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