Not everything is as it seems: Life as First Graders
For my fellow Canadians, Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you are all having a great weekend. I had to run back to the office quickly today but other than that, I am enjoying the time off! Today, we will be going back in time and see the Red man as a first grader. We are going back in the late 1970’s when nuns were teaching the children. We will be talking about the Red man’s first experience seeing a nun and how things are perceived at the tender age of 6. I will be adding my own two cents here and there as I worked with kids for many years and have my own experiences. Stay tuned because as you will see not everything is as it seems. Let’s look at life as a first grader 🙂
There were all the kids and then there was Lenny
I was a little man in a big world of intrigue and wonder. In the school yard, each and every kid is shrouded in some type of mystery. They seemed to all fit into a category or another. Fat funny kids, skinny quiet ones, ugly kids, pretty kids and the weird quiet kid, aka Lenny. The kid with the orange toque that he never took off. The little awkward kid who never said one word to anyone even if he was taunted or teased. If Lenny was anything, he was a master at avoiding confrontation. He would just walk to some quiet unoccupied piece of the playground where he would almost be gone and forgotten except for the fact that his orange hunting toque was like a beacon in the night.
“Here I am, pick on me” it said. Kids can be cruel and we were cruel. In children, the anxiety associated with the development of social skills can be quite high especially when you have no real social skills to begin with. Children can be cowards, they will take their frustration out on the perceived inferior being and Lenny was the chosen one. He was the one even the weakest child could pick on. He would not defend himself but stuck out like a sore thumb.
School in the 1970’s and the nuns
I do not know how school is today but in the late 1970’s, we had to sing the national anthem first thing in the morning and religion class was mandatory (having worked for a catholic school district, I can tell you this is still happening in some school districts in Canada). So after the morning bell rang we would stand for the national anthem. We would then sit and attendance would be taken. Lenny was so attached to his toque that he never took it off even during the national anthem. The weird quiet kid never took off his toque so he was the butt of the jokes.
When you are a child, time has no real reference point. It is all new and exciting and is hard to comprehend when looking back. A day seems like a month and a month seems like a lifetime (having assessed kids for years I can attest to that! They need to be given reference points otherwise they seem to think everything will last forever. Literally). So I am not sure how long into Grade 1 we were when we got a new nun for religion class. When I walked into the class, an ominous figure sat at our teacher’s desk: a nun in a nun’s cloak, head covering and all. This was my first experience with a nun so I did not know what to expect. If there was ever an intriguing mystery, a nun sure was one of them. If there was a real life superhero capable of extraordinary things, she was it. I thought this nun had some real power, she could send me to hell!
But I was a good kid and that is the truth (I can see him being good, full of wonder for the world). I was afraid to be anything but good, the fear of God was instilled deep inside of me. Indeed, as I have said in the past, I was raised by my grandmother and my aunts. Although I am an Indian, religion was present in my household. My aunt Lulu, well one of my many aunts, would tuck me in bed at night. But Lulu was the one who got in depth about “Hell the place where bad people would go if they were bad. This place where you burn forever and ever and the Devil, this evil monster pokes me with a fork stick”. There was this prayer that scared the shit out of me. “Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake, pray my soul to take” (what an awful prayer for a child!). So before bed, we would say a few Our fathers, a few Hail Marys and at last I would lay down to sleep. So when I saw this woman with this cloak in my classroom, I was especially aware of my behavior.
Fort Albany residential school
The prayer and Lenny
So here we are in Grade 1, when the bell rang and all the little rug rats filed in. When the bell rang a second time signaling the start of class, the chuckling and giggling had already began (kids are funny little fuckers, they will giggle and laugh just to giggle and laugh). The nun was a weird sight for us kids and we all knew she was getting none. Wow, I just realized that I knew what “getting some” was all about at such a young age! So the nun gets out of her chair and makes her way to the front and center of the classroom. “Okay children be quiet for a second. I want you to stand and bow your head for the Lord’s Prayer.” The classroom went eerily quiet as soon as she spoke. We were children, we would steal, lie and cheat but in the face of authority we would do our best to appear angelic (yep). As I stood there with my head bowed, I peeked around to see who was looking at Lenny. We all wanted to see what his head looked like. We knew there was no chance of him getting away with wearing his toque during our Father’s prayer.
“Hey you in the back of the classroom, you with the orange toque”, the classroom came to life with chuckles and giggles. The conspiratorial looks increased, everyone was aware that the great revelation was here: we would know what Lenny looked like. Rumor had it that he was bald, some even said that his head was possibly full of scars. All the while Lenny stood quietly with his head down looking at the floor. “Hey you with the orange toque, take your toque off for the Lord’s prayer”. The nun’s voice rose a few octaves higher as the classroom began to chuckle and giggle louder. “Hey you with the orange toque” but before she could even finish, a floodgate of emotions shook Lenny’s body. A grotesque sounding noise came pouring out of Lenny’s mouth as he ran toward the door. The entire class erupted in a rumble of laughter until “Shut up” the nun roared. The classroom went uncomfortably quiet as the nun walked out the classroom door doing her best to find the wounded animal. As she came back a while later, we resumed our prayer.
And then we learned the truth about Lenny…
We stood there arms at our sides, eyes closed doing our best to stay composed. And then two weeks later (in kid’s time), a message came over the intercom. “We are sad to announce that our school has lost one of its students. Lenny has passed away”. It was a strange and almost divine punishment. We were being punished for teasing Lenny. We were told that Lenny had died of leukemia, his radiation treatment had made him loose his hair. Hence the orange toque… I then began to question the power that the nun supposedly had. She was supposed to be a good person, God’s servant, who was better or greater than the rest of us. She looked more human than ever and not a very good human at that.
You see, as kids, adults are supposed to know everything and they were supposed to tell us what we needed to know. I know we would have treated Lenny better if we knew he was going to die. I know we would have had, I would have made sure of it. When we looked in each others’ eyes, we could see the shame and the guilt we all felt. I began to question religion at this point in my life. It did not make too much sense to me. I felt guilty and wrong for the way Lenny was treated. His last day at school was his worst day in this world. Children will steal, lie and cheat. They will yell, scream and holler but deep down they are innocent and perfect in their imperfection. They are honest and that is the truth about humanity (you can always count on a kid to tell it like it is).
So where do we go now?
I hope you see inside the mind of a child when you read this stuff. I hope you see me as first grader and how I was seeing the world. And remember this: those little people are just like you. Offend them now and they will offend you later. Lie to them now and they will never grow up and be a liar like you. I ended up failing Grade 1 as our house burned down. And later on in life, I ended up being best friend with Lenny’s brother. The truth is that I still feel guilty for the way we all treated Lenny. The only thing he ever said to us was that scream he let out as he ran out the room. Please say a prayer for little Lenny and all the little bastards who were in that classroom as I bet half of them might remember little Lenny.
Hi it is me, Emily now. Some of you might not know this but I used to be a school psychologist. And the Red man’s story reminded me of this little girl in kindergarten I used to know. A little little girl who was full of life and joy. She was so happy to be in school, to make new friends. She was also a little bit shy but had a few friends. Then I got a phone call from the school principal. The little girl’s parents wanted to meet with her and I. Because not everything is as it seems. You see, their daughter had an inoperable brain tumor. She would not survive it. All at the tender age of 5. You want to hear the twist? Both her parents were doctors, one of them a surgeon. Yet they could not save her. They could only know each and every difficult step she was going to go through in the next months, steps they relayed in a meeting I had with them. So we tried to make the little’s girl last days comfortable and fun. She attended school when she could, kids would help her get around and do her daily activities. And I get the Red man’s point that kids can tease and be cruel but kids are also very intuitive and sensitive. And caring. As the little girl passed away during the Christmas break, a memorial was put up in her classroom. Kids drew cards for her and they stuck them all over the board. So she would never have to miss a day of class.
Does anyone remember their first grade? Do you remember the kids who were with you? Did you have a Lenny in your classroom? Did this story touch you? Comment below and I will respond.
All my Relations