It’s a bit hard to describe just how competitive I became at an extremely young age. The drive to keep up with my brothers was one motivator. The desire to prove myself to friends was another. Every moment that I was alive, other than wandering the woods or studying nature in some other way, I was competing for attention or approval. To do that, I tried to win at every turn.
There were exceptions to this rule. I did not like to compete at anything that bored me, or that offended some sense of fairness or justice. Sometimes those two disinterests combined. That happened when our second-grade class was enrolled in an SRA reading contest. SRA books were pamphlet-sized reading material published by some entity that thought it knew what kids would like to read. I was a good reader at a young age, but if the subject didn’t grip me, the gig was up. I’d stop reading.
Such was the case with the SRA books. For some reason that I can’t precisely recall, I got into the second section of required reading and stopped. Each section was color-coded and likely represented different levels of reading as you went along. The teacher was tracking our reading progress with ships that we’d made out of construction paper. Our ships started at the front of the room and navigated the blue waves (also construction paper) circling the room. By the third week or so, most of the ships were at the back of the room and mine was floating along far behind.
Then one day when school was almost over my mother showed up to meet with the teacher. My mom was an elementary teacher that loved to teach reading. She also knew that I was a quite good reader as I pored through books even during summer vacation. One of my favorites was a tale about a stray dog named Ribsy. The book was written by Beverly Cleary, and is described this way online:
“Good ol’ Ribsy’s ever-curious mind has always gotten him into scrapes, but this time he may have gone too far. After a comical turn of events, Ribsy finds himself in the wrong station wagon with the wrong children. Ribsy will do anything to find Henry, but there’s plenty of excitement to be had along the way—and scoring a touchdown for a local high school team is only part of the fun!”
I liked the story because it appealed to my own sense of “being different.” Our family didn’t own a dog, but I loved the idea of a dog so devoted to its human friend that it would do anything to return.
My mother and the teacher sat me down and pointed to my ship on the wall. “Chrissie,” my mother asked. “Why is your ship so far behind the others?”
Thinking fast, I looked at my mother and told her, “I’m waiting for the others to come the whole way around and then I’m going to beat them!” Deeply satisfied with my quick retort to a question I did not want to answer I sat back in my seat hoping that would be the end of it.
No such luck. “Chris,” the teacher responded. “What’s the real reason you stopped reading?”
Again I was fast on my feet with a reply that wasn’t entirely untrue. I paused at first, then admitted: “I don’t like the color of the section we’re reading.”
My mother and the teacher looked at each other for a moment. I’m pretty sure they were trying not to laugh. Yet they were also genuinely concerned that I was two-for-two in giving evasive answers.
The teacher wanted to help. “Are the books too hard?” she asked. My mother winced a bit at that suggestion and sat back. She knew that wasn’t true.
“No,” I answered honestly this time. “They’re toooo boring.”
“Ohhhh,” the teacher inquired. “What’s boring about them/”
“I don”t like the story. Nothing’s happening in it.”
This caught my mother’s attention. She knew that I liked action in everything I did. She also knew that I was quietly observant and not afraid to concentrate on details, if they were indeed interesting. I sometimes drew for hours at a time. She inquired, “Did you like the book before the one that bored you?” my mother asked.
“Yeah,” I admitted.
My mother looked at the teacher and made a proposal. “Maybe he could skip that one book and read the rest?”
The teacher wasn’t keen on the idea. “What happens if he hits another book that bores him?” she intoned. “He’ll stop again.”
My mother looked at me and smiled. “I’ll talk with him about that. But I know Chris. Sometimes he just gets stuck on stuff like this. Right, Chrissie?”
I felt a sense of relief and a touch of guilt or shame at the same time. Dragging my mother into my reading mess was a bit embarrassing. In my head was a voice asking, “Am I just a weird kid somehow?Lke the kids she tutored at our home? Was I just like one of them, a kid with “learning problems?”
Attention deficit disorder
In a sense, I was like one of those students. It would take decades, plenty of classroom inattention and work problems to ascertain that I was like millions of people with attention deficit disorder. On one hand, I had an enormous ability to focus on activities that interested me. On the other hand, I was ripe for distraction whenever a boring task was at hand.
The one place I thrived above all those challenges was the playground. There was always something going on there. Even if I was standing alone in left field waiting for the baseball or kickball to come my way, those moments felt real to me. By contrast, the often restrictive atmosphere and rigid rhythms of the classroom proved too dull for me.
The one exception to that pattern arrived in fourth grade, when an amazing teacher named Miss Keggereis taught using the Robert’s English Series, and instead of construction paper ships creeping around the room she unleashed us to created entire wall murals on giant sheets of brown paper. We illustrated the poem about Casey Jones, and even our math classwork was made more interesting because she turned it into games. I had a great year and good grades. Finally, we’d all met a teacher who recognized our full potential and integrated our diverse skills in learning. I wrote poetry and did drawings, and even rode with that teacher in her white Mustang convertible with red leather seats. I dreamed that she really liked me. Perhaps she did. In a teacherly way.
In some respects, she opened my mind to projects long in the future, as I’ve done several large-sized murals over the years. I never feared the process because of that early encouragement. She taught me to compete with my own fears in a good way. That’s a lesson everyone deserves at some point in life.