We are all born knowing who we are. But far too often, the first bullies to teach us that we must keep parts of ourselves hidden are the adults we trust.
In pre-Kindergarten, I was that girl who loved to dance.
Lots of children move to music. It’s a natural human impulse. But tell that to my vile teacher, Mrs. Black. She ruled her pre-K classroom with an iron fist.
From day one, Mrs. Black and I had differing opinions. She thought that four and five year-olds should clean up the classroom by the count of five; to me, this seemed downright draconian. She sent home a note in my lunchbox, suggesting that I might have learning differences because I did not yet tie my shoes; as my mother explained to her, this was because no other lefty had ever shown me how. And I was already reading and writing, for god’s sake. How many accomplishments must a four year old have under her belt?
But I digress.
I remember it like this: Every day, first thing in the morning, our class would rise to our feet for the Pledge of Allegiance. Afterwards, we would remain standing as she played a patriotic song on the classroom record player. (I’m not that old. You know public schools and their lag in technology).
I repeat: We would remain standing while we listened to a song — a whole song. Three to five minutes standing still, in one spot, our feet glued to the carpet, during music. We were four and five years old. But we were not to dance. I knew that because on the first day we did it, I danced. I was admonished.
The second day, I danced again. I was given another warning.
The third day, I danced. Because the music was playing, man. This land is your land, this land is my land. The lyrics filled my head with new pictures, highways and forests and mountains. And the beat made my foot tap. The strum of the guitar made my hips sway. The timbre of Woodie Guthrie’s voice made my arms wiggle. Music was meant to be danced to. I knew it with all my heart.
That third day, I got in trouble.
“I told you if you danced again, your name was going to go in the Box,” Mrs. Black told me as the music ended. I froze. All the blood went out of my feet. She walked over to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk. In that deliberate way that the teachers of young children have, she formed my name in a neat row of letters. There it was, bold as brass, for everyone to see. It was the only name there.
I will remember that moment all of my life. It was the first time I was made to feel humiliated for expressing the things that were inside of me.
The moment ended. Mrs. Black clapped her hands together briskly and called everyone over to sit in a circle on their carpet squares. Everyone forgot my temporary humiliation. I sat cross-legged, numb, staring down at the little window to the floor my legs had made.
After that day, I never went back without a fight. My poor mother dealt with epic tantrums. I remember kicking the glove compartment as hard as I could from my spot in the passenger seat, trying to get it to spring open. I remember the conflict, and the despair: I so wanted to go back. I wanted to see my friends. I wanted to read I Am A Pirate. But how could I, after my crushing defeat?
School is rough. It may always be rough. It may always be the place where we learn to hide our souls from the world. I guess we all learn that somehow.
But it shouldn’t be at the hands of our teachers, or the other adults we trust. It shouldn’t be there.
My story is so, so minor. Children go through much worse at the hands of their parents and teachers, clergy and counselors. Especially queer kids.
Nothing bad happened to me, of course, because I got in trouble for dancing. It didn’t dramatically change the trajectory of my life. But it did teach me my first lesson in hiding myself away. Over the next ten years, it was a lesson I would learn over and over again. By the time I was a teenager, I had learned to hide myself away really, really well — so well I didn’t even know myself.
We aren’t born hiding. That feeling we have, when we’re two and three and four, that undeniable rightness of our own thoughts and emotions and bodies: we have to start finding ways to hang onto that. It starts with the adults in our lives. It starts with parents, and teachers. It starts with people like Mrs. Black.