Note: This section of the book begins delving into my life story and is written from my perspective based on my memories of my experiences. For friends, acquaintances, or family members who may read this and think, “that never happened,” or “it didn’t happen like that,” please try to be open to the possibility that each of our perspectives, while potentially contradictory, are real and valid. I would not presume to dictate to you what your truth is- I can only share mine as honestly as possible. Thank you.
As a child, I had personality traits and lived experiences that I believed were completely unlike anyone I knew. I thought they made me weird, strange, uniquely different from everyone else. I felt alone and misunderstood. I felt tremendous pressure to conform to social and cultural norms at home, at school, and within my peer group, but there were such clear inconsistencies within those norms, I was in conflict with myself and others just about all the time.
As I mentioned earlier, my parents were “Hippies,” at least in the cultural sense. They used drugs, eschewed traditional structures, and dressed differently from many of my peers’ parents. They had divorced before I started school and my mother remarried a week after my 5th birthday. My biological father, Charles Michael, who preferred and went by his middle name, was not a primary caregiver beyond my 2nd year, so I have no memory of his being in our household or parenting my two sisters and me at all, really. In my early childhood, he was “Daddy Michael,” to us and our stepfather was “Daddy Ken.”
Our mom, Sue, was our main influence and most consistent parental figure. She was super smart, funny, independently minded, and very loving. She had survived a great deal of trauma and dysfunction in her upbringing but, of course, I didn’t know or understand any of that as a child. Her lifestyle was unorthodox and some of her parenting choices were questionable and, arguably, damaging to her children but I have no doubt that she did the best she could with the knowledge and resources she had at the time. That’s my adult perspective, obviously. When I was young, I had a much less nuanced understanding of her circumstances and her choices.
While in elementary school, I began to observe a number of ways in which my home life and I, myself, were not “normal.” I watched other families at parent-teacher conferences and open houses and noticed that many of my fellow students were represented by their still-married, biological parents. I saw that other kids’ dads didn’t have long hair, or unkempt beards, or tattoos of the Zig Zag man. Or any tattoos at all!
Other kids’ moms didn’t have a different haircut or color every few months and didn’t dress in peasant blouses and floral wrap skirts that they made themselves. As far as I could tell, none of my peers went home to small apartments where their parents would smoke weed and drop acid on a regular basis. It was made clear to me very early on, both implicitly and explicitly, that my parents’ lifestyle was not something to discuss at school or with my friends. There was nothing wrong with what was going on, I just shouldn’t talk about it.
Adding to my sense of separateness was the discovery that I was academically advanced, or “gifted.” I had started reading at 3 years old and had moved well beyond the typical Kindergarten curriculum by the time I entered formal schooling. Much of my time in the classroom the first 3 years of school was spent working independently, with occasional check-ins from my teachers. As standardized tests soon revealed, my intellect, at least by the accepted measures of the time, was “off the charts.” We were poor and my parents could not afford to engage any additional “enrichment” opportunities for me but they made sure I always had books, typically from the public library, and I was free to ask questions, at least early on. My precociousness was, I imagine, somewhat novel and endearing when I was a tiny, pig-tailed, rosy-cheeked little girl. As I got older, however, and my questions became more challenging, conflicts began to arise.
In third grade, I was extremely fortunate to be placed in Miss Bullen’s class. She was an exceptionally engaging and warm presence, who recognized the need to differentiate her teaching methods for students, based on their individual strengths and challenges. Despite my abilities to learn and understand material more rapidly and deeply than most other students, I was disorganized and resisted structure and restrictions- finding most rules arbitrary and, often, downright “stupid.”
Miss Bullen worked with me on strategies to keep my desk neat and explained why switching from reading or art (which I loved) to math or science (which were less interesting to me) was important and necessary. On her own time and with her own resources, she offered extra field trips (expeditions) for a few students, including me- those of us who demonstrated an inclination for learning beyond the classroom. I have vivid memories of exploring local resources like the Erie Canal and researching the historical and cultural significance of the Indigenous tribes of Western New York with Miss Bullen. She sang songs with us, talked with us, hugged us often, and told us we were capable of achieving whatever we could imagine for ourselves.
It is clear to me, in hindsight, that her influence has inspired my personal and professional approach to working with young people immeasurably- not just through demonstration of effective teaching practice but also by providing an example of genuine, intentional relationship-building between an adult professional and children. Some might characterize this as merely another teaching practice but Miss Bullen was the only teacher I had throughout my schooling who created extra opportunities for her students to know her and explore learning with her outside of the typical teacher-student power dynamic. Enrichment programs within the school setting- even with field trips and expeditionary learning models- are still “school” and don’t have the same kind of impact as adult professionals personally and intentionally giving time and attention to their students.
The remainder of elementary school was less pleasant for me and I began to exhibit increasingly problematic mood changes and disruptive behaviors at home and at school. At the time, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. No one seemed to understand me well enough. I was too different. I spent most of my free time reading- immersing myself in other peoples’ lives and worlds. Mine was scary and confusing and, despite how “smart” I was, I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to reconcile my thoughts with my feelings.
During this time, my family moved out of the school district I’d been in since Kindergarten to a small town in a rural area. It was only a few miles away from where we’d lived previously but it felt like a huge distance. My few close friends and I were able to stay in touch and visit one another regularly, but it was no longer every day and I had difficulty making new friends, especially since most of the students in my new school had known each other since kindergarten and already had formed cliques.
By middle school, I had become relatively close with a couple other “smart kids” and I’d gotten used to the small town environment but I never felt at home there. My stepfather and I were frequently getting into arguments that led to physical punishment of some kind- spankings were most common- and I was internalizing the idea that I was not, nor would I ever be, good enough to be really accepted and loved by my parents. I resented my intelligence and wanted to be like other kids- the ones who seemed happy and popular. The ones whose parents seemed to cherish and celebrate them- to truly want them.