Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fourth Grade Science Time

I was a pretty weird kid when I was 10. Also a weird teenager from ages 13 to 18. Probably more accurate to say that I was a weird teenager from 13 to present.

I really hope that one day puberty fixes this.

For the vast majority of my childhood I thought I was very dumb because I didn't pay attention in class and so I never had any idea what was going on. All of my friends were passing the spelling tests and math tests and history tests and I was sitting in a corner chewing on the collar of my shirt and imaging what it would be like to fly.

I don't think I had A.D.D. and I don't think I had any kind of learning disability. I just think that the way most kids learn is different than the way I learned.

As a kid, I saw a story in everything, and I remembered those stories. I didn't have the patience to follow detailed instructions, but I could problem solve my way to a creative solution. And maybe I didn't have many correct answers to things, but I could talk my way to productive conclusions.

I guess not much has changed into my adulthood. I still can't spell (thanks spellcheck!). I get lost using GPS. I feel ignorant in the category of "useful information." But damn it. I remember stories wherever they happen and I'm great at smiling and saying "please" and "thank you." And that should count for something!

Fortunately as I grew into adulthood, I figured out how to learn in my own way, and as I got into my 20s, I stopped believing that I was a dumb person.

It's amazing how much more you can accomplish when you just stop believing that you're stupid.

I don't regret being an oddball as a child and I don't pity that little person now. I'm happy for who that kid was, because I see pieces of him in my all-growed-up self and they are all the pieces that I like the most about who I am.

One day in the fourth grade, we had "science hour" where the classes rotated to other fourth grade teachers who specialized in a certain section of the fourth grade science curriculum. We were visiting Mrs. Nelson's class to learn about rocks or bacteria or electrons or something. I don't remember. I probably didn't even know then. See above for why.

I was wearing MC Hammer pants that day that Cathie had so graciously made for me. They were neon green and they had both an elastic waist band AND drawstrings. I loved them with every fiber of my being and would surely still wear them today if they weren't made to fit a seven year old.

Yes. I had been wearing these pants for at least three years by this point. No, they did not still fit me. No, it was not still cool to wear MC Hammer pants in 1994. No, I was not aware of this.

Sometime during science hour, during which I was a visiting student to a foreign classroom where I sat in another child's desk while she visited a different classroom as a part of the rotation, I began daydreaming.

I thought about what it would be like if gravity suddenly reversed and everyone quickly fell to the ceiling. I thought about what it would be like to walk around and figure out a way to get home after school without falling into the sky.

Not really thinking about what I was doing, I began tying my drawstrings from my MC Hammer pants firmly to the desk. I tied tight knots around the desk's bars. I double-knotted and triple-knotted and tied knots on top of other knots and pulled them as tight as I possibly could. I tied one of the drawstrings to the side of the desk, and the other to the chair on which I was sitting.

I imagined the scenario where gravity suddenly reversed and all of my peers fell to their ceiling-bound lives. I imagined their cheers of praise as they realized that I was clever enough to tie myself in place so that I could go about saving everyone who was not prepared for this natural disaster.

Never mind that this desk and chair were not mounted to the ground. Never mind that even if they were, my body, dangling by drawstrings, tearing apart the MC Hammer pants that had long-since seen their day, there wouldn't have been anything helpful I could have actually done for my classmates.

You guys. Science time was only one hour. I didn't have time to work out all of the plot holes.

And never did I wish that science time was more than one hour than when Mrs. Nelson told us that our lesson had concluded and dismissed us to go back to our own classroom.

A flash of panic ran through my little body as reality hit me and I watched my classmates line up at the back of the classroom to make their march back to home room.

I began frantically picking at the knots. And the double-knots. And the triple-knots. And the knots on top of other knots. But it was no use. I was too aggressive in my knot tying. I couldn't pick a single one.

Damn the Cub Scouts and all they taught me!

Somehow my class left the room and Mrs. Nelson's class returned, all without anyone noticing that I was stuck in place.

A little girl approached and demanded that I get out of her seat. I pointed at the knots. And then she started crying.


Mrs. Nelson saw the commotion and came over, asking why I hadn't gone back to my own classroom. I pointed at the problem.

I'll never forget the look she gave me. It was the kind of look you would give if you were asked to clean barf up at work and you suddenly found yourself doing a quick analysis about whether or not you're getting paid enough.

She asked me if she could get some scissors and cut me free.

"No!" I protested. "My mom will be so mad!"

This wasn't true. Cathie would have probably loved nothing more than to see the destruction--even a minor destruction such as was contemplated here--of those MC Hammer pants.

Cathie would not have been mad. The protest was motivated entirely by my own desires to preserve MC Hammer's memory at all costs.

Mrs. Nelson sighed, got down onto here knees, and began picking the knots, one-by-one, with her two-inch fingernails.

The 30 students in her class gathered around and watched, all to the sounds of sniffling little girl who wondered if she was ever going to get her seat back.

This is where memories from childhood begin to fail us. I can't tell you for sure how long it took, but in the deep and exaggerated recesses of the "embarrassing stories from my childhood" section of my mind, the knot-picking took at least three hours. In reality, it was probably done in less than five minutes.

But however long it took, it was long enough for my own class to get started on its next lesson, because when I returned to my classroom, Mrs. Goodrow was already well into a math problem on the blackboard.

My next report card had listed under "remarks" things like, "daydreams often," and "writes stories in the cover of books," and, with a star in front of it, "tied self to desk during science time."

Bob and Cathie had never been prouder, surely.

Every once in a while now I think back to that time I tied myself to a desk in the fourth grade, chewed on my collar, and was oblivious to the social consequences. And I think, "wow. I'm a lawyer. I've come a long way."

And then I return to my game of "Meow that Tune" with Daniel.

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. Oh. My. Heck. I think you just described my 4th grade son. He never did tie himself to the desk, but he's brilliant at what he cares about (which never coincides with what the teachers like) and his daydreams are epic. And he cracks jokes constantly. And I am confident he'd make a brilliant lawyer. I'll remind him that he doesn't need to care about what the teachers care about to be successful. Or at least, strange... :D

  2. Just add a stuffed tiger and you and Calvin are indistinguishable

  3. Thanks for reminding me, as a teacher, to be a little more understanding. Who knows how many future lawyers I have in my classroom.

  4. I haven't come all that far from fourth grade. I'm still a lazy, daydreaming procrastinator who gets other people to do her homework. I wonder if I'll ever grow out of it. But heck, it's worked for me this long...

  5. My daughter, who just completed the 4th grade, is the exact same way as you were (are). Please please, help me. I'm begging! She is so smart, and wicked funny, and a great person. But the daydreaming! She never comes home with the right books for homework. She is never fully comprehending what is happening in the rest of the world. I was laughing all the way through your post because it very well could have happened to her! All her teachers love her, but some times, I think, they'd really like to shake her - just a little - and say wake up! When she is reading a book, she's completely in the book. There is no distracting her and she's gotten in trouble for reading a book in school. Really?? How did you learn how to learn?

    1. It was a serious struggle for me up through middle school and then it got a little better in high school. I think this is because by that age, there are more creative outlets and a slightly more varied learning structure. As a result, my grades in high school were fine (not exceptional, but fine). It wasn't until college that I started doing well in school and it was all because my very first semester I wrote a paper for a history class and my very very kind history professor pulled me aside and told me it was really well done and that he was so happy to have me in his class. I went home crying because it was the first time I could ever remember being really proud of something I did in school. And it was like a switch was flipped. I suddenly stopped thinking I was dumb and I became motivated to learn how to learn in my own way. And it worked. I don't know what the best advice is for her situation, but I think that helping her see her academic strengths, whatever they are (mine was writing), can go a long way in giving a kid the confidence they need to overcome other learning barriers.

      By the way, I still have that history paper. I pull it out from time to time and read it. It's not very good. But I'm more proud of it than just about anything else I've ever written.

    2. Beautiful. This response just made me tear up. You are a remarkable person, Eli.

    3. Thank you, Eli, and I totally agree with Anon, you are a remarkable person. It's truly hard to parent someone who thinks differently than you. She gets decent grades (mostly B's, some A's) but I know she can do better. We told her last year if she gets an A in math for the last quarter we would get a dog - thinking there is no way. Well, what do we have now? A dog. She said that she didn't have the right motivation before then. I just need to find her motivation. She excels in theater. She enjoys dance. She loves soccer and reading. I just know that the love of learning is in her head and her heart. Hopefully, we will find the spark sooner than later - and before she ties herself in knots to a desk. :) Thank goodness she doesn't have any MC Hammer pants! I remember going away to college my first year and flunking my first test ever. I walked away saying to myself, "But don't you KNOW who I AM??? I don't flunk." Our daughter is like, "eh." sigh.

    4. Eli, this is beautiful. You should send this to that history professor.

    5. You sound a bit like me when I was in school, Eli. I had the same issues of not being able to learn the way they taught. My teachers always said I was smart but I just couldn't study or learn the way others learned. Now I know I'm more of a hands on person. Give me anything I can touch and I can figure it out. Wasn't until University/College that I learned how smart I was and started getting grades at the top of my class in the classes where I could figure things out through touch and images.

      I think the issue with our schooling is that we're just starting to learn that everyone does NOT learn the same way. We're too ready to slap the ADD label on a kid rather then realizing that hey...THEY DON'T HAVE ADD, THEY JUST LEARN DIFFERENTLY! And it's up to us to figure that out, but most people just don't want to accept change and just want to keep slapping the ADD label on kids. I mean some kids are ADD, but I bet that percentage is WAY less then what it actually is.

      Some people can learn really well from reading, others from presentations, others from hands on, others from pictures, etc... and those that excel in school are usually the ones that learn best from presentations and reading. I can learn from reading, as long as I'm interested in the subject, which is why I failed in school.

      For any of you parents out there who are losing hope, don't. Just have patience with your kids. I'm having to have the same kind of patience with my older son. He's brilliant, but he just doesn't learn the same way others do in school. Just have patience, and maybe try different things with your kids. The internet is a wealth of knowledge that may be able to help out as well with different kinds of learning tactics. Everyone is different, so just try some new things.

  6. "And maybe I didn't have many correct answers to things, but I could talk my way to productive conclusions"

    Explains why you became an attorney.

  7. Can't wait to read your book. Stories are my everything and I love your stories.

  8. Eli…I think you were a gifted student.

  9. Imagining the scenario where gravity flips is exactly the concept that led me to help create This End Up.

  10. I go through this a lot at school. Most people don't seem to realize that different people learn differently. I've never been an academic person. I'm going to be a junior next year so everyone is super invovled in the school to get into college. I feel contsantly judged because I don't nave the outgoing personality to be involved and the perfectionist attitude to get perfect grades. I often daydream. I remember in 3rd grade I convinced myself that my teacher was a monster amd that she was going to eat my class. Thank you for reminding me that its alrghf to be a little bit different!

  11. Eleventh grade, AP US History. The class was terrible, and the teacher and I had been at odds since eighth grade when she gave me a completely undeserved student referral and mistook my silent tears of rage as penitence.
    Anyway, I fell asleep, as I did almost everyday ( eight years later I am now a diagnosed narcoleptic.) While sleeping, one of my dear friends tied my shoe to my desk in a devilish knot. The teacher came over, woke me up, and told me to "Leave her class this instant young lady!" I quickly stood up to ablige, and happy as I was to get out of there, I realised I could not move unless I took the deask with me. I spotted the guilty and slighty scared face of the boy who had tied my laces, and knew I couldn't explain things to the teacher. So, having woken up from a deep sleep only seconds before, I theatrically threw my arms out and begged the teacher to let me remain in her class. I apologised extravagantly, if not sincerely, and was so loud and disprutive that she eventually just told me to sit down to shut me up. I sat down, looked daggers at the laces tier, and then settled in for another short nap before the bell rang.