I used to draw butterflies.
The wings on my pretty illustrated insects would be swoopy instead of pointy and my butterflies always came accessorized with eyes and a smiley face – and, when they were especially fancy, my butterflies wore a bow-tie. Those non-aerodynamic beings lived in a perpetual state of paused flight on the lined notebook paper in my Science binder, sentenced to live out their days protected by a sticky – and unnecessary – reinforcer.
I wrote lots of my notes to my friends while I sat in all of those Science classrooms in high school. Science was the only subject where I’d choose to sit in the back of the room, hopefully partially hidden by a stack of Bunsen burners. My seating choice was a silent plea for anonymity; I wanted the teacher to willfully ignore me, and it’s a behavior I see still in my students today, one that fractures my heart a little bit each time I notice it happening.
I know why you’ve chosen that far back corner to sit in, I want to say to a kid I’ve never once encountered before he entered my classroom just a moment before. I know that you hope that the “Halloween” poster that hangs on the back closet door – the one of a pants-less Annie with her back to both Michael Myers and her own fate – will protect you and will somehow render you invisible. And don’t think I didn’t see that fleeting look of an emotion I recognized as panic and a little bit of fury flash across your face just a minute ago when I announced that participation counts a lot in my class. But I also saw that quick quiet smile when I told the story about how I almost threw down with some teenage girls who would not shut up that time I saw “Bridesmaids,” and even though the point of my story was very simple – if you’re the kind of person who cannot keep your mouth closed while watching a movie, you should drop my class today – I did see you perk up for a moment before you remembered to mask the reaction with one of blank petulance that you think is a disguise.
See, I remember the day like it was yesterday – or maybe the day before yesterday because yesterday was actually a great day and using it will set the wrong tone for my tale. I was in 10th grade and had been placed in Honors Chemistry through some horrific turn of fate or due to a clerical error and I could feel the trembles run all the way through me. The nerves literally racked every cell of my body, though since I’d barely passed Biology, I couldn’t completely tell you what a cell was. When it comes down to it, I’m not sure that even today would I be able to accurately describe what a cell is or what it does, but I know that it’s small and I think there’s a bunch of shit that lives inside of it and that once there was a really bad movie called “The Cell” that starred Jennifer Lopez where she wore a kimono, but that’s all I’ve got.
Anyway, Chemistry class. I’d leave Theatre, where I was chatty and always participated, and I’ve venture down a long hallway to the Science wing and I’d feel my mental state shift into pure uncertainty and my usually quick style of walking would slow to a pace that would really only make sense if I were window shopping with amputees and I’d feel this small but freezing layer of internal ice spread over my stomach and I would turn into someone else by the time I entered that classroom.
I didn’t like that other person. She never smiled.
I made it through the first test okay since all it really involved was memorizing the periodic table. But the second test involved real Chemistry concepts and formulas and I understood almost nothing.
I’m really pleased with how this class did on the test, said my teacher the very next day. I’ve since blocked that teacher’s name from my psyche entirely. Only one person in the entire class failed!
I was that one person – and I instantly knew it. When I think about that moment even now, I can still feel that thud that began in the very back of my head that then barreled down my throat and into whatever the next organ is – which I’d know if I was good at Science – but it was some organ that pinged with the clear knowledge that I was a failure.
I got a 46 on that test and, looking at my grade, I might have right then and there had myself a mini panic attack, but since I barely passed Bio and I was the farthest thing from ever going into medicine, who’s to say?
To this day, even if every single kid but one passes an one of my exams, I never make such an announcement. I remember the shame far too vividly to impose it on someone else.
I was eventually moved out of that Honors class and into one for scientific underachievers – and even there, I think I maybe got in the high seventies in the course. My brain didn’t embrace scientific theories like it did movie quotes, no matter how many flashcards I made.
I tried to pick up points in Science classes where I could. One of my teachers would ask us to number each page of our daily notes for some reason. Like, he’d have us write Day 45: Pine Barren Perfection, or some shit like that, and it should have been easy for me to follow that mandate and bolster my average when he did notebook checks for a grade, but I couldn’t really stay organized and sometimes I’d find my mind wandering away from writing down notes because I was preoccupied drawing butterflies or writing or reading notes from my friends. And on notebook check days, I’d kind of smile sweetly as I handed my binder over to the teacher, knowing that as he riffled through it that he’d probably find some doodles I had meant to yank out but hadn’t and that where Day 33: The Majesty of Puddles should have been, there was a chance that he’d instead stumble upon a poem I’d written about losing my virginity in the bed of a girl who was secretly in love with the guy I’d just had sex with. I tended to get lyrical and introspective during Science class and I did some good writing there because I wanted to aim my comprehension towards something I might eventually understand.
Once as he examined my notebook, the teacher plucked a bright yellow Peanut M&M bag from between the pages. It was stuck there, empty and flattened.
Do you need this, Nell? he asked me in front of the entire class. His tone was dry but I think there was a part of him that was truly disappointed that I wasn’t wise enough to grasp for points in his class where I could get them. He was right, but I always secretly wished that he’d take a look at my transcript sometime and realize that I wasn’t a universal scholastic moron.
Rather than focus on something difficult, I did the classic behavioral thing one with fear and a level of immaturity often does: I chose escapism rather than diving cerebral-cortex-first into a curriculum that only spoke another language to me. I shouldn’t have chosen that route, but then again I probably shouldn’t have done a lot of things that have made my life far more difficult and far more exciting.
Around senior year, I cut Science class often. Sometimes I’d show up, but then I would ask if I could go to my locker and I’d take the long road there and make sure to pass the classrooms of my friends and I’d check my hair in the reflection of the glass cases near the Art wing. If I took too long, I would see the look of displeasure in the pinched lips of my teacher, and I would feel badly because I was the kind of kid who didn’t want to be seen as disrespectful. To make it up to him, sometimes I’d stay after to chat and I’d confide some things to him, though a lot of what I told him was only partially true.
That poor man believed that every person I knew was in a dysfunctional relationship and/or suicidal. I’d tell him that the reason I was late returning to his room was because I’d encountered a friend of mine who was hysterically crying and I needed to offer some comfort.
I still feel badly for how manipulative I could be then.
I still wish I understood more about evolution and genetics.
And I really still wish I had all of those notes from my friends and the ones I wrote to them. I actually do have a few. There’s this ragged yellow folder in a drawer in my office that holds things that once really mattered and in there are letters from friends and a few from ex-boyfriends and a few things I wrote but never sent and I take a look at them every five years or so and I smile at the ferocious closeness we all felt for one another then and how desperately we wanted to hold on to what we thought mattered. We valued maintaining pride and the ability to keep secrets and the sharp freeness of expression. There’s a brazenness to the sentiments we shared with one another daily, and I try to keep that remembrance in my head when I look at my students, who in many ways are the embodiment of who I was once.
There are differences, of course. Teenagers don’t pass notes anymore. They now fire off thoughts through text. And they probably share more now – and definitely share things more quickly – than we did then, but I think that maybe there’s a cost that comes with that convenience. I’m glad that I grew up in a time where I had to allow thoughts to fester and words to formulate into a way that I would be comfortable with before I shared them. There was a necessary pause inflicted on you when you wanted to pass a note that doesn’t always exist anymore in a time where we can toss our words instantly out into the world.
I think that pause mattered more than we realized then – and more than we can possibly comprehend now.