“Everyone has to fight dislike at some point, and this was my first big battle. I was chastised by her because I was forgetful, but nobody knew back then about my ADHD and that none of it was really ever my fault.”
I stare at the grain of the wood table beneath me. Eraser marks hide where my doodles and words used to be. I look up, and I find my image suspended in her glasses. Today, I look small. Today I can only see my eyes swimming in hers beneath the glass. My outline is fuzzy on all sides. I feel my neck tense, and I focus back in on the list of star students on the board that is missing my name, again. My name, again.
My paper was missing my name, again. She is furious, and I feel sorry for her. I cause her too much trouble for what I am worth to her. Her teeth snap with each word, and I wish I could tune her out more, but she is asking for some response. Some response I can’t pull out of the air already full of her words. Somehow my ears get blocked, my lips turn to glue. I cannot ask politely what she is saying, and I don’t have the vocabulary to explain my zoning out, my tendency to fall into the white noise that I neither create nor hate because it gives me solace from her.
I don’t know how to react to anything but kindness. I wasn’t used to the kind of criticism that doesn’t end with a pat on the back, and my fragile confidence was rocked by the serrated words of my second-grade teacher. It means a lot to me to get her smile. I did get her smile once. I yanked a tooth out too early. There was blood in my mouth as I smiled, and she returned me a genuine dimple in her cheek. A half smile. Her grin disappeared, but the blood did not. Usually, the gleam of her dark eyes, her charcoal hair, the black rims of her glasses all look and feel like fire that cannot burn me. Though, today I feel like the ant on the brighter side of the magnifying glass. I apologize now, when my lips materialize, but I still don’t hear her accept it.
Her heels scuff and thump the floor back to her desk, with piles of books and a pot of plastic orchids. I don’t know they’re called orchids because I’m only in the second grade. I call them the snake flowers: I imagine they are fierce snarling teeth with fanned heads, and they are the reason she is so mean to me. If only she would take them away. They break the white noise; they fill the air with upset.
Her hair glimmers as she turns back to us and gives some instructions, but the flowers fizzle them up as they hit the air, and her instructions dissipate like bubbles popping. They never reach my ears. But the sight of her, the feeling of sinking in her glasses, my eyes resting in the dark holes in the middle of her eyes, will never be forgotten by the whispering of the snakes that live as the plastic orchids. Even when I leave the second-grade classroom, I feel the stalks of the flowers wrapping around my wrists and ankles, and I hear the orchids scratching against my white shield.
Now I am 16, but I still feel the marks of my teacher’s orchids. I still remember the gleam of her glasses, and fighting to stay out of her eyes. I still remember falling into my white noise like a shield against the snakes. I am beyond the pot of plastic, purple orchids now.
Everyone has to fight dislike at some point, and this was my first big battle. I learned the difficult translation of her criticism to feedback and her harshness to helpfulness. I was chastised by her because I was forgetful, but nobody knew back then about my ADHD and that none of it was really ever my fault. That the messiness was not laziness. That the forgotten details were not carelessness, or even rudeness. That I tried so hard to keep things together, but somehow, they always fell apart. It was like trying to bring a puddle for show and tell, water slipping through my fingers as I tried to lift something stuck to the ground. It was like trying to make a gigantic sandcastle with the silky, dry sand that burns your fingers and toes. But she blamed my character, so I did too. I never knew the dark side of dislike before her, but I’m glad I can recognize the smell of it now. She probably doesn’t even know my name anymore. She just knows me as the kid who never put her name on a paper, the kid who just stared at her with wide eyes, soaking up her scolding.
I can look her in the eyes now without feeling like a sinking bird, and I can smile at her snarling orchids through their fangs. I can forgive the sneering countenances of her orchids, but I don’t know if I will come to terms with her, with her eyes like throwing stones, with her smile contorted by blood in her mouth, the blood that almost always ricocheted right off of me.