Everyone is going back to school. Three of my clients teach school and they were beside themselves last week, with visions of lesson plans dancing in their heads. They all seemed giddy and nauseous at once. One of them even wrote me an e-mail referring to herself entirely in the third person.
I guess it's rough for the teachers, but what about the kids? I don't think I hated anything more than the first day of school. None was as bad as my very first, though. It was very Winnie-the-Pooh.
My mother loved the A.A. Milne stories. Some of my earliest memories are of her reading them to me. I still have the stuffed Eeyore she gave me, sitting on the mantel in my office. He is the gloomy, depressed, sarcastic, cynical, thistle-eating donkey in the Pooh stories. My mother had already typecast me in that role as a child. True, Eeyore was old, but my mother assured me, when I was old enough to question the typecasting, that I was "born old."
Of course, it wouldn't have done to dress me as Eeyore for my first day of school. Instead, Mama decided I should make my first-grade debut dressed as Christopher Robin. Yes, Mama sent me to public school wearing pin-stripe shorts, a little white shirt with a Peter Pan collar, Buster Brown shoes and ... red knee socks. That's right. Red knee socks. Fire-engine red. Baboon-butt red.
As you might guess, my appearance caused something of a reaction. I remember walking down the broad halls of Pinewood Elementary School in Charlotte. Grown-ups and kids alike stopped in their tracks, gawking at me, pointing and usually bursting into laughter.
As soon as I got out of those knee socks at home, I turned back into Eeyore and wailed that everyone hated me and I was never going to school again and I certainly was not going to wear those damn socks.
Mama was unruffled. Not only would I wear them again, I would wear them the next day. I actually kept the socks for many years. I remember bringing them out to use as stockings to hang from the mantel at a Christmas dinner party years ago. I'd drunk too much eggnog and suddenly got emotional. Those were the inner-child-therapy years. A friend patted my hand and said in her best drunken-therapist voice, "You never have to wear those socks again, Clifton." Sniff.
I have absolutely no idea what could have been going through Mama's mind to dress me that way. She had already decided a year earlier that I might be gay -- yes, I apparently was a 5-year-old homosexual -- and had taken me to a child psychologist in whose office sandbox I promptly buried the mama and daddy dolls and then used their grave as a target for a game of darts.
By the time I was a teenager, Mama had developed a long list of "the worst things you could do to me" that she recited mornings, standing over the stove, with a cigarette in one hand and a spatula in the other. One of those was to be gay. But what in hell could be gayer than wearing red knee socks to school?
I loved my mother but I knew I never pleased her, and my teachers often filled in the gap with their own approval. Do teachers realize they are often doing that – providing love to kids who feel unloved? My father caught me telling my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Bolin, that I loved her when she hugged me goodbye after school one day. He looked the other way, embarrassed. "Is it OK to love Mrs. Bolin?" I asked. I don't recall his answer.
It's amazing, really, how much difference a good teacher can make. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Akers, was also the school librarian, and she took me under her wing. She so revered books that I was not allowed to touch them without washing my hands.
She also encouraged me to write and insisted I read my stories to the class. Most of them were about occupation of an underground world. I'm sure that today such stories would get a child selected for a mental health screening. But the stories were my way of making sense of my life. At its best, that's what psychology is about, too – creating meaning in the way we tell our stories.
Anyway, here's hoping you don't send your son to school in red knee socks and that your kids have sensitive teachers.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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