Do you remember your first day of school?
I had been to daycare, yet there was something decidedly different about this day. I don’t remember putting on the uniform, or brushing my hair, but I do remember the nervous energy when we showed up to my kindergarten classroom. It was more formal. It was undoubtedly the beginning of a new phase of life.
It was September, 1977. Being born in November, I just missed the cut off for public school by eight days. So my parents enrolled me in a private school as they would have had to pay for daycare anyway.
It was a good choice, and a good school. Dartmouth Academy. Sound prestigious? Perhaps, but this was Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, not the famed Dartmouth, New Hampshire. Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, aka Darkness or the Darkside, is one of the most unpretentious places on earth.
Dartmouth Academy was a French school. I don’t remember noticing that they were speaking another language, having grown up in a home where multiple languages were spoken. But I do remember the big welcoming smile of my teacher, Madame Lucienne. She had big hair, hung Macramé on the walls, and in my memory, she was wearing a big colourful “Mrs. Roper” Dress. She was full of smiles and had a loving energy. Also, there were cookies and apple juice laid out on the ledge, so I quickly knew it was going to be ok.
My father brought me to a table where a few other girls were sitting quietly with their parents. The silence of it all gave the room a scary aura of the unknown. A few words of welcome were spoken. Then my dad and the other parents left, and for better or for worse, we began our first day of school.
I remember we had to pull out our crayons to start colouring. I pulled out mine and my neighbour pulled out colour pencils. In fact, a few of the other girls at the table had them as well. Then one girl turned to me and said “You use crayons? Crayons are for babies. Big girls use colour pencils”
What? No one told me! Grrrr. One thing I was NOT was a BABY.
Yet, there I was stuck with crayons that, up until that moment, had been just fine. I was going to have to go through the rest of the day colouring with crayons – like a baby. I remember feeling embarrassed. Not a good way to start, but I did note that I must tell my parents that I needed colour PENCILS because I was a BIG GIRL and BIG GIRLS used colour pencils. Looking back, I see that this was my first introduction to the sociological phenomenon that is the “Mean Girl.”
Luckily, I survived the morning. I think we went on to sing some Classic Childhood standards - “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” and “Frere Jacques.” It was the FIRST Trudeau era - a time of acceptance of a Bilingual, Multi-cultural Canada. We may have even started to learn the song “Allouette.” "Allouette! Gentille Allouette! Ahhhh – Louett –Te – Je te plumerai!” So, not all bad, in fact, pretty fun for a first day of school, I must say. Il y avait une joie de vivre!
Then came lunch. I was SOOOO excited about my lunchbox. It was an orange and black NHL (pre-expansion) lunch box, featuring on the front all the emblems of the current teams. I LOVED it and had been playing with it for weeks in advance of this first day of school.
You see, I was born in Winnipeg and was a big Jets fan. Growing up, I had a scarf and a toque with the Jets emblem, that I wore religiously during the winter. It would only get shed in the summer for my Nadia Comaneci body suit.
So when the time came for lunch, I excitedly brought my lunchbox to my table, and waited for our teacher to let us know that we could begin our meal. Just then, the crayons-are-for-babies girl looked at my box and said “That’s a BOY’S lunch box!” The other girls nodded.
What? I had NO IDEA! Again, this was 1977 – before the current gender fluid phenomenon. Gender roles and stereotypes were to be strictly followed in order to conform to societal rules. The innocent sense of shame set in.
Unfortunately, I grew up with lots of boys - older brothers, friends. Sure I also played with girls my age, but most of them had older brothers too. Remember, it was the 70’s and parents were nowhere to be found. The oldest sibling was in charge of you. You did what they dictated. My brother dictated hockey, so did his friends. I watched hockey, played hockey with them, and knew all the players – Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull were my favs. It was the Canadian national past time for goodness sake! I am sure my parents did not even question it as they tried to fit in to their new country.
So there I was with my orange and black NHL lunch box, surrounded by a bunch of girls with their pink Barbie lunch boxes.
One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong.
I remember feeling shame. My stomach knotted. I held my head down. My eyes welled up. It was so painful. I ate my lunch out of that box, hating it for the first time and crying, silently. I felt ostracized as I sat at the table with the other girls.
It is what we all fear as we send our children off to school. We hope that they fit in, be respected for who they are, and not be bullied. Yet, even as we bring attention to this phenomenon, we cannot control how others act. We only have control over how we respond. It was my first introduction to bullying (other then by my older brother) and unfortunately, it would not be my last.
My response? Well, I had to survive (as I learned in living with my older brother). It was not acceptable for a girl to take an orange and black NHL lunchbox to school in 1977. So I adapted. I went home, and told my dad that I needed a girl’s lunch box. A pink one. Oh, and colour pencils too, because I was a big girl now.
That night after supper, he took me to the local Kmart and I picked out a nice "girl" lunch box. Not a Barbie one – she was still not really on my radar, but a beautiful metal box painted with pink and purple flowers. It made me smile. We also picked up some Laurentien colour pencils, which honestly felt big in my hands. The next day, I went to school pink-&-purple lunch box in hand and big girl art supplies in my school bag. I was ready to move forward.
Looking back, I recognize that I must have turned the pain into resentment against my lunchbox, because I quickly discarded it to the cellar, were it sat under a shelf collecting dust until I threw it away. I carried that resentment for a while.
A few years back, I saw that exact lunchbox on e-bay listed as a Collector’s Item. It was going for a ridiculous amount of money. Then I remembered my own box, and my love for it prevailed. But my pain was still there, only this time it turned into resentment towards those mean girls. Had I kept that box and cherished it, it would be a collector’s item now – worth hundreds at least, maybe even thousands!
In writing this, I recognize that that resentment was also a mask for the pain. If I could go to that little girl now, I would sit with her, put my arm around her, and show her compassion. I would say to her “It’s ok to cry. Those girls are just mean. You are going to meet a lot of mean girls in your life. They will try to make you feel bad, but it is really their own fear and insecurity. Go ahead and be yourself, you are special and loved!” I would also tell her “By the way, one day, women are going to play hockey in the Olympics, and Canada is going to win Gold! So screw those mean girls! They don't have the vision to see greatness.” (Well, maybe that is just more resentment).
Seeing this moment with more clarity, I become mindful that it was an experience of suffering. We all have our stories and feelings of the first day of school, whether we recognize it our not. It likely leads to the feelings of anxiety we have when we start something new, and when we see our next generation go through those milestones. It is truly a part of our common humanity.
In allowing myself to turn to the pain, I can also begin to soothe myself - soothe that painful memory. It was hard to be in that situation and feel that way. As I do this, the pain begins to ease and no longer bothers me. Instead, I am proud that I got through it with such resilience. It wasn’t my first experience with a bully and it won’t be my last, but it did affect me.
I also see how I may have subconsciously repeated actions related to my own pain and insecurity, against others. A memory comes up of a young boy from England, joining our class later in the year, wearing on his first day what I thought were girl shoes. I think someone, maybe even me, said that to him. I certainly remember thinking it and I remember him hiding away his feet. I only wanted to protect him from shame. I recognize now that it was my own feeling of shame that I projected out onto him. I own that and I apologize to him in my mind as I learn to forgive myself. Hurt people, hurt people. I was doing the best that I could have done in that moment.
As for that mean girl, I have accepted that girls will be girls. I’ll just let her karma play itself out. It always seems to. I do not need to carry that anymore. She probably doesn't even remember me or that she said those words to me!
I guess everything you need to know you do learn in Kindergarten.