Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Primary Numbers

In Grade 4 a whole new world opened up to me. It was somehow discovered that I was as blind as a bat and that I’d probably been missing a lot more than anyone realized. My mother’s friends tried to console her, as if I wasn’t standing right there, telling her that my handicap was going to significantly diminish my beauty and ultimate marketability. (“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” was a well-known homily, which proved to be prescient.) I was warned that I would henceforth forever be labeled a four-eyed intellectual. I didn’t mind much. The pickings in Grade 4 were lean and romantically unappealing to me. Besides, once I put on my specs and everything came into sharp focus, I felt an instant kinship with the girl on the TV show “The Millionaire”, whose eyesight was instantly restored through a revolutionary operation paid for by her ugly fiancé (played by the young Charles Bronson). My mother, in a misguided attempt to glamorize me, encouraged my choice of frames, shiny black ones with pointy, diamond-encrusted wings that threatened to take off on either side of the head, (later immortalized by Dame Edna). I thought I was stunning.

Little suburban schools like mine were just starting to get scientific back then so the need to gather statistical information became important. By Grade. 5, we were being ‘tested’ for various things beyond the usual times tables, vocab tests and spelling bees. I loved taking these new tests once I understood that the requirement was to colour in the little dots in the booklets rather than actually answer the questions “in words”. I often finished well ahead of my classmates and drew cute little designs around the borders of the pages to kill time.

After one such examination, my mother was called in for an urgent meeting with my teacher and the principal. There were a few issues that needed to be addressed immediately. She was sworn to secrecy since it was suspected that if this kind of information fell into the wrong hands, there would be some dire consequences.

First of all, was she aware that she was the parent of a ‘genius’?

No, she wasn’t, was her reply. Were they sure they just didn’t mean a ‘smarty pants?”

No, not at all, they assured her. I had scored some impressive figure on the I.Q. test which they felt somehow reflected well on them, personally. Back then, such children were not considered ‘gifted’. There were no presents for exceptionality in those days. Just shock and trepidation. After years of taking me for granted, they suddenly didn't know what to do with me.

They told her that even though I qualified to be the first guinea pig for grade acceleration, they had decided that I was simply too well-adjusted to move away from my friends (none of whom I remember to this day) so, instead, they were going to experiment with a nerdy little boy named Robert. He was the social outcast whose desperate mother had invited the whole class over to his house one night to view the constellations through his high-powered telescope. (No one went.)
It was agreed that he was riper for the picking.

My mother was torn. She was happy that I was considered bright and socially adjusted, but confused that this should work against my promotion. But then there was that poor child, Robert, who aroused such sympathy. She brought this whole matter to my attention, breaking her vow of secrecy. Back then, parents didn’t question the opinions and decisions of teachers the way they do today. Nor did they worry about their childrens’ self esteem. So, not for the first time, was I confused and irritated by the education establishment. My ‘gifts’, though grudgingly acknowledged, went unrewarded and a pattern was clearly established. I started to lose any trust in school.

Soon, another issue arose, which confounded them further, and my mother was, once again, summoned from her household chores and “The Guiding Light”. Could she possibly offer an explanation why her “super-child”, whose score in math aptitude tests put her in the 99th percentile of the whole province, was failing that very subject? No, she couldn’t, but her solution was to come right home and reproach me for my poor showing in class, given my newly discovered advantage of intellectual resources. She didn’t consider any vow of silence to be relevant especially when the content could be wielded to her advantage. Her attitude was more like, “Well, Miss Know It All, how do you explain this?”

Frankly, I was not surprised at either piece of information. I had two reactions. One was that I was terribly insulted that Robert had gotten the go-ahead instead of me. I vowed to stop doing anything I didn’t feel like doing from that point onward. The other was that I finally realized that I was right all along. I was smart and everybody else was clueless!

I had long suspected that I was way beyond my impressionable classmates in most departments of life. I had an early sense of skepticism about most matters, driving my elders to distraction with my ‘negative attitude’ (ie: not just ‘going along’ and following orders, any orders). I'm sure my grandfather was behind this, a man who would lure Jehovah's Witnesses into his parlour to challenge their beliefs until they begged to be let go. It was his version of the Inquisition and they were lucky to escape with their lives, if not their faith, intact.

I, too, tended to question anything that seemed a little too certain.

A couple of examples:

I was especially concerned about the heroic attempts of the Jesuits to ‘civilize’ the indigenous inhabitants of either Upper or Lower Canada (or maybe both - I never get those straight) and the subsequent, inhospitable reaction. This information is now considered politically incorrect, so impressionable readers, be warned!

Although I didn’t mind taking out my new Laurentians and drawing pictures of the natives burying the Black Robes in the ground with just their bald heads in their hoodies sticking out for the ants to devour, or pulling off their arms and legs and exhibiting other ungracious behaviors to the 'New Canadians", I wondered about the presumptuous expectation of hospitality of the French (something that still exists to this day in our fair country). The teacher would ask why couldn't the Iroquois just welcome an entirely new religion into their longhouses? This nagged at me, a little Jewish girl sitting in a class of many others of my faith, in a suburban public school in Gentileland. Did that mean that if we didn’t warmly welcome the theological ramblings of the local minister who visited us from his church each Friday, no less, loaded down with copies of the New Testament for us to read aloud together, that we, too, would be digging our own pits in the playground before you knew it? For some reason, my concern went unnoticed by my elders. As usual.

I was also terribly concerned that my parents, whose job it was, as I saw it, to take good care of me and my little sister, were neglecting their duties by refusing to build a bomb shelter in our basement. At least they could provide us with a little crawl space or a storm cellar, like Dorothy had in the Wizard of Oz. Didn’t they see the little animated film from England on Ed Sullivan’s show a few weeks before? The one that forewarned that all children should be removed from the room during its transmission? (I stayed, of course). All that was left at the end of the cartoon atomic explosion was a little black fly, buzzing around in a radioactive cloud. (It was most likely from northern Ontario…those particular blackflies could definitely survive a nuclear Armageddon). Anyways, I was pretty dismayed when they scoffed at me. One day, I thought, you'll see.

Yes, I was quite a little worrywart. No apocalyptic foreboding escaped my attention for long. I was surrounded by others too immersed in their own personal little dramas, totally oblivious to the bigger issues of the day and their effect on moi.

As for the Math part, I have an idea why I developed what I considered purely a ‘mental block’ against the poor subject. I loved numbers, the whole visual pattern thing, like the special effects in “A Beautiful Mind”. Later, I actually came to enjoy, if that’s not stretching it too much, Algebra and Geometry, but not enough to excel and only enough to pass out of high school when graded on a curve, thank god.

Somewhere, back in my early years, I got a D for not quite catching on to my 12 times tables and I just threw in the towel.

Who could blame me?

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