Back to school. It reminds me of hair wraps made of embroidery floss and World Famous backpacks. It reminds me of the smell of new binders and Laurentien pencil crayons, the sound of binder rings snapping shut, the smell of pencil shavings.
When I was a kid, I used to draw out my outfit for the first day of school and label everything with little descriptors, right down to socks and shoes and scrunchies. It is amazing all the planning that went into looking geeky. These days, I see kids trudging down the block, teens collecting in the bus shelters, and hope they are getting more out of those years than I did, that they are opening instead of closing, closing, closing themselves to the specialties of September.
Back to school turned from excitement to dread between the ages of 9 and 12, which coincided with puberty, the development of my sexual (and queer) awareness and, incidentally, the loss of my sister. It also coincided with a sliding dedication to my education. I got amazing grades up until high school, when I became an “average” student, lost my motivation to excel and curbed the use of my brain for just-for-the-sake-of-learning.
Looking back, I can recognize the depression that was there as I groped to find anything I felt some sense of pride in, as I dealt with what I saw as a deficiency, as my sexuality pushed its way to the forefront of my consciousness. The only parts of school that still had my interest were sports and art classes, isolated places where my physical abilities were worth more than my physical appearance, where people were too busy watching the ball or peering at my drawings to notice me.
School was my main venue for socialization during my so-called formative years. My summers were solitary, spent at the cottage with my family on a small lake in Haliburton. Back to school meant returning to the city with a major tan, which brought up conflicting feelings of less than and more than. Internalized racism at play, I felt uglier and less clean in some ways, but also stronger and more masculine — a sinful pleasure — in others. More Guyanese, less white, further from the look I thought would make me popular.
I was eternally dishing out secret crushes and not getting them back. As I remained a caterpillar in the face of butterflies, as personality seemed to matter less and less, mine retreated and my social world became one of wishing and wanting and losing hope. I lost myself for the next 18 years.
I plagiarized a story in Grade 5. I remember so well because the teacher who caught me died suddenly when I was in Grade 7. We all thought it was because he went out to smoke in his car during breaks. I wrote the story out word for word and handed it in, even though I was already a good writer — actually a very good writer. Even then I knew how to turn praise into pressure, how to fear losing something the minute I had it in my hand. My teacher was shocked. He couldn’t understand why I would bother to copy someone else’s work when I was perfectly capable of writing my own great story. He couldn’t understand that when you don’t feel good enough (maybe because you are realizing you’re queer) and when you have been handed a major life loss (which maybe gets connected to the former), that you stop trusting yourself and stop believing anything you do is worth anything unembellished, unchanged or unconstructed.
Oh, late ’80s and early ’90s, I didn’t hate to see you go!
Fortunately, anyone who has gone back to their grade school knows the hallways are actually tiny and the toilets are smaller, the principal is shorter, and that vast expanse of schoolyard is barely the size of your grandma’s back lawn. People and places shrink with distance, but it takes a long, long time. Sometimes we can hand each other some perspective, like a telescope, that reduces situations to their true size right then and there. I wish someone had handed me a telescope, or several, to say, “This too shall pass,” and by the way, here are all the beautiful things you may be missing: the flowers, the trees, other kids, your own precious place.
Street Smarts appears in every second issue of Xtra.