The Dreadful School Pictures
School picture day arrived. I looked at the nine-year-old girl in the mirror. Freckles. Big ears. Big nose. Big teeth. Big gap between my two front teeth. Bad hair. Black eyebrows. I wanted to stay home. I didn’t want to remember what I saw staring back at me that morning. I still had last year’s school pictures hidden under my bed. I wanted to be beautiful, popular, and smart. But I felt ugly, ignored, and stupid. To make matters worse, I knew I needed glasses, too. I tried to pretend like I didn’t, but I couldn’t even see the chalkboard.
Of all my troubles the worst thing of all was...
I didn’t smile for the camera that day, and I didn’t pass third grade. I still couldn’t read without feeling seasick. I still hated math. I had one goal: to go home for summer vacation and pray for the school to be destroyed by a hurricane. We lived in Florida—it was possible. I wanted to be a mommy and an artist, and I couldn't see how school was going to help me live my dreams. And how could I go back to the same school again? Third grade was bad enough the first time. I didn’t want to go back to school without windows. The kids would know I failed and make fun of me. I wanted to hold my guinea pig, make maps of Amy’s woods at the end of the street, look at encyclopedias, and draw pictures.
If I had been born twenty years later, I suppose I would have been labeled with “dyslexia” and maybe “Asperger’s Syndrome.” In the right school, they may have even called me “gifted.” But in the 1980s, kids like me were considered “immature” and called “daydreamers.” We became failures and were required to repeat whatever grades we couldn’t pass—I thought I would always be in third grade. An awkward 12-year-old boy named Victor had been in third grade twice already. He was worried that he would be stuck there forever, too.
As it turned out, a hurricane didn’t hit Oak Park Elementary School in the summer of 1984, but something just as wonderful did happen. I finally learned to read! While we traveled from state to state going to art festivals during the summer, my mom often would read to us to pass the time. I loved listening to the stories. One night she was reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and just when the story was getting really exciting, my mom put the book down. I asked for one more chapter, but she said to me, “If you want to find out what happens next you will have to read it yourself.”
That night, on the top bunk of our RV, I turned on my nightlight and labored over every word. I tried so hard to put the sounds together and slowly began to understand each word. The more I used my imagination, the easier it was to read. It took an hour to read just one page, but the story came to life. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, so I kept reading. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about the letters or the words, and the words were no longer swimming around on the page. I turned to the next chapter and then the next, and before I knew it, I had finished the book on my own. The next day I didn’t wait for my mom to read to me. I just asked for the next book in the series, and I read it myself.
Third grade was better the second time around. I didn’t enjoy it, but I knew exactly what to expect. I had seen all the textbooks before, but this time I could read them. I still thought they were boring; I would rather have been at home reading the encyclopedias all day. The kids in my class actually looked up to me since I was a year older. And I was pleased to have a seat close to the chalkboard, the clock, and the pencil sharpener. I even had a nice teacher, Mrs. Ryland, who never stopped smiling. A teacher with a sunny disposition made up for the lack of sunshine in the classroom.
Forth grade followed, and though I was doing well in school by then, I was happy to hear the news that our family was going to move to Ohio at the end of the summer after the art show season. My dad was asked to help plant a new church, Calvary Chapel in Cincinnati, where he would be the pastor. This was a career change for him, having lost his engineering job at NASA after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. I was just happy that I would be going to a school where no one knew I had failed third grade. Perhaps it would even have windows. I also was excited about the prospect of seeing snow and living in a two-story house! My sisters didn't want to leave Florida, but I couldn't wait.