Bring the past only if you are going to build from it. ~Doménico Cieri Estrada
I still remember the first day of fifth grade. Ms. McCarthy sat with her hands folded on her lap, swaying back and forth on an old wooden rocking chair. As she spoke, I studied her carefully—skin, impossibly pale; hair, a tumble of grey and white; eyes, steel-blue rocks.
“I’m allergic to strong scents,” she stated in a menacing tone, “And I can only wear 100% cotton”. I examined her thick socks, pale-blue tights and oversized sweater, the latter draping over her thin body like a hospital gown.
In retrospect, it amazes me that I found this fragile creature so intimidating—but I believed, at the age of ten, that Ms. McCarthy was all-powerful. Her list of ailments made her untouchable. Her grin was enigmatic. And it didn’t help that I sat right in front of her, my desk in the direct view of those steel-blue eyes.
Most children, at one time or another, are convinced that their teacher is out to get them. Having always been a favourite student, I never thought my time would come. I printed my name visibly in big black letters—FABIOLA—and stuck the paper neatly to the front of my desk.
I’ll never know if she did it intentionally, but the first and only day that I didn’t complete my homework, Ms. McCarthy took our class on a spontaneous trip to a neighbouring park. Instead of playing on the swings or hanging from the monkey-bars, I sat beside her on a hard wooden bench. My offence: I had only written two lines in my daily journal. Ms. McCarthy felt that this was irresponsible, lazy, nothing short of shameful for a girl who was supposedly “gifted”. She said the word with such contempt. I sat there for what felt like an hour, listening to her repeat the same accusations in different words. She asked me if I thought I was smart enough to be in gifted. When I started crying, she lowered her face to mine. “Waaah! Waaah!” She mocked, squeezing her eyes shut. My cry became a choked whimper.
The truth is I had forgotten to finish my journal, but she hadn’t accepted that answer. The longer we sat there, the more I attempted to make excuses for myself. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” she chirped. I looked at her in confusion, “Oh, that’s my inner lie-detector. I don’t believe you, Fabiola.”
It was art class, my favourite subject, and we were painting trees. I sat on the hallway floor with the other students, giving life to my tree in broad strokes of orange, red and yellow. The trunk was a deep chocolate brown. I had always been told I had artistic talent, so I smiled to myself as I worked.
Suddenly, the socked-Birkenstocks stopped right in front of me. I looked up to see Ms. McCarthy staring back down.
“The trunk is too dark, Fabiola.” She said, kneeling down and squeezing white paint onto my brown paint. She started to mix it but then got up. “Lighten it.” She said, as she sauntered away. I proceeded to blend the colours, growing increasingly upset as the rich chocolate brown became dry and hay-like. I repainted my tree with tears in my eyes. Finally, I got up and showed it to her.
“The trunk is too light. Do it again.” She said.
I returned to my place and squeezed out some more brown paint. The paper sagged under the weight of the still-wet layers. I overheard Ms. McCarthy praising someone else’s rudimentary, cactus-like tree. I decided that art was no longer my favourite subject.
Ms. McCarthy had been pleasant during parent-teacher interviews. My mom gently laughed at me for being afraid of her. Though I usually went to interviews, this time I had stayed home, pacing back and forth.
“Baby, she says you’re a good student. Your grades are great! Why do you think she hates you?”
I shrugged my shoulders and went to write in my personal diary. While the journals for Ms. McCarthy were always short and forced, the journals about Ms. McCarthy were long and tear-stained. I wrote of how she’d punished me by sending me to the hallway—a first for me. In disbelied, I had watched the heavy door shut in front of me.
When a bug expert had visited our school, I had excitedly told Ms. McCarthy that Indian stick insects are all female. “Well, how do they reproduce?” She chided. When I told her I didn’t know, she proceeded to lecture me for not asking obvious questions. “Aren’t you gifted, Fabiola?” She reminded.
At Christmas time, we had to come up with slogans that promoted reading. Finding that I had a knack for it, I helped many of my peers match slogans to almost any magazine cut-out they could find. Ms. McCarthy was more positive toward me than usual, but I felt it was a fragile state of affairs. It wasn’t long before she approached me with a cut-out of the nativity scene.
“What slogan can you think of for this one?” The nerves got to me. I struggled, almost begging for an answer from baby Jesus himself.
“The best book is the Holy Book?” I mumbled, thinking this would pass at a Catholic school.
“No!” She jeered, “Obviously Fabiola—Books STABILIZE me.”
Her severity came through in subtleties—the way she would purse her lips, narrow her eyes, shake her head when I spoke. I would think of sticks and stones whenever she used the words “irresponsible”, “dishonest”, “not good enough”. When I did something right and she said nothing, and I didn’t know how to document the empty feeling.
One by one, I ripped out the pages of my diary and threw them away. Though the pages decomposed, the memories remained vivid.
It was almost the end of the year. We had all been assigned an insect for our final project. We would build its likeness in paper-thin wood, learn about it, draw it, and write a poem about it. During an informal work period, I was happily working on my honey bee poem—one in which I took on the voice of the Queen Bee. I declared my dominance over the drones, making sure to include several facts I’d learned. I read it over quickly. I read it over slowly. I made sure that, no matter the tempo, it would read fluidly, like honey. I put my pencil down and smiled. There was no way Ms. McCarthy wouldn’t like it. She would stop keeping me one reading level behind the two other gifted girls.
I looked up to see Ms. McCarthy perched on her rocking chair, half a room away. Suddenly, it felt like there was an ocean between us. I waded toward her, knot in my stomach, one foot in front of the other. As I approached, she peered at me through her chained reading-glasses.
“What’s this? Your poem? Done already?” I nodded, not breathing or moving. She began to read it in her head. I looked for the familiar signs of approval—but she didn’t speak. Or smile. Or nod.
Finally, she put the paper down and looked me in the eyes. I swallowed hard.
“Fabiola—what book did you copy this from?”
And with those words, she finally crushed me.
On the first day of Sixth grade, I saw Ms. McCarthy ushering new students into her classroom. I watched her from afar, gripping the two projects she had assigned me for the summer. She said it would help me catch up to the other gifted girls, that I would thank her later.
I had kept a daily journal, complete with drawings and perfect spelling, and had finished a project about planet Earth. I had spent the final days of summer colouring, correcting, gluing and worrying. Instead of fantasizing about sixth grade, I was still sick over fifth. This was the final project I would give to Ms. McCarthy—and I had hope that she would like it. She now stood beside the door of my old classroom, looking as gigantic as ever. The knot in my stomach re-appeared as I slowly walked towards her.
“Ms. McCarthy?” I said, my voice cracking. This was it. This was the moment I’d amaze her. She’d say my name kindly, congratulate me for working hard during a break. She would say I was responsible. Everything would be OK.
“Yes?” She turned toward me and looked down.
“Here is the project you asked me to do over the summer.”
She scooped my work up into her vein-ridden hands, scanning the covers of both booklets the way my parents looked at junk mail. She furrowed her brow as I stood there, shuffling my feet.
There was a long moment of silence before she finally said, “I’m sorry . . . what’s your name?”
The spectre of Ms. McCarthy still hangs above me as a young adult. I now realize that the frail old woman is symbolic of a bigger fear: failure, despite my most genuine efforts. Seeing as we feel pain in proportion to how much we’ve experienced, what seemed a trauma in my childhood is now a life lesson. There will always be people who try to discourage and detain us; whether we are ten, forty-three or eighty, we will encounter those that will try to make us feel small. It is here that we can learn from the humble honey bee. We must keep building, despite adversity, and we may still manage to create sweetness within the wax.