“Two and two are…? Anyone?” asked a young woman with long curly blond hair. Many of the small children seated at the circular table around her stopped their eyes from wandering about the large and brightly colored room and attempted to focus their attentions on the adult standing in their center. Several of the children continued with other pursuits as the teacher patiently waited. One tiny girl sat looking thoughtfully at her teacher as if she were also patiently waiting for something to happen; the teacher could feel herself beginning to squirm beneath those dark eyes. She felt unreasonably relieved when one of the other children was the first to speak.
“Five!” a chubby boy with thick glasses called from a space on the teacher’s left.
“Very good, Evynstyn!” The teacher said with a good-natured smile. “Does anyone else have an answer?”
A small hand shot confidently skyward just as another of the children yelled out, “Seven!”
“Very good, Taffinia!” The teacher nodded approvingly. “Anyone else?”
Once again, the small hand raised and the young girl beneath it wiggled in her seat as if the answer were alive inside her and trying to wriggle free. The teacher scanned the group from her position in the center of the circle, her eyes hastily jumping past the eyes of her most animated student to land on a girl to the right.
“Jennifrika? Do you have an answer?”
The chosen girl blushed and timidly whispered out the word, “One?”
“Oh, Jennifrika!” the teacher cried, “That’s perfect!” The teacher clapped her hands joyfully. “What a bright girl you are!”
The wiggling little body could stand it no longer and she rose from her seat. “Ms. Blandingsworth?” she said boldly, “The correct answer to the question is ‘four’. Those other kids are wrong.”
At first the teacher went white, but then her face quickly reddened and she shouted, “Mary Jones! I should’ve known that you’d be trouble. I don’t know what your last learning group was like, but this learning group isn’t like that. We don’t talk that way here.” She quickly passed outside of the circle and stood beside Mary’s spot on the bench that surrounded the class’ oblong desk, her arms crossed almost protectively before her chest. “You will apologize to your fellow learners right now.”
Mary stood silently defiant. As she ran over the whole thing in her mind, she could not think of a single thing that she needed to apologize for, even if she could hear the beginning sniffles of the timid girl next to her.
The teacher’s hand quickly raised and Mary could almost imagine that this woman would strike her for her disobedience, so angry was her demeanor, but the teacher stabbed a finger toward Mary’s tote bag and then stabbed again toward the doorless opening of the classroom. “Very well, young lady. If you refuse to apologize for hurting the feelings of your groupmates, then I have no choice. You will pick up your things and march right up to the office right this instant,” the teacher commanded shrilly. Mary carefully gathered her belongings and made her way toward the hall. Just as she exited the room she could hear the woman call after her in a tone that sounded too much like glee, “And don’t be surprised if they call your parents!”
As Mary walked down the gleaming corridors of her new school following a path of purple dinosaur tracks that she had been told would lead her to the office, she pondered the reaction of the woman they had chosen to be her teacher. Neither the reaction of her teacher nor that of the timid girl made any sense to her, but she was sure that this would all be straightened out once she spoke to the principal; she was certain it would.
Sitting silently in the hall outside the opening for what was obviously an office, despite its lack of a sign to that effect, Mary gazed about her new surroundings. The walls were covered in pastel butterflies and there were images of happy looking bugs painted at intervals along the baseboards. If the surroundings were any indication of the school, then the teacher had been right in suggesting that this wasn’t anything like her last school, but she hadn’t expected it to be that way. Her last school had been more concerned with what the children were learning than with what the children were feeling. There had been no butterflies or smiling bugs flittering along the walls; her last school didn’t need any illusions of happiness because it had made the learning itself fun. Her last school had been run by her father.
A voice interrupted her thoughts. “Mary?”
While she had been lost in her memories a rather strange looking woman in a garish t-shirt and blue jeans had walked up to her. Mary acknowledged that she was the girl in question, and the strange woman ushered her into a room. After a few moments Mary realized that she was now in the principal’s office, although it was like no office she had ever seen; there was no desk and the only furniture seemed to be a group of comfortable chairs nestled together in the center of the room. The woman quickly flopped into one of the chairs and indicated that Mary should take another. Quickly Mary realized that this person was the principal.
“I’m Ms. Lovinghouse, Mary… but you may call me Lovey. After you’ve been with us a while you’ll learn that all the children here call me Mama Lovey, though, but I will wait until you feel comfortable enough to call me that. Now, honey. Do you know why you’re here?”
“No, Mrs. Lovinghouse.” Mary said politely.
“It’s Ms., dear, and remember to call me Lovey.” The principal corrected.
“Yes, ma’am.” Mary replied.
Patting Mary’s hand, the principal told her, “No need to be so formal, sweetie. We’re going to be good pals, you and I. I’m good pals with all the children. You’ll see.”
“Yes, ummm… Ms… ummm… Lovey.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard now was it?” The principal reassured her. “Now, my dear, the reason you are here to see me today is that your teacher said that you were being disruptive in your group room today.”
“How?” Mary asked.
“Well, darling, Ms. Blandingsworth said that you stood up in class…”
“I’m sorry about that. I’ll apologize to her ma’am.”
“Mary, we don’t have any rules about standing up in class, darling. You were just expressing yourself, and that’s wonderful, but, Mary… You told the other children that they were wrong.”
“But… But they were wrong and Ms. Blandingsworth was acting like they weren’t. She was letting them think they were right.”
“Mary, honey, I know that you think that you were helping your groupmates to learn, but your teacher knows better ways of teaching than you do, doesn’t she?”
“But they were wrong…” Mary insisted.
“We don’t teach that way, Mary. Maybe your last learning facility did, but that doesn’t make our way of teaching wrong, dear.” Noticing the look of consternation on Mary’s face, the principal quickly added, “And it doesn’t make your old learning facility wrong either, dear. Just different. When you’re older, you’ll understand. After all, you’re only seven…”
“I’m six.” Mary corrected.
“Well, Mary dear. I can see what the problem is now. You’re obviously in the wrong group.” She said cheerfully and then mumbling, added, “Funny. Your transcript shows that you were being taught at the first learning group level…” Lovey drifted off as she contemplated the situation she was now faced with. Finally her gleaming smile returned and she beamed down at Mary. “I’ll take care of this right away, dear.”
Mary was led quietly back to her bench in the hallway to await her new group assignment. Oddly, her new school wasn’t really a school; she could hear the woman answering the phone, calling it State Learning Facility number 10045. And her class hadn’t really been a class; they’d called them by the name of learning groups since she had arrived. This was a strange new place that she’d been brought to and she wasn’t quite certain that she liked it one bit. However, her father had always taught her to embrace new experiences and to learn from them, so she made up her mind to make the best of it.
Several minutes passed before her principal returned bearing a clipboard and a pencil. “Are you ready to go to your new group, Mary?” The principal said cheerfully.
Mary nodded as a grin spread slowly across her face. She was excited. The lessons that she’d experienced that day had covered material that she was already familiar with and the other children had seemed a bit slow to her. Happily, the little girl tramped after the principal as she was lead to her new learning group, knowing in her heart that this woman would make things right. That’s what grown-ups did.
“Here we are Mary,” the principal proclaimed. “Mrs. Christiansen’s class.” The principal pushed the door open and a wave of noise swept over Mary. Children were running around a large room with brightly colored walls, shouting to one another and barking out cries of glee as they ran. There were no desks present—not even the large circle that her last learning group had to work upon—and the room seemed to be devoid of even the few simple books that group had offered. She clasped her tote bag to her chest as the principal prodded her to enter.
Stunned, Mary looked up into the face of her principal, unable to form the words that bubbled up in her mind. The principal merely beamed down at her. “Welcome to kindergarten, Mary,” she said.
Before Mary could even respond a large, round-faced woman scurried up to them amidst the chaos. “A new student!” she cried with obvious glee. “Let me take those things.” She then snatched Mary’s belongings out of her tiny grasp. “Everyone will be so thrilled that we have new things to play with!”
Mary opened her mouth to speak but her words were lost in her throat. Her things were not for everyone else to play with—they belonged to her. Powerless to stop this new intrusion into her life, she watched in horror as her papers and books were distributed throughout the gathering herd of children who were clamoring for their chance. The books were grabbed and hastily chucked aside, and Mary gasped in horror as her copy of Black Beauty was carelessly trod upon.
Mistaking the cause of the tears in her eyes, the principal knelt down next to her and pulled her close into a hug that Mary neither wanted nor understood. “It’s okay, dear. Kindergarten can be a scary new experience; go ahead and have a good cry.” Mary struggled against her grip, but the woman only squeezed her tighter. Finally Mary gave up the struggle and swallowed back the tears of frustration that clouded her dark brown eyes. When the woman finally released her, it was to hold her at arm’s length. Looking into Mary’s face, the principal said, “I’m sorry that you’re having such a tough time today, Mary. Please tell your parents that I’m terribly sorry about the mistake, but if they had only pointed out your age when they registered you, then this never would have happened. You would have been placed where you belong and all six year olds belong in kindergarten. They never really should have taught you beyond the kindergarten level anyway, you know. You were too young, and in teaching you beyond your age group your parents have really only made your adjustment here more difficult.” Adopting a look of insincere sympathy, the woman tousled Mary’s hair and patted her on the back. “Now run along and play, darling. You’ll want to get to know your group-mates before recess.”
Mary stood in front of the entryway long after the principal had skipped back to her office, wondering how she was going to fix this, and then it occurred to her that this was the way her life was now, and she was just going to have to accept it.
Mary awoke with a start to realize that once again, she had fallen asleep in the middle of her studies. With a sigh, she carefully marked a place several pages back where she had last understood what she was reading and then set about the task of getting ready for work. A glance at the clock on the wall showed it was fast approaching midnight, and she was probably going to be late—again. As quickly as she could, she pulled on an orange jumper and raced out the door, cognizant that she’d missed yet another meal as she attempted to combine a full night’s work with a full day’s study, and had once again succeeded at neither. Shrugging as she climbed aboard a cross-town bus, she acknowledged that it was only par for the course; her teachers had always intimated that she wouldn’t succeed at much in her life.
As usual, the bus was jammed full of bodies; people pressed in one upon the other like so many pickles stuffed into a jar. Shuffling into a space near the back, Mary pondered her latest analogy and decided that the smell of dozens of humans packed into a plastic alloy shell was faintly reminiscent of vinegar and dill. Yesterday, the best she had been able to come up with was the old standard of sardines, although she couldn’t remember ever have seen a can of the little fish. She sighed. Some days were better then others, but it was her only amusement—finding new ways to describe the world around her.
Lurching to a halt at each stop, the bus slowly unloaded its stale lot of passengers to acquire a fresh batch. People shuffling off the bus on their way home from second shift; people scurrying onto the bus on their way to clock in for the third. Every night Mary went through the same ritual, but the mornings she chose to wander the streets, soaking up the architecture of the city and wondering who the great men were that had created such grandeur and beauty as could be found in the oldest of the buildings, wondering if there were any great men left.