Monday, March 29, 2010


I was doing a bit of tidying up tonight, and while deleting old draft blog posts I came across this one. I wrote it two years ago, on April 22, 2008, but never posted it. I don't recall why - it seemed finished enough. Whatever my reason, come April 23, I didn't want to share it anymore.

The story is of something that happened to me when I was 34, and 6. It still amazes me, the clarity and sharpness of the vision I got that day: reading this post brought it all back.

I hope you like it.

Charlotte started Girl Guides in September. The meetings are held at a local elementary school - the oldest in the city. It's the school I went to for Grade One and the first half of Grade Two, before we transferred a few catchments over.

The first week I took Charlotte to her meeting, I spent the hour roaming around the halls, trying to remember exactly which classroom was Mrs. Flynn's (Grade One) and which was Ms. Decourbe's (Grade Two). It was fun to see the gym again, with the national anthem posted in French and English, above the ancient stage where we put on plays in which we starred as rainclouds, and animals, and maybe shrubbery. My memories of this school were vague, mostly pleasant, and involved things like the smell of the hallways and the height of the water fountains (pretty short).

In the following months I mostly spent the Guide hours sitting on a chair in the hallway, knitting. A month or so ago, I decided to use that time to run, taking advantage of the once-weekly guaranteed free hour to get some exercise in. One night I finished my run at the school, and walked around the outside for the remaining ten minutes, doing some stretching.

I wandered around the outside wall of the gymnasium. I turned a random corner, stepped up into "the covered area" and found myself face to face with one of my most powerful memories.

I was six years old. It was the first day of Grade One at a new school. I didn't know anyone there, except my brother who was a year ahead of me. In Kindergarten, they had had only one recess, during which you you ate your snack and played outside. So when the bell rang at my first recess in Grade One, I took my red nylon packsack outside to the covered area and looked for somewhere to sit. I spotted a door across from me, with an unoccupied concrete step underneath it. Clutching my bag, I made my way over to it through knots of playing students, almost all of them older than me. I opened my packsack, took out my lunch and ate it, trying not to catch anyone's eye, or stand out in any way.

I was finishing the last thing and putting all the waxed paper back in, when my brother ran over, breathless, holding a ball of some description. Several big boys trailed behind him. He said, "Shannon, it's only recess - you don't eat your lunch until next break."

He ran off again and I sat there frozen, hot embarrassment flushing my cheeks, almost immobilised with anxiety. What would I do at lunch? I had nothing left to eat. I looked around furtively and realised I was, in fact, the only kid who had brought her packsack outside. I tried to wad it up so no one would see it and realise my mistake, and carried it back inside when the bell rang.

I don't have any other memories from that day. I don't in fact know what happened at lunch, when I had no more food left.

When I came around the corner of that school a few weeks ago and my eyes fell on that step, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I felt the anxiety again just the way I did twenty-eight years ago, even as my 34 year old self marvelled that it could be so - that a little doorway with a little concrete step could make me feel this way - bring it all back.

I stood there on the faded hopscotch, getting the memories back one by one.

Then, just around the corner must be the place where....yes, that's where I stepped on a nail and hopped all the way back to the office with it protruding out of both top and bottom of my foot.

And around that other way must be those big doors and the ramp where we played 'prison'. Yes, there they are...and the window - that's Ms Decourbe's classroom, it must be. I remember standing there looking down at them outside when I was kept in at noon to finish work.

I walked slowly around to all these places, surrounded by little children in bell-bottoms and bowl cuts, some whose names I could remember and some whose names I couldn't. I went back to the covered area and leaned against a railing, looked at the concrete step. There I was, little blonde child with a firm grip on her packsack, nervous, feeling more lonely than I ever had before.

All that fear made me cry. I don't remember whether I cried at six, but I cried at thirty four. It made me remember everything that has gone in between then and now. It made me think of all the things I never dreamed would happen...things I never thought to fear while I was worrying about having already eaten all my lunch. And I wanted to say to her how sorry I was for the way I made her life turn out.

I went back there last night. While Charlotte was in the gym with 17 other little Guides singing "Day is Done", I was in the covered area, photographing this place which is almost unchanged from the way it was in 1979. I know it looks empty to you, but to me it's a busy scene, full of kids I was having to constantly step around while shooting - kids who bumped me, ruined my focus, and ran off calling a careless, carefree Sorry, breathlessly.


Kristine said...

It's amazing how much shame we get from doing something different when we didn't know any better, and how that feeling LASTS. I have a few moments throughout my history that are similar, and when something triggers them, I'm almost knocked over by the flood of emotion.

Thank you very much for sharing this.

Valerie said...

Beautifully written Shan. We've all been there in one way or another. Thanks for taking us there and helping to let the shame go.

(my verification word is in amen co.)

kate said...

Powerful, Shan.

Another Joan said...

Thank you for sharing this. Sometimes the writing down is the beginning of healing. The sharing is another step and the space between the two is necessary. Blessings be.

Gwen said...

I would have eaten my lunch with you, just to make you feel better. I love you so much it makes me feel all squeezed up inside.

Actually, I most likely would have run away cruelly and let you soak in your shame, but let's agree to remember it the first way, shall we? :)

Annalea said...

I can understand why you wouldn't've wanted to post this . . . things like this often need to age before we can set them loose for others to maul. I'm glad you came across this, and blogged it. Yet another powerful reason children just shouldn't be sent off so darn young. (Maybe when they're in their late teens, to college. lol)

So many of my own memories of elementary school are similar--of uncomfortable, unhappy, stressful times. I can only remember one or two happy times; all reccess was laced with the looming threat of cruelty.

May I link to this in my "Reasons I Homeschool" series?

clumsy ox said...

I have absolutely no memory of this.

Did I at least share my lunch with you, as you no longer had yours?

Word verification: 'things'

Shan said...

Clumsy, I'm not surprised you have no memory of wasn't traumatic for you!

Shan said...

PS: and no, you didn't (that I recall). You were too busy playing with Louis Laverdure.

lizbon said...

I know why you didn't post it. Because, while it's beautiful, it's a raw nerve. And we don't show other people our raw nerves very often.

Susan said...

I sat in a workshop once where American author, James Schaap (whose writing I love, and so would you) said the best writing happens you "hang out your own laundry" in such a way that allows others to hang their laundry on your line, too.

This is a post like that. I can so hang my laundry on your line.

(Hi again, and hi from Dave.)

Andrea S. said...

Hi from Dave's blog.

I, too, can understand why you didn't publish this right away. It might have still been a little too raw, even if it feels okay to share it now.

(Of course, all of us readers saying this could just be projecting. As a writer, I know first hand that sometimes it is hard to really assess the quality of your own writing when it is still very fresh. Perhaps especially if the writing comes from a place of strong emotion, but even if it doesn't at all. Sometimes a writer just needs to allow enough time for memory to blur over all the nit-picking decisions we make about how to phrase things and why we say things the way we do just so we can look at what we write with a more objective eye without all that writer's baggage. I don't know if you've ever knitted something, tossed it aside because you thought it terrible, then rediscovered it later and realized it was actually pretty good? Maybe something similar happened here?)

At that age, we want so much to be "grown up," which for young children is associated with "already knowing what to do without being told." Because, don't grown-ups always magically know what to do? Though of course we don't ... even when we're grown! And we also want so badly, when young, to fit in. Although I'm a very strong introvert (which means I am very frequently, quite genuinely happy to be alone) that doesn't mean I need or want to be alone ALL the time -- and I did have many lonely moments as a child.

Thanks for sharing.

Word verification challenge says lablyzyg ... but for some reason my eyes keep wanting to tell me that it says "lady bug" even though it doesn't!

Belinda said...

The haunted playground! Shan I loved reading about the intense emotion evoked by that moment in time. Those experiences are such good material to draw upon in writing as well as being real and powerful.

It made me want to be more tenderly careful with children's feelings--and everyone else's for that matter.

I loved the image of little people in bell bottoms and bowl cuts! My kids were those kids.:) And they still bumped into you and made you lose focus! A little like The Sixth Sense, but in reverse. :) Thank you so much for sharing. I do enjoy your gift of writing.

Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes.
I miss you. Hope you and your lovely family are doing well.
I'm intrigued by FWIW...