We know the feeling before we know it’s name. One of my big brothers teasing me. Kind of typical sibling stuff. So why did I cry? He wouldn’t stop. I wailed Stop! Stop it! but he didn’t. When he did stop, it wasn’t because of my words.
The year I turned six my family moved from Beirut, Lebanon to Bakersfield, California. I knew I was six and I knew being six meant going to first grade. The story is that I insisted on going to school. I probably did. Here is my first grade class picture:
I was unhappy. I didn’t know any one. The other girls and boys had been in kindergarten together, their families went to the same church. I watched them sit together at lunchtime and save each other a place in line. I spent recess waiting for a turn on the swings or sitting atop of the monkey bars, alone.
I was confused. There was so much about school I did not know. And as the girl who stared at the sky wondering when it will end, I knew even less. Is this handwriting or spelling time? How do I write a little letter a? With that cap thing, like this— Or without it, like this ? I looked at Mrs. Isaac for a hint. Here she is smiling about the mystery of the little letter a.
When I asked her how to write the little letter a she did not smile. She had already given instructions. I had missed that. So I looked for a clue. Maybe on the paper of the girl at the next desk. Mrs. Isaac called out, “No cheating!” What? But I…
Her scowl withered the words on my lips.
One day something good happened at school. I saw a painting easel for the first time. Large blank sheets of paper clipped above a row of paint pots. Each pot had a lid like a donut. The handle of a paint brush stuck out above the hole and the brush bristles rested in the bright color below it. We would be taking turns painting butterflies! Riveted, I watched each boy or girl ahead of me. They painted colors on one side of a line on the large paper, removed it from the clips, folded it on the line, and opened it to find to perfectly matched pair of “wings”. It was magic! I thought of how I would make a beautiful butterfly. I would use red, and yellow, green, orange and blue!
Finally, I stood at the easel wearing a big backward shirt as my smock. So SO excited! First a blob of yellow. Put the brush back. Then some swirls of red. Put the brush back. Next some green. Put the brush back. Mrs. Isaac swooped down. I had put the green brush in the red pot. She pulled it out. The paint was the color of mud. Mrs. Isaac told me I had to use it. On my beautiful butterfly. I don’t remember what I said; but my words didn’t matter. I remember how my excitement left me in a whoosh. My now-icky painted paper was folded in half and opened to reveal a brown butterfly. A roar of rage welled up inside me, but all I did was cry.
That was a dark year. I didn’t learned how to make friends, or how to read, or how to put my feelings into words so that others would listen. My parents didn’t seem to notice my distress. It was a tough year for them too. My father found a different job and for the second time in less than 12 months we moved. West coast to east coast. A new school. A kinder teacher. A fresh start. I went to first grade again. But there was still so much I didn’t understand. And it seemed the other kids did. I began believing that something was wrong. With me. With how I learn. With how I feel.
That belief was the first tiny crack of disintegration, breaking up the trinity of my body, mind, spirit in an attempt to stop the pain of anger unattended.
What about you?
You probably don’t have a brown butterfly, but you have a story. Gently scan your memory. Do you see your small self? Do you remember the feeling without a name? When you felt it? Why? Tell yourself the story out loud or write it down. Now, speak to your child self. Wondering how to start?
Here’s some of what I say to my six-year-old self: Oh my gosh, look at you! Those big eyes and that loose-tooth grin. Yes, peachy, that was a tough year. No wonder you hated school! And look at you now? The woman who LOVES the classroom — as a student or a teacher. The person who knows and values the power of words, of self-expression, of compassion, of listening. That started then. Of course you are tender-hearted. You know loneliness, the sting of labels, the confounding ways of people in power. No wonder you rankle against exclusion, injustice, and hierarchy. Those were bad times, but there is good news: You, my little scab-kneed darling, not only survived, you have kick-ass-thrived.
This is part of a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell and examine our stories. Only when we frame our anger, with words or actions, can we truly see it, process it, and learn how it can serve us.
If I tell you about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too. Wondering what will come next? The next essay in the series will magically appear in your inbox when you subscribe.