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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Schools in Hell

Confessions of a phat chick with cow eyes

By Annalee Newitz

I REMEMBER THE DAY through a photograph I've lost. So my recollection of that back-to-school September morning in 1979 is based on a memory of what I looked like in that picture, and is only secondarily a reconstruction of how I felt as the picture was taken.

The girl in the picture was 10 years old and about to start her first day of sixth grade. Her mother--a photojournalism teacher--was behind the camera. The girl had just gotten her hip-length hair cut into a pageboy, and she was wearing new clothes and a new backpack. A weird, vaguely disturbing smile was on her face, a smile she would continue to find there in photographs taken 20 years later, when she finally left school for good, a Ph.D. in hand.

If you looked at the picture, you would have thought: What a cute little girl, and how sweet that she's happy to be starting school. However, if you had been that little girl, you would have thought: Will they hurt me again this year?

I had spent the fourth and fifth grades in the kind of social hell that only exists in authoritarian dictatorships and elementary schools. Fat, smart, and chronically incapable of keeping my mouth shut, I was the girl consigned to a single desk at the edge of the classroom because I couldn't be trusted to mingle with the other kids without creating a ruckus. My classmates called me Cow Eyes and Miss Piggy because my eyes and ass were so huge. And my best friend--with whom I'd been madly in love since the second grade--was the freakiest boy in school, a skinny genius who cross-dressed in secret and obsessively memorized everything: baseball statistics, Dungeons and Dragons rules, Latinate dinosaur names, astronomy factoids. He was the only person who would hang out with me during recess.

The days and years that led up to a photograph of me smiling at the prospect of another trip into hell were strewn with problems, all related to school. My parents were teachers and had decided that no child of theirs would ever earn less than an A average. When I pulled down Bs and Cs in the fourth grade, they did something kids called "grounding": consignment to one's room, without various perks like watching TV or having dessert or whatever.

But while most kids got grounded for a weekend, my parents had more elaborate plans in mind. They wanted to engineer the world's most perfect scholar, and they decided the best way to do that was through fear and isolation. So my "grounding" lasted for four months, the exact amount of time it would take me to earn a new report card full of As. And my first grounding was not my last.

I became a surly kid, fueled entirely by wrathful energy, and therefore spent most of my 8th and 9th years on earth sitting in my room, alone, without TV or radio or telephone conversations with friends. I ended up reading a lot, and subsequently developed highly embellished theories about alien abduction, politics and sex.

But sixth grade promised to be different. Over the summer I had discovered science fiction and gone through just enough puberty to feel giddy (but not yet like a crazed, hormone-fueled monster). Even more gloriously, I was going to be part of a short-lived social experiment at my school: "target schooling."

My sixth grade class (the "target") was part of a special program for "mentally gifted" kids from all over our school district. Most of my classmates would be strangers who had never called me Miss Piggy, and who would probably even know something about the importance of Ray Bradbury.

In one of those fairy tale twists of fate that probably saved me from a life as a serial killer, my target program classmates turned out to be exactly what I needed. Although I continued to be "grounded," I was able to form humane friendships that made up for the horror of my home. Yet my new experiences didn't come about because of school; in fact, they happened despite it, during the times when we weren't taking spelling tests and reading from our carefully cheerful English textbooks.

Every year around this time--the "back to school sale" period--I find myself picturing all the bizarro smart kids out there whose lives are being made miserable or beautiful or confusing because they're not thinking the way they're supposed to. Instead of getting straight As, they're plotting revolutions or writing allegories about aliens. If you see them smiling, it's not because they want to go back to school. It's because they're hoping that there's still something out there worth learning.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who likes libraries and hates schools.

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From the August 9-16, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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