A Beginning Place: Kindergarten

James Whitcomb Riley Grammar School, Long Beach, California

Tying my shoelaces was the first thing I was supposed to learn.
I already knew that skill, tied them rather swiftly and fairly neatly.
But not in the manner instructed.
My parents worked with me, patiently.
My teacher worked with me, impatiently.
Childhood friends were either supportive or amused.
A couple of the kids were cruel and made fun of me.
It was decreed by the teacher I tied shoelaces absolutely backwards.

The fact was announced to the entire class. She had never seen anything like it. The teacher admitted the end result was fine but the way I got there was completely wrong.

Each morning when I arrived at school, sitting on my mat awaiting me, was a model wooden shoe. I would learn to tie shoelaces properly. The wooden shoe was my guillotine.

The word dyslexia wasn’t spoken or perhaps not known in those years, but the teacher had her suspicions. I was going to have learning issues. I came home crying. I told my parents I simply couldn’t tie the shoelaces. My father said I was tying my shoelaces as well as the wooden shoe’s laces. “You take a different route but you get to the finish line.”

I confessed the teacher said I wasn’t going to learn to read properly either.

That was the parental call to arms. I began reading parts of the newspaper on my own at barely 4 years old. Once they saw I was a reader, my father and I read the newspaper together every single day after school and on Sunday mornings. The Sunday Comics were last, the reading desert, after I had conquered articles and columns. As I learned new words each day, all I wanted to do was read anything and everything. Quickly I wanted to form letters and make my own words. That desire occasioned the purchase of an enormous blackboard with an eraser and lots of chalk. It was installed in my bedroom, on a large easel. Money was always in very short supply. The blackboard was a major purchase. My mother was in charge of the blackboard activities; my father handled the print division of the lesson plans.

The day after my confession and all the tears, my mother and I walked to Kindergarten together as we always did, but this morning she brought along the newspaper, The Long Beach Independent Press Telegram. She had it rolled up and tucked under her arm. We entered the schoolroom early. My mother told the teacher we needed to have a “little chat.” The teacher was relieved; apparently she was going to call them that very day about the continuing shoelace problem. As she began to speak about my stubborn refusal to learn to do it the right way, my mother — measuring an imposing and powerful 4’11”– put her hand up: “Just one moment, we’ll get to that.”

Then my mother handed me the newspaper. I started to read from my favorite column About Lakewood. I had not memorized it. I did a cold reading as in a theatrical audition. Of course, I missed a few words.

The teacher was stunned. But what about the shoelaces? — She demanded to know.

My mother told her: “She won’t get a job tying shoes, but she will do something with words. Or she will become an artist, it is an artistic way to tie shoes.”

I get to where I’m going — and where I’ve have been — and where I still dream I might be able to go — in different and even strange ways. Most of the time, I go through side doors or find back roads, but I get there. Sooner or later I do get to the destination, or multiple destinations, with lots of surprises along the way.

Spoiler Alert: I always do it with words, never with shoelaces.

©2011 Alida Brill FromThisTerrace