Kneecaps and Noses

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Sample chapter from my memoir project, From the Other Seat. "She’s a caring teacher and I like her but she’s rushing me along because class only lasts for so many hours and the parent-teacher meeting is tomorrow night. It’s pertinent I fill in all the boxes."

I drew it, didn’t I? Labored over the details of that illustrated depiction of myself in a doctor's coat, stethoscope, standing next to a smiling dog like I was competing for a gold medal. Well, I was. I always was. The subject matter wasn’t entirely untrue but truth be told, grown ups had reason to eye me cautiously when I said, “Veterinarian”. Mom, however, was blindly enthusiastic. Her little girl was so ambitious! She’d take her love of animals and all those brains and really apply herself. She’d have a career, a proper salary, oh the thought of it brought tears of joy to her eyes. Mom would ask me to repeat it to neighbors and Grandmas too, nudging my shoulder to encourage me, “Tell them what you told me,” she’d say. I, in my little yellow tee shirt and blue shorts with the racer stripe would whisper, “I’m going to be a Veterinarian” while kicking my rubber-toed shoe at the ground because with every admission, my confidence waned.

The reactions I received were mixed. A few of these adult figures considered the idea offensive. Medicine? Blood? What was I thinking? That’s not what a sweet little girl like me wanted, they’d proclaim. That was a messy dirty job, a hard job and what’s worse, I’d come home smelling like animals. I must have been mistaken, they said.

Truthfully, I was, but like Mom, I figured if I said it enough, the declaration might start to feel true.

There’s a teacher leaning down, bending close to my ear. She must think I’ve been stunned stupid because I’m staring blankly at the “When I grow up I want to be a …” box. She’s a caring teacher and I like her but she’s rushing me along because class only lasts for so many hours and the parent-teacher meeting is tomorrow night. It’s pertinent I fill in all the boxes. And like most adults who assume my brain is simply not turning she nudges me along suggesting the usual careers that come with uniforms. Quietly, I suggest to her loose ideas that are on my mind. I want to invent things, I say. Like an inventor? Like stories, I tell her. Honey, that’s what we call a liar, she says in that way that grown ups do when they don't mean to sound condescending, but you're little and they're big and they're sure they've uncovered some tainted area of your mind they must correct. And I'd really like to respond, but I've that sensation where my throat swells shut and I feel feverishly warm and it's hard to hear with my heart beating in my ears because I've realized she's totally misunderstood my intentions but I'm not yet articulate enough to defend my position so instead I sit motionless, fermenting in our new discomfort. My pencil cuts deep into my finger where a permanent callous will eventually form from years of holding on too tight. 

Jeeze louise, I could have sworn I was telling the honest to goodness truth.

Teacher’s hand is still on my shoulder. She hasn’t given up on me yet. After all, the box is still blank.

Do you mean an Author? She asks. I shrug, my thoughts still a jumbled mess. That’s a person who makes stories into books, she confirms. 

Oh! yes, I nod, that sounds about right. Sweet redemption!

Oh honey, you don’t want to be a writer. So few people succeed.

She’s flabbergasted. After all, a writer doesn’t wear a costume and well, what on earth would I draw? But now I’m keeping my thoughts to myself because, man oh man do I hate when I say the wrong thing. I am her bright shinning star so long as I remain exemplary, but how easy it is to fall from grace! I thought I was immune to failure, that I could never lose her favor, yet it seems I’ve gone and disappointed her. My heart feels sore. It loosens and drops into my gut where it will stay while I beat myself up over this minor event for days and days. Even after I complete the assignment and receive praise I’ll be convinced Teacher no longer believes I am good. I will begin to falter, only briefly, until I have her attention again; until I’m sure she still considers me special. But I will not do any of this consciously and therein lies the danger.

With a restless hand, Teacher pushes her blonde hair behind her ear. Her face is a mixture of determination and frustration. She leans in closer to me and I know she’s regretting again having cut her hair so short. She’s self-conscious about the puffy cropped head that is now her own. I know this about Teacher and I wish I could tell her I think it looks nice, but those stubborn strands fall in her face as she plants her finger on my paper and I feel her impatience rattle my desk like a subatomic tremor.

A career is something that you go to college for and that earns you money, she explains. And though these concepts elude me, I try to follow along. She suggests something with animals because, well, I do love animals. But I can’t just “save the animals”, I have to narrow that down. How about where my family takes my dog to the doctor, she’s asking. A doctor, but for animals is called a Veterinarian. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I think of the way my dog fans out her paws on legs stiff like rigor mortis; nails desperately trying to catch a snag on slick linoleum in her panic to prevent the coming of where she knows she's going; that look of abject terror in her eyes and the overwhelming sense of guilt I feel every time we take her there to the vet, but I nod to Teacher because I’m failing this interrogation and it’s becoming exhausting for both her and I. At least Veterinarian gives me something to draw, I think; something to flaunt at parent-teacher night. I know that’s what Teacher's thinking, too.

Needless to say, my feigned passion for veterinary services didn’t hold up to future interrogations and while I hated to disappoint Mom, she grew wise like Moms do. Collectively and without words, attention was refocused on the actual drawing of the woman with the smiling dog. All agreed, Teacher included, the drawing was surprisingly developed for my age.

Attention to detail.

I was drawing kneecaps, noses, fingernails and stitching on jeans while other kids were still working on their stick figures. Scrupulous about my observations, I set about translating my universe at a very early age, thus, I was deemed “heavily gifted in the Arts”. This, I supposed, was an acceptable consolation.

Many teachers to come would applaud my creative imagination. A natural, they said. You can be proud of your child because today your daughter wrote a story about climbing a mountain and sitting on a golden egg. They were happy to encourage it because my grades were of the highest in class. Like my Dad, I had a special interest in the sciences and in later years I would be placed in advanced English, which I loved even more.

Every year I made the honor roll and everything that involved a bit of creativity I won stickers, awards and praise. I was shy and eager to please which made teachers so taken with me they plumb ignored the fact that I never turned in worksheets that had anything to do with clocks or rulers. Must have been some clerical error, they thought. How could such a smart girl not be able to read a clock or a ruler? It was a secret I kept. Bring on the algebra, but please don’t ask me what time it is. And when you’re helping Dad in the tool room and he asks you to measure the length of that 2” by 4”, just stay quiet until he does it for you.

Problem solved.

 

 

 

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