Excerpt from Don’s Memoir
The Dunce Hat Lands
In literature, the “inciting incident” is the event that irrevocably changes the direction of the story character’s life, for better or for worse. I met mine at age four, and it wasn’t for the better.
I felt like shouting as I skipped alongside my four siblings. “Yay, I’m a big boy now! I’m going to school just like you!” I could hardly believe it—my brother Jay was a year and a half older than I was, but I got to start to school with him! He and my two sisters, Joan and Mary, and my older brother Paul were all here. We had to walk on a gravel road for a mile and a half to get to the school, Washington #5 Country School. I did a little spin-around as I all but danced along. What I really felt like doing was running, I was so full of energy, but I needed to stay with my siblings.
The one-story, one-room school building sat on a hillside at a “T” in the road. A coal shed stood next to it, and in back were two toilet sheds, one for the girls and one for the boys. All the buildings gleamed with fresh coats of paint. The fenced-in schoolyard enclosed mature oak and hickory trees, and squirrels scampered about collecting nuts for the winter ahead. The school was its own little world, with no other buildings visible from the location.
We arrived and I proudly entered the schoolroom. I was directed around a potbelly stove in the middle of the room to the front, where the kindergartners sat. Behind me, the other kids, ranked according to grades one through eight, filled jumbled rows of desks. Teacher stood at the front and assigned everyone to a seat. She’d have to teach all of us, and she looked happy about it. I’d heard my parents say she had graduated last spring from high school. Over the summer she had gotten her teacher’s certificate. It made me feel good that, in a way, we were both starting school at the same time.
My desk was right against Teacher’s. How cool was that? I turned around and waved at Paul and my sisters. Who else did I know? I wanted to look at everything, hear everything, be a part of everything. This was a big day. My first day at school! And I was going to learn lots of stuff!
Or was I?
I found it hard to sit still. Hard to concentrate. Hard to complete my work while Teacher was busy with the other grades.
Before a week had gone by, Teacher marched me up front to a corner next to the blackboard. “Face the wall and don’t turn around,” she commanded. I shrank back as a pointed dunce hat landed on my head. Honestly, I was trying to learn my ABCs, but how could I sit still that long? If I even wiggled, Teacher’s eyes shot to me and she shook her head. My chest snuffed in a sharp breath. I thought school was supposed to be fun. That’s why I begged Mom and Dad to send me. I hung my head when I heard my classmates giggle.
Next thing I knew, it wasn’t just wiggles that earned the dunce hat. I got stuck learning the letter E and had to make a big E out of cardboard and tie it around my neck. Everybody was told to call me “E.” I wanted to be called by my name, Don, but, no, they had to call me “E.” I hated that! I wanted to shout, “My name is Don!” But to do that meant I’d get in even more trouble.
Sometimes other boys wore the dunce hat, but for me it was every day, often several times a day. Finally Teacher got desperate. She gathered the kids to stand at my back when I was in the corner and said, “Throw paper wads at him and call him ‘Dummy.’ That will help him. He’ll never learn unless you make fun of him.”
I trembled, shocked by what the “fun school experience” was turning out to be. Sweat covered my body and I clenched my fists as anger punched against my throat. I needed to see who was throwing those wads at me! But just as I started to twist around, Teacher snapped, “Stop!” The pitch of her voice rose and she pointed her finger at me. “Now you have to stay there longer!”
Oh no, when she yelled, it terrified me and I wet my pants. I’d have to be in wet clothes all day and stink of pee. I was horribly embarrassed, but the stupid dunce hat was worse. It was my badge of shame. I wanted to cry, but big boys don’t cry, even if they’re only four years old. I wanted to be big like my siblings. I was trying so hard not to be a baby anymore.
When I misbehaved at home, Dad told me what I’d done wrong and spanked me. Then it was over—I’d paid for what I’d done, and I got a fresh start. I knew Dad corrected me because he loved me. But here at school, I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. It didn’t make sense to be punished because I couldn’t learn fast enough. Or because I couldn’t sit still. Those things weren’t wrong!
Teacher never laid a hand on me. She just told the other kids to make fun of me. Mock me because I was stupid. Jeer at me. They loved playing the game of “Helping Don Learn.” I could tell school was fun for them.
Teacher was always sad when she punished me. That was my clue that I was the one in the wrong. She never smiled doing it, so I knew it wasn’t because she was just mean and enjoyed tormenting me. That made me angry with myself. Why couldn’t I control my body and sit still? Why had God made me so dumb and squirmy? It seemed He’d made everybody good but me. Why couldn’t I just understand what I’d done wrong and be spanked? Then I could pay for it and start over like with Dad. But no! I had to carry this guilt, and it kept piling up on me. More and more I hated myself. I felt like I was going to explode.
For five years I wore the dunce hat. I was the Dunce Hat King. It changed me.
On the front wall above the blackboard, just beyond Teacher’s desk, was an unfinished portrait of George Washington. Teacher told us the artist didn’t want to finish it because it was his best work and he’d never be able to do as well again. I was drawn to the picture. I looked at it a lot. I wished that someday I might get to be finished.
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