met with a chorus of cheers.

Stars began to explode in my vision. Approaching the field, my legs turned to lead. Within a matter of minutes, my face met the cool grass. I became unaware of the ensuing panic. One hour passed. Then, two. I found myself in a stationary ambulance as a medic made disapproving noises. “She must go back,” he said with a heavy accent. It was decided, then. I would walk the four miles to flag a taxi. Mouth set in a firm line, the chaperone scanned the area for another option.

She turned on her heel and marched over to a soldier. Twirling the gun between his fingers, he silenced her words with a curt nod. We would continue. As we ventured down the streets, the police cars and machine guns painted a strange picture with the crowds of young people dragging carts of boxed dinners back to the field. Hours passed before we made it back to the hotel. Our taxi driver, his eyebrows knit with confusion, cursed when he discovered we were driving in the wrong direction. Upon returning to the hotel, my roommate was given stern instructions to keep a watchful eye on me.

Problem was, she’s a deep sleeper.

Ten Days in Kraków: Part One

The first post on my time in Poland during the summer of 2016.

Police cars, lights still flashing, lay abandoned by the side of the road. Mountains of trash—water bottles, torn backpacks, ripped sneakers—lined the streets as members of the national army stood solemnly at attention, cradling machine guns in their gloved hands. Reminiscent of a riot scene, the swarms of young people, every group proudly waving their country’s flag high above their heads, created a happy chaos stating this moment was anything but.

The beginning of World Youth Day, a religious pilgrimage uniting myself and millions of other Catholics, was spent with a harried tour guide who droned on about the historical implications of the war on Poland as our eyes slowly closed. The driver, one hand perched on the wheel, shouted into a flip phone as the bus, the only vehicle on the highway, veered from left-to-right. Warsaw, with its stark industrial buildings, dozens of car dealerships and strangely ornate McDonald’s dotting the countryside every few miles, became the overwhelming beauty of Kraków, a city left virtually untouched by the bombings during the war.

The first few days were a jet-lagged blur of midnight dinners in a renovated cobblestone barn and late breakfasts in a courtyard with the peculiar statue of a bell-shaped man standing proudly in the center. I heard stories of these artistic pieces from my grandmother, a first-generation Polish American, and was immediately drawn to the idea of visiting her former home. This nation was unlike anything I had ever experienced—and I loved it for that.

A rhythm was slowly created in Kraków. We would take our time eating breakfast before traveling to the center of the city to grab pastries at a coffee shop. The locals on the tram eyed us with suspicion. With our bright red government-issued backpacks and teal bandannas, we stuck out as obvious foreigners. Women were eager to begin a conversation. They told us in broken English how they housed Americans in their homes during the last pilgrimage. The men would simply nod in our direction, taking long drags of their cigarettes while staring at the blur of colors beyond the windows.

Our days were scheduled and calculated: a morning catechesis session in the 15,000-seat Tauron Arena Kraków, then a quick train ride to use our meal tickets in the square before traveling several miles to Błonia Park to attend Mass with 700,000 other pilgrims.

But our group was never the type to stick to schedules.

Pencils, Pills, and Quick Fixes: Revisiting Those Last Few Weeks of College

It wasn’t that I didn’t have the images ingrained in my mind. I just didn’t want to be right about them.

It was the end of the spring semester when my English professor decided to give us one last assignment. He instructed his students to depict the difference between disappointment and regret in a series of drawings, a task not uncommon for those who loved this sort of “thought exercise.” As the noise from twenty-five pencils swelled, I stared blankly at the sheet of paper for several minutes before picking up my own. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the images ingrained in my mind. I just didn’t want to be right about them.

For me, disappointment became a figure staring up at the sky, his frame perched on the edge of a hill. But regret was different. Regret was molded into a man, his back to the observer, thinking of all the things left unsaid as he watches a car disappear down the winding road. And when I was done, those crudely drawn depictions resonated with me.

I had dinner with some friends in the days leading up to final exam week. We had a nice time—the meals were full of good conversation and some laughs. The trials I experienced over the school year deepened those friendships and forced me to do some soul-searching. I was always too focused on my own worries and choices to realize that yes, life does go on. Taking pride in others’ accomplishments is more than an action or feeling—it’s a continual exercise in humility I so desperately need as a college student.

Sometimes I feel ashamed because the conditions I swallow pills to stifle aren’t physical. They caused some hospitalizations and nasty physical effects, to be sure, but they aren’t physical. They’re mental. And sometimes I feel “less than” because of that fact, as if I have no business wallowing in their side effects or asking for help. The solutions I turned to to suffocate these insecurities were merely quick fixes, and I still don’t have all the answers. But sometimes I must look beyond my own struggles to observe what I’ve often missed in others’.

 

Mrs. Lee and Me

Those tears showed a side to humanity I rarely saw in the often impersonal classroom.

I first met Mrs. Lee* in the sixth grade. A quick-witted, brilliant instructor with a penchant for Michael Jackson’s music, she rattled my small Catholic school. The English teachers before her succumbed to the methods only middle schoolers can devise, and we naively assumed she wouldn’t last the month.

Not Mrs. Lee. She made an impression on our class when we noticed the running sneakers she wore under her “teacher clothes.” We would learn months later she was an accomplished runner and rarely missed a day to get in those seven miles before the 8 AM bell.

English class became the best forty-six minutes of those tortuous eight hours. If my classmates and I finished our schoolwork early, Mrs. Lee would regale us with stories of her life in Arizona, a foreign place to most of us New Yorkers. We listened in wonder as she talked about her experiences in the Southwest and the occasional meeting with a coyote or peccary. A petite woman dwarfed by several of her male students, she danced with a force to the King of Pop’s “Thriller” during school pep rallies that made us stand slack-jawed in disbelief.

At the year’s end, we learned Mrs. Lee would be moving back to Arizona with her husband and daughter to teach at a boarding school. I watched as my Spanish teacher—her best friend—hugged her for what seemed like an eternity on the last day of school. During her tearful goodbye, Mrs. Lee promised to visit and reminded the class to “keep reading.” In return, I began my summer vacation by shoving my classes’ required reading materials into a shoebox under the bed.

One year later, I descended the school bus steps on a bitter January afternoon to find my mother waiting by the side of the road. My stomach dropped when I saw her face. I learned my beloved English teacher passed away over the weekend from a brain aneurysm.

She was 28 years old and pregnant with her second child.

To a young, impressionable middle schooler with little understanding of death, this was a slap in the face. I lived comfortably with the knowledge that I had three surviving grandparents and the fourth, an incredible grandfather and educator I never had the privilege of meeting, was surely in Heaven. The fragility of life threw my own into disarray. My movements became mechanic, thoughts muddled, and when a friend asked me why I hadn’t cried during the school’s memorial service, I burst into tears and couldn’t remember how to stop. Now, I realize my tears came from a place not only of pain, but regret. I would give anything to let her know she never needed to apologize for crying over the ending in Where the Red Fern Grows, or Old Yeller, or any of the other books she read to us with a box of tissues by her side. Those tears showed me a side to humanity I rarely saw in the often impersonal classroom.

Fast forward to the present. It’s been six years since Mrs. Lee’s death. I am now a college sophomore with faded memories and short-lived ideas. But when I have trouble recalling my teacher’s advice, I slip into my own pair of running shoes to engage in what I initially adopted in her memory yet grew to love on my own.

When I was younger, I used to wonder where exactly Heaven was. I’ve grown to understand it’s in a place beyond my comprehension, but wherever it is, I know Mrs. Lee’s found a place to run with the most incredible view.

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

 

How Cooking Reminded Me to Take My Mental Health off the Back Burner

These small achievements give me the courage to fight what makes it difficult to keep going at times.

I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD in the fall of my freshman year of college. After a rough two semesters, I left my campus with the worry that the struggles I faced would creep back into my life sophomore year.

Cooking dinner every night began out of frustration. I made a promise to myself at the start of the summer that I would do something with the few months I was home. No eating chips on the couch, no lying in bed all day due to a mental state resembling grief. I was going to make something of myself. But obsessively counting calories and exercising at all hours of the day turned me into a wreck by the second week. This wasn’t what I imagined it to be.

Even after donning an apron for the first time this summer, I was skeptical. My relationship with food is tenuous at best, and I’ve struggled with maintaining that balance of health and confidence for as long as I can remember. I was “that chubby kid” in middle school—the girl who used food as a comfort during an often turbulent time. Though I slimmed down in high school and continue to maintain a thin frame, I worried the seed of self-doubt would again be planted.

I then had a thought. My preoccupation with food and its impact on my mental health was really about something else. Though it is sometimes difficult to feel in control with a mood disorder, I wanted to exercise ownership over at least one aspect of my life. After all, mental illness has the capacity to take so many things away from sufferers. Identity, independence, accountability. And those are just some of the big ones. The others—the willpower to get out of bed in the morning, the desire to eat real meals, the ability to tell someone you need help—they may be ripped away from you. For me, overcoming those obstacles is huge, because the little victories become incredible ones.

And so it began.

I love the way I can perfume a house with the smell of ginger and garlic cloves. I love how the scent of smoked salmon seeps into my hair and clothes long after dinner has been made. These small achievements give me the courage to fight what makes it difficult to keep going at times.

I still wake up in the morning with that all-too-familiar feeling of dread. I still lapse into a mindset that sometimes seems impossible to crawl out of. Anxiety whispers phrases and plans repeatedly in my head until my brain feels like it is going to implode on itself. And, occasionally, when the fog hasn’t lifted and my heart beats a million miles a minute, I start to believe I won’t last the year.

But cooking gives me a purpose in life. Feeding people gives me a purpose in life. It’s not a cure-all. Medication, therapy, and the people I love give me the strength to keep going. Yet when I close my eyes and imagine that cake baking in the oven, suddenly, I don’t feel as if I’m hanging onto this world by a thread. I am reminded it’s always worth searching for new solutions—my mind has value even when it seems to be working against itself.