Mandy was in front of me, drooling on her page, fast asleep. I could see the white paper glistening under her mouth like a tiny ice lake. By the time Mr. Parker got around the room to her I wasn’t even sure the words would be legible anymore – they would have drowned by then. I imagined them looking like a sloppy alphabet soup right about now. And there were still six kids in front of her who had to read first. Six more paragraphs about chemistry that would be read out loud much too slowly. Thomas was reading his paragraph now, breathing so heavily through his nose that I could hear the booger trying to push its way out – but I didn’t listen for long. Partly because it was nausea-inducing, yes – but also because I needed to obsessively recount the kids in the rows to my right and in front of me, after Thomas, to make sure I knew exactly how long I had before it was my turn to read a paragraph out loud in front of the rest of my sixth grade class.
This was probably the biggest fear I’d had in my eleven years on earth. It was bigger than spiders; bigger than being grabbed by a strange man on the street and pulled into an unmarked van. My biggest fear was just drawing attention to myself and then messing up. Especially in front of people. Most especially in front of other kids. I counted each paragraph again and read, in my own head, the one destined to be mine:
The fundamental building blocks of matter are called atoms. The word atom comes from the Greek word atomos, which means “uncuttable”. During the 5th century B.C., Greek philosophers proposed the idea that there must be some smallest uncuttable units of matter. These units were called atoms. Today we know that atoms are composed of even smaller particles called protons, neutrons and electrons.
(as found at http://www.eddieolson.com/portfolio/rs4k_chem — my attempt to find something similar to a sixth grade science text book that I could reference here)
Ugh. I had never heard half of these words, and I had no idea if I was going to say them correctly when the time came. I was terrified, imagining the embarrassment when I did say one of them out loud incorrectly. The thought sent knots of crap from my butt back up to my stomach. Atom? Like Adam? Or maybe it was a long ‘a’ and a long ‘o’, like a big book? A tome? Adam sat behind me, and I felt weird about saying his name over and over in a few minutes reciting this stupid paragraph. Especially if that wasn’t even how I was supposed to say the word. If it wasn’t pronounced “adam”, would Adam think I was in love with him if I assumed it was? These were important questions, mulling over in my sixth-grade mind right now. I was NOT in love with Adam and I would die if he thought I was. Alright, he was sort of dreamy, I guess.
Part of me began to realize, while contemplating the dreaminess of Adam, that if I’d been listening to these other kids reading the whole time instead of obsessing over what I was bound to read still thirty minutes from now, I’d probably already know the correct way to pronounce atom. I’m sure someone else had already said it – we’d been reading for almost an hour. Shoot. Oh well. I couldn’t be bothered. Must practice my OWN paragraph of just a few words that will inevitably mean squat to me at the end of this hour (I was learning absolutely nothing outside of how to stare blankly at paragraph twenty-two, trying to make sense of it while I also swallowed saliva compulsively). I was simultaneously trying to figure out a way to see Adam in his gym shorts even though I wasn’t actually in his gym class. I’ve always been pretty natural with the multi-tasking thing.
As frightening as it was to read anything in front of the entire class (even from the safety of my own desk) I was glad I wasn’t in the second grade anymore. Mr. Parker had also been my second grade teacher. Back then, he used to go around the room from one child to the next, holding a pen in his right hand and a pin in his left. He’d make each student repeat after him as he said “pen” and then “pin”, trying to teach us proper distinction between the short sounds the two different vowels made. He’d move from one child to the next.
“Pin,” he would start.
“Pin,” Charlie would repeat.
“And…pen,” Mr. Parker would continue, holding it up.
“Pin?” Charlie would cringe – and then Mr. Parker would poke him in the elbow with the pin. He would continue until everyone in the class was bleeding. Yes, he used the same pin on everyone. It was 1984, so I guess that meant it was okay. No parents ever complained that I can remember. The first time he reached me, I tried to butter him up with some of my undeniable charm.
“Yes, pin,” I’d repeat.
“Ballpoint,” I answered confidently.
He didn’t poke me, thank goodness. I knew I was taking a risk by saying it, but he didn’t poke me. The rest of the class laughed, and he laughed right along with them. After that I was always on Mr. Parker’s good side. He called me Ballpointer from then on, which always prompted Lance and Greg to only semi-discreetly point at their genitals and laugh. When I walked back into Mr. Parker’s class on the first day of sixth grade, he remembered me.
“Miss Ballpointer!” he welcomed. Only these other kids didn’t know what he was talking about. It wasn’t great.
I’d read the paragraph to myself twelve times now. I’d been staring at the page, repeating it over and over in my mind. Neutrons, neutrons…new trons? Was that it? I was fairly confident I had this, though. I was a good student, especially when it came to words and language. I loved that stuff. But I hated science and anything scientific and pretty much any words having to do with science. And don’t even get me started on math. I may have only been eleven years old, but I was skeptical about how long I’d actually need to remember this science and math stuff. I mean – words I’d be using every day, right? I’d have to talk to people every day. There was no way around that. But science? I wasn’t going to talk to anyone about science. No way.
“Oh, excuse me, ma’am – I’m looking at the sun, here, and I’m having a hard time deciphering what time it might be at this precise moment, based on its location in the sky…were you a good science or math student, by any chance? I’m not even sure which you’d use in this case. Both, perhaps? Could you take a look and…”
“You’re wearing a watch,” she’ll say.
“Yes. Right. That is correct, thank you.”
So no, I wasn’t excited about science. There were machines that figured all of that stuff out for me – clocks and calculators and microwaves and such. And four fancy new (to me) machines at school that knew way more than they should, being machines and all. Computers. Gigantic computers. They did things I never thought possible. It was a little Maximum Overdrive for me (that Green Goblin’s face will always be fresh in my mind) – but it was also pretty radical. Like I said, I had the Swatch Watch and a calculator in my locker, but the fancy computers in our fancy computer lab at school? They had clocks on them, yes – and you could type on those things and see your words magically appear on a screen. It was like typing into a color TV. Well, two-color TV; one of those colors being black. And if you messed up, you simply hit the backspace key and you started over. No paper to throw away – no white out. You could type as much as you wanted (endless amounts of letters fit on that screen; it just kept moving up, going and going, as if without end) and then you finally hit print and THAT’S when your paper came out. Not as you typed. After. After you were done and you were ready for the paper. You controlled the whole thing. Simply “print” paper. And it happened. It was amazing. The only lame part was we just had the four computers, and there were about four hundred kids at school, so no one got a lot of computer time.
We would go in groups of five once a week (I don’t know why it was five – one kid would just stand there staring desperately at the rest of us like the last kid called for kickball) to pound bright green words onto that black screen. You only needed to barely press the keys – click, click, click – it was a lovely sound and sensation. Still, most kids pounded. We’d play silly games with little cats who lived in the monitor, wearing clothes, and asking us to type the same paragraphs they were typing as fast as we could, trying to beat their time. I’m not going to lie – I loved trying to type faster than those silly cats. Cats typing? Psht. Ridiculous. I just hated that the damn letters were not in alphabetical order on the keyboard. What sense did that make? I learned later that typewriters were the same way, but I used a computer before I ever even saw a typewriter in person. I just always assumed I learned the proper order of the letters in the alphabet for a real reason. Clearly typing was not the reason.
I was about to venture into my thirteenth silent reading when I heard Mr. Parker finally call on me.
“Miss Ballpointer, can you go ahead and read the next paragraph, please?”
This was it. The moment I’d been dreading. I took a deep breath, swallowed a mouthful of stale air, exhaled what smelled something similar to my dog’s ass-gas because my jaw had been clenched shut for so long, and began.
“The fundamental building blocks of matter – “
“Oh, I’m sorry, no,” Mr. Parker corrected me. “Mandy just read that one. It’s the NEXT paragraph.”