Kindergarten Can Be a Tough Place
Grove St. School
There are plenty of folks who claim that their first memories reach all the way back to the womb or at the very least, toddlerhood. I am not one of them. Squeezing my eyes shut and searching my inner filing cabinet, I thumb through the folders and land squarely in Mrs. Kreager’s kindergarten class at Grove Street School. There are three memories to be exact, and I find it interesting that they were seared into the hippocampus of my brain by the driving emotions of anger, fear, and power.
It all started with my white jewelry box. Adorned with pink roses and a golden latch, it set a tulle dressed ballerina a-twirl every time I opened it. She danced in a circle on her satin toe shoes before an oval mirror and guarded the rings and necklaces that lay perfectly arranged below her. It was my most precious possession and I had brought it in for Show-and-Tell. Dutifully, I placed it on the Special Shelf reserved for Show-and-Tell treasures that was off-limits to the class.
Mid-morning, as I carefully inserted a half-circle shaped block inside a larger one to complete a block tower of architectural excellence, I heard the familiar tinkling of a music box. I turned my head and saw two boys, Tommy and Robert, trying on two of my rings. As I charged toward them, Tommy slammed the top shut and they both ducked into the corner playhouse. Incensed, I gently opened the box to make sure all was okay, and to my horror, my lovely ballerina laid sideways, limp and broken at her slender ankles. I carried it, sobbing, to Mrs. Kreager who decided, in the end, that there simply was not enough evidence to convict Tommy and Robert of wrongdoing. The weight of injustice and the accompanying anger covered me like my electric blanket when I turned the control dial-up to number ten.
Tommy and Robert, however, were not happy that I would have the gall to tell on them. So during lunch hour they cornered me by the jungle gym and proceeded to scream in my face and push me to the ground. I curled into a ball and protected my head as I imagined my own legs bent sideways forever like the ballerina’s. To make matters worse, they followed me as I walked home pushing me into pricker bushes and threatening death if I told anyone. In 1964 we didn’t know about bullying, I didn’t have words for what was happening. Petrified, I endured these attacks for a week until Mrs. Powers, our neighbor, drove by one afternoon and witnessed it. A few phone calls later, Tommy and Robert were doomed.
Suspiciously, they went missing from class for a few days so I was able to regain my composure. When they returned, Mrs. Kreager reseated them on the opposite side of the patchwork gathering carpet that everyone knew was just a bunch of samples from the rug store across the street. I saw them whispering throughout the morning and I felt that familiar panic rise though me as we lined up for recess. As we streamed out the door onto the black top, I ran for a swing thinking I could kick one in the face if I pumped hard enough.
Then, the most curious thing happened. To this day I wonder about the dynamic of it all as it surprised me as much as anyone else. How easy it was to indoctrinate a mild-mannered five-year-old girl into a life of crime. Tommy and Robert grabbed my arm and then stood on either side of me creating an uncomfortable bully sandwich. Instead of pummeling me, Tommy said, “We’re sorry. To make it up to you, we will beat up anyone you want us to.”
“Yeah,” added Robert, his fists pumping, “just point ‘em out.” Now, I was not the aggressive type and had no other enemies that I knew of. The last thing I wanted to do was beat anyone up.
“No, that’s okay,” I said, shaking my head.
“I said point ‘em out,” Robert repeated through gritted teeth.
“Come on,” said Tommy,”recess is only ten minutes.” They started to squeeze against my ribs and visions of the broken ballerina began to swirl around me. The memory of pricker bushes and the taste of raw fear bubbled into the back of my throat. This was survival of the fittest.
“If you don’t pick someone we’ll do it for ya,” said Robert. “We might even pick you again.”
And then I heard these words come out of my mouth, “That kid in the red jacket.” And off they ran. Seconds later the kid in the red jacket, whom I had never seen before, had a mouth full of dirt.
This scenario played itself out every day until it started to feel good. It was like I was the queen of the playground. All I needed to do was point, and the girl who had taken the last snack that morning was shoved into a tree trunk, the boy who had hogged all of the Lincoln Logs was pressed against the chain link fence until diamond shapes imprinted on his cheek. I was suddenly drunk with power. I felt like a player, a somebody, a contender. I had no idea I had become a bully myself until Tommy and Robert were apprehended once again and sang like canaries in the principal’s office.
Then the three of us disappeared for a few days to learn a few lessons about kindness and how to control base human behavior. Upon our return, the patchwork gathering carpet had been divided into three sections and each of us sat at a different one.
Looking back on this I realize the power of human emotion to override what we innately know to be harmful to others. Powerful, instinctual emotions can rise up, like flood waters, and carry us to a place we never wanted to end up. Anger, fear, and power rule our decisions and our world in many ways. It takes patient and loving guidance from parents, teachers and friends to help us understand ourselves and develop empathy for others. Our schools have come a long way in educating us and our children in the arena of bullying, but I dare to say that as a nation, we have a ways to go.