I’m sure identifying gifted and talented students was more difficult in 1977 than it is today. And I’m sure Miss Norton felt some guilt over how she treated me. And I realize that I still have healing work to do about my first day of kindergarten. (The clue? My heart rate is as high as it is when I run.) I will do that work. But first, I’m going to write this memory down.
The first day of kindergarten started out like a dream. My mother put baby Paul in his carrier and held my hand on one side, David’s hand on the other as we all walked three doors down to the little brick school. We went inside and she held open the door to the big, light-filled room. “This is where you will go to school.”
I was wild inside, excitement roiling like a washing machine. I was a kindergartner, I thought, and I had on my red tights and my plaid jumper, and this was really happening, I was finally going to school!
I stood stock still, watching the other children. There were thousands of them. They were climbing on a jungle gym made out of wood, and piling up pillows to flop into, and a few had found a way to open the toy chest and were pulling things out and throwing them around.
My mother crouched next to me and held my hand. She put her hand on my back, and said “You will stay here and play with these children, and pay attention to Miss Norton, and when school is over, I will be outside and we will walk home.”
Miss Norton was the kindergarten teacher. I loved her as soon as I saw her. She was so pretty, and had a thin waist, and her hair curled just right, and she smiled a lot.
Mom left with my brothers, and I carefully walked over to the toy chest. There was nothing in it. A girl with black hair asked “What do you like to play?” and I said “hopscotch” and she said “You can’t play hopscotch inside.”
Miss Norton clapped her hands and told us to stand in front of the room. We lined up like squirming, fat little fishies.
“You are all in my class,” Miss Norton said. “And I am your teacher. This means that you will do as I say, right, class?”
We stared at her, mouths working our hooks. “Yes, Miss Norton” someone said, and then a few more piped up. “Yes, Miss Norton.”
She looked down her line until she had heard from every one of us. I nodded when it was my turn, “Yes, Miss Norton.”
Miss Norton took out a big black book and called out our names, and one by one walked with us to our seats. It took a long time for her to get to T-H so I could sit down at my desk.
I already knew which desk was mine. It was perfect. It sat in a rectangle of sunlight, and the shadow of a tree branch moved gently across it, like a finger stroking the wood.
I was right. Miss Norton walked me to my perfect desk. The color of the sunlit top matched the yellow in my jumper. I sat down and took out my pencil like she asked me to.
Now it was time to announce our names. When it was my turn, I said my name, Molly Beth Theriault, out loud so all the other kids could hear it. I made sure I spoke it loud enough the first time, so she wouldn’t make me say it again.
Next, Miss Norton walked around the room, handing out sheets of paper. She explained that it was very important for us to bring these home and get our parents to fill them out, so the school would have all of our information in one place.
She laid a paper on my desk. Her hand looked like a large, scooped dish. I looked down at and read. Student Name, Address, Telephone Number, Mother’s Name, Father’s Name, Name of Sibling.
I picked up my pencil and filled in all the information. Miss Norton was still repeating, over and over, that we had to bring the paper back again tomorrow, once our mother filled it out.
I raised my hand, which is what my mother told me to do if I had a question in school.
Miss Norton smiled at me. “Yes, Molly?”
I held up my paper. “I’m done with mine.”
She smiled her big white smile even wider and shook her curls. “No, dear, you have to bring it home to your mother, so she can fill it out for you.”
“But I just filled it out.”
Miss Norton’s eyes narrowed. “No you didn’t.”
This was a surprise. I looked down at my paper. There was my name, Molly Beth Theriault. There was my address. I checked to make sure I had remembered the right zip code. There was my telephone number, 747-5229. There was my mother’s name, and my father’s, and the names of my brothers and their ages.
I had definitely filled out the form. I looked up at her, faithfully reporting the truth. “Yes, I did.”
Miss Norton’s face flashed red, then white, then red again. Her smile hardened and her eyes slitted up. She stalked toward my desk like a starling at a bird feeder pushing smaller birds out of the way. The others watched.
I showed her the paper with its neat, blocky letters. I had never printed better.
Miss Norton picked up the sheet of paper. I looked up from the hem of her blouse to her face. All I could see was one large nostril. It looked like someone had pinched it shut.
It flared open, and Miss Norton made a sound like our dog did when he got water up his nose. She whipped the paper down to her side and said “You were not supposed to fill out the form yourself, Molly. You were supposed to bring it home to your mother to fill out, and then bring it back tomorrow and put it in that basket.”
She pointed at her desk and the empty wire basket on the corner.
She crumpled the paper in her hand and stamped her feet to the front of the room, dropped my form into the basket and reached into a drawer.
As I watched the plastic buckle on her belt approach my desk, my stomach started to ache like I’d eaten too many cookies, and I felt like I had to go to the bathroom.
Miss Norton took my arm and jerked me out of my seat. My knee bumped the lid of the desk and it opened a little, then banged shut. She marched me to the back of the room and picked me up. Her hands squeezed my ribs and under my shoulders, and I saw the vice in daddy’s workshop. She plopped me on a tall stool. My feet didn’t reach the rungs.
Miss Norton unrolled a big piece of tape. She held one end in each hand and leaned down to put her face right in front of mine.
“You have not done what I told you to do. And so I am punishing you. You are not allowed to talk for the rest of the day.”
She pressed the tape over my mouth, pressing in hard to make sure it stuck. Then she walked back up to the front of the room and put the tape away.
When she came back to stand in front of the other kids, she said “Children, look at me, look at Miss Norton.”
One by one they tore their eyes away from me and turned back to the front of the room. She smiled and the lines around her eyes softened. She looked like an angel.
“You have to make sure that you bring your form back tomorrow. Remember, this is very important, so don’t forget.”
I sat there, feet dangling. My eyes bulged, and I felt a tingling start at the top of my head. It moved quickly down my skull and started down my back. It felt cold now. I was turning cold, I thought.
Miss Norton said it was playtime and the classroom exploded like a snake in a can, every child but me running to the play area.
Miss Norton sat down at her desk and put her head in her hands like she had a headache. I waited for her to look at me. She didn’t.
The cold settled into my aching stomach. I felt myself turning to ice. At the same time, my face grew hot. I could feel tears welling up over my eyelids. I blinked, trying to keep them down, but it was no use. They spilled all over the place, the hot grief being pushed out by the ice ball growing in my gut.
My face was sopping wet within seconds, and I started a low keening noise. I couldn’t open my mouth to wail, but I was wailing inside. My nose started to stuff up, and it got hard to breathe. Pretty soon I was drumming my heels on the stool as I tried to slide down to the floor. I had to get this tape off.
Miss Norton looked up and said “Stay on that stool, Molly.”
I ignored her. The ice in my stomach was turning harder, and colder. I turned to the side, reaching one toe down for the floor, bracing myself with my hands on the seat. I was making ugly snorty noises, and my head was filled with bright little lights.
Miss Norton appeared next to me and caught me as I slipped off the stool. I panicked at her touch, my nose completely stuffed up. I wrenched at the tape, desperate to get it off, as she held me, wriggling.
Miss Norton plopped me down, took me by the shoulder and shook me a little, then snapped the tape off. The sound exploded, a wail like a fire engine siren, and I just let it loose and screamed at her. I could feel my eyes bulging and my throat scraping as my neck tightened and I raged, incoherent, wordless.
Miss Norton turned white, and her eyes went round. Her hands suddenly became gentle, and she said “Oh, dear.”
She clutched me to her in a hug, but I pushed back. I hated her.
She said “Molly, would you like to wipe your face and maybe play with the other children?”
I looked at her, still angry and sputtering like a steam engine. I started to cry again.
She patted my arm and said “There there. There, there.”
She pulled a tissue out of her pocket and wiped my face. “That’s better now, don’t you feel better?”
I didn’t feel better. I felt angry and violated, and surprised, and very, very sad.
“Well, you will.” She called to one of the little girls in the play area. “Meghan, will you come play with Molly?”
Meghan came over, took my hand and led me to a round table. Three dolls were in three chairs, and she sat me in the fourth. Then she and another little girl named Amy taught me their game.
I played, trying to understand why I should when I had ice in my stomach and a hot head and my shoulders ached. My heart wasn’t in it, but eventually I relaxed and got into the rhythm of the dolls and the girls.
When the morning was over and my mother came to pick me up, she could tell that I had been crying. She looked concerned, but just said gently “Let’s go home now, OK, Molly?”
I nodded. Miss Norton called out “Bye, Molly! Have a wonderful day and I’ll see you tomorrow!” My mother said “Molly, say goodbye to Miss Norton.”
I waved a little at her and walked out the door.
By the time I’d reached the sidewalk, I’d started to cry again. My brother David peered at me from the corner of his eyes, looking a little scared. My mother said “Molly, what happened? Didn’t you have a good day at school?”
No, I wailed. We were almost home by now, and I could barely walk. Mom had to stop in the sidewalk and hug me around Paul in his baby carrier. When I had calmed down a little, Mom, said “Let’s go inside and you tell me what happened.”
I nodded, and we went inside. Mom put the baby down and David started playing with his blocks. I sat on my mother’s lap and told her about everything from the beginning of the day. She rocked me and kissed my forehead and cheeks.
“That was wrong of Miss Norton.” she said. “She should not have done that. I am going to talk to her tomorrow.”
I know my mother laid down the law the next morning, because Miss Norton was always super-nice to me ever after. And she always told me how smart I was, and how wonderful a student I was. I wish I could also say that she apologized to me and that I forgave her, but I don’t remember either of those things happening.
What happened instead was this: every time Miss Norton looked at me and said “Well, hello, Molly!” I heard her think “I hate you, you little brat” at the same time.
And every time I looked back at her and said “Hello, Miss Norton,” I thought right back at her: “I don’t like you, either. I know exactly who you are. And I will never, ever trust you.”
Read more about the types of hyperlexia here.