Childhood is difficult, but childhood for a shy child is excruciating. I had a teacher who helped me, though, and I remember her.
My second-grade teacher was wildly enthusiastic, a cheek-pincher, a loud-spoken Greek. I was a seven year old introvert. My family was in the midst of breaking apart and I spent most of my time sitting in my room, reading.
I wavered between looking up to my older brothers and avoiding them because they were angry, too. Because I was ignored, as far as I was concerned their objects were fair game, so I borrowed them without permission and sometimes took them to school to show them off. This is how I ended up as a second-grader with the library’s copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends in my possession. I sat quietly with the large hardback book on my desk, the illustrated children on the cover barely holding onto the end of a crumbling world, hoping someone would help them.
One day my teacher, Mrs. Kolias, asked me to read some of the poems to the class, presumably while she caught up on grading our homework. I remember sitting on a high stool in front of the class with the heavy book in my lap, feeling scared shitless but excited and important at the same time. So I read. My teacher told me to speak up, so I read more loudly.
I read “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” “Sister For Sale,” “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set,” most of the funny ones, but some of the more profound ones too. The class laughed at all of the right moments, and when I was done I felt proud and a bit like a minor classroom celebrity for the afternoon.
Of course I didn’t appreciate my teacher’s intentions back then; I was afraid of teachers and authority figures. Feeling invisible makes you feel ashamed and guilty for no reason. I know now that she was impressed by the fact that I was an exceptional reader for a second grader, so she tried to give the girl who would never look an adult in the eye and chewed her nails to the quick encouragement and confidence and pride in herself and her intelligence.
I wish I could write Mrs. Kolias a letter and let her know that I am grateful for her efforts to help me, but she has since passed away. I always think of her, though, when I notice a child who seems lost. I notice them because she noticed me.
“Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.”