First grade was the first time in my life I felt understood. I loved everything about school. The snacks, the smell of mimeographed worksheets, learning how to read and write, the playground, and most of all, I loved my teacher Mrs. King. She was the first adult I had ever met who loved me back.

As the school year drew to a close, I overheard my parents talking in the den. “I can’t stand the other second-grade teachers,” my mother growled. Even at seven, I knew she was ramping toward a full-on tirade. She happened to be a second-grade teacher at the same school my brother and I attended, though I managed to avoid her during my year of freedom in Mrs. King’s classroom. I flattened myself against the wall and continued listening at the door. “I mean it. None of them is any good. I’m not going to have it, I’m just not going to have it. That child isn’t going to learn a thing. That principle is the sorriest thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t stand that school. I’ve never seen such a bunch of…”

“Oh for God’s sake, what do you want?” As usual, my father was exasperated.

“I’m going to put her in my classroom next year,” my mother replied.

Oh no! I wanted to scream! Anxiety turned my blood to ice. My mother couldn’t do that could she? I knew she could and she would. She must have found out how happy I was. Hated it at home, she was going to see to it that I was hated at school as well.

Second-grade passed in a blur. There was nowhere to turn for help. My mother perched herself upon a wooden teacher throne. . . the very essence of power. Not only could she beat me at home, now, but she could also beat me all day long at school. Those were the days when kids were still spanked, so the administration did nothing. After all, she was my mother. She could do whatever she wanted. Besides, the principal had no idea what was going on in that classroom. My mother took the opportunity to focus special attention on me.

My worksheets became indecipherable, confusing symbols. I grew more stupid by the day. I did bad work, I had bad handwriting, I couldn’t behave, I was wicked, dumb, and lazy. In fact, I was the worst kid in the classroom. I was trash. Worse than trash. I did not deserve to live. All the terrible things my mother had done to me during the years I was under her thumb at home began to happen all day long at school. Now, she had an audience of eighteen other children to witness my shame. I lay my head on my desk in defeat. I could not win. No matter what I did, my mother was always going to be on top. I wanted to die. As the year finally crawled to a close, we were hit with really catastrophic news. They were going to send black people to my school!

My parents hit the roof. No child of theirs was going to go to school with black people, only they didn’t use the word black. I didn’t know what to think. My parents decided I would attend the hastily constituted private school in town. Since I was changing schools, I was made to take test after boring test of entrance exams. I tried my best, but since I had been so stupid in second grade, I didn’t hold out much hope for a good result.

Both my mother and father asked me to come into the den for a talk. I knew by the looks on their faces it was going to be bad. My father cleared his throat. “Your tests show that you haven’t learned enough to enter third grade. You’re going to have to repeat the second grade.” I tried to wrap my brain around what they were saying.

My mother added her special touch. “This is a new school so no one will know what has happened. Just make sure you don’t tell anyone you’ve been held back.” Held back was the whispered euphemism for “you failed the second grade.” I was never to expose the terrible secret. I thought about the one kid I knew who had failed a grade. He was a big bully who smelled funny. Everyone made fun of him behind his back. “He’s a dummy,” they whispered.

I stared at the ground in despair. Every mean thing my parents had ever said had come true and worse. I was too stupid to pass the second grade. Heartbroken doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I was devastated and something broke deep, down inside.

I overheard my mother talking about me on the phone. “We’re changing schools, and you know, private school is so much more advanced than public. We’re holding Rebekah back a year.”

To outsiders, it was the school’s fault I had failed, while inside our home, the failure was mine alone. My mother skated away without an ounce of responsibility for all she had done. I wasn’t allowed to tell a single soul about my catastrophe, and here was my mother telling everyone she could think of to call. Every kid in the new school would know that I was the class dummy before I ever arrived. My mother would see to that.

I was fifty years old before it dawned on me that my mother had been the teacher responsible for my academics that year. The story of failure followed me through the nightmare of elementary school, the disaster of middle school, the despair of high school, and every decade after that until I finally arrived at trauma therapy. In tears, I recounted the story to my therapist.

He leaned back in his chair, interlocked his fingers, and let out a long sigh. “Your mother was a liar.”  I looked up in shock. “It’s called covert abuse, and it wasn’t your fault. You’ve simply been telling yourself the same story your abuser wanted you to believe.”

Now I was the one to sit back in the chair. He was right. I had been absolutely convinced I was cataclysmically stupid. No adult accomplishment, achievement or success, canceled out that story. Until I looked the truth in the eye and embraced it.

It sounds so simple. How could I have believed such a one-sided story for so long? Because I was a tiny little seven-year-old and didn’t have the slightest inkling of what my mother was up to. She was all I had. I was the problem. There was something inherently wrong with me. What other possible conclusion could I have come to?

If you are able to relate to this story in any way, it is time for you to reframe the stories you have been telling yourself. I was brain-washed into interpreting the past in a certain way. Like a funhouse mirror, even my memories were corrupted. It takes real heroism to survive trauma, and that is what I am. . .a hero. . .who is also very smart. And so are you.

 

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