CHILDHOOD CAN BE ROUGH! – Marilyn Armstrong

Childhood is a challenge.

Many of us struggled, had serious problems at home and lived with daily bullying at school. With the attention these issues get in the press today, things have not changed much. Bullying is as much — or more — of a problem as it was when I was a kid. Teachers ignore it. Parents dismiss it. Kids won’t talk about their problems because they (rightly) believe it might make everything worse.

These days, it’s all about awareness, as if knowing there is a problem is the same as solving it.

Awareness is not a cure. Positive public relations hype in the newspapers and television and social media does not make any difference to what happens to a child at home or in the schoolyard.

This is P.S, 35. It’s still there, but I’m not.

I was a precocious child with limited social skills. Inept at sports, lost in math. Among outcasts, I was an outcast. I was bored in class, terrified in the schoolyard. In third grade, I hid in the cloakroom hoping no one would miss me. I found a stack of books and read them in the semi-dark by the light of one dim bulb.

Punish the child for reading too much!

My teachers were furious. It turns out during my cloakroom hours, I had read all the readers for the next four grades. I would have read more except I ran out of books.

The principal called my mother. They made her come to school so they could complain I had read too much. My mother pointed out I might benefit from a more challenging curriculum. She reasoned if I could read all those readers in about an hour, the work was way too easy. As far as she was concerned, the school completely missed the point.

They wanted my mother to punish me for reading too much which my mother felt hilarious. She didn’t stop laughing for days. She retold the story at every family gathering.

I didn’t think it was nearly as funny because that teacher hated me. It made the third grade a special kind of Hell.

I started high school at thirteen. Although I was blessed by a few teachers who made learning exciting and fun, most of my teachers felt reading a monotonic reading of the class textbook was education. I chipped a tooth one morning when I fell asleep and hit my mouth on the desk.

Jamaica High School

I was off the charts in English and history while falling rapidly behind in math and hard science. I was in my thirties — reading Horatio Hornblower — before I realized trigonometry had an actual purpose. It was used to calculate trajectories and navigate! A revelation! Pity I didn’t know that when I was supposed to be learning it.

I survived school and had a life. We keep telling our kids that childhood is the best of times. It can be and maybe for some kids, it is. It wasn’t for me and it wasn’t for most of the other children with whom I grew up.

Categories: Education, learning, Marilyn Armstrong, Teaching and teachers

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14 replies

  1. So you read all the readers for the next four years, you probably knew more than the teachers.


  2. I could go on forever, but I won’t…. about how awful grade school was, I was chased home from school everyday, and NEVER went into bathrooms because you would be attacked if you were White. I went to public schools in Paterson, NJ, and Eastside High School for 2 years. Slums, ghetto, predominately Black, and we were all neighbors, we were the same in many ways, poor single parent family, welfare, but we were White.
    Yeah, I was abused, as well as my brother’s and sister’s. We ran home from school every day, left early to avoid the assaults, and threats, “If you don’t bring money tomorrow, we will beat your ass.” I lived in a crappy “poor” neighborhood, there were warehouses and vacant lots all over, “dirty ol men” would drive by our schools masturbating, and try to get young girls and boys into their cars with offerings of candy and money. The guy who lived in the basement of our complex wore a diaper and would stand at bottom of steps when we came home from school exposing himself, he would try to lure us inside with offerings of candy too. EKKK! Basically nothing is too positive about my childhood and the mental and physical abuse I/we were exposed to. After my mother died we were sent to a orphanage in Paterson, NJ. It was no better, we had “Christian house parent’s” and the men sexually abused the young boys, this is a fact. They would get into the boys beds at night and “spoon” with them, I saw it. The men also tried to fondle and take advantage of the young girls, this includes the administrator, he would always come into the girl’s shower areas, and pull open the curtains, and would often place you on his lap and fondle. I am not mentioning this for shock value, it is just a fact. It happened, it does happen, and is still happening. I worked in child psych as nurse, and there were many issues with abuse, assault, and bullying, this resulted in depression, suicidal attempts, cutting themselves and eating disorders, running away from home as well. I ran away from the orphanage, and see where it got me? I told adults about the abuse, they didn’t want to believe us, I had a state social worker as well, nothing was done about any of these things, not only my incidents, but the other kids too. Yeah, abuse and bullying, it’s all terrible, what it does to kids, and the scars it leaves behind aren’t forgotten. All the talking about it doesn’t really change it, throw in religion, forgiveness….oh yes, it is all better now because we spoke to the Priest’s about it? Ha! We all know what a Catholic Priest’s reputation is. Bullying, abuse, let us mention the #me too issue, these things went on into my teens and young adult life, teachers, bosses, to name a few. What have I done about it? Talked about it with professionals, and thinking about it now I understand why I became a psychiatric nurse. I can help others, I can relate and maybe prevent the continuance of abuse, or help them by listening, offering referrals for psych services, counseling and treatment. I am not saying it will fix everything, but maybe it will change the way things are for others.


    • I got chased home from school every day by white kids and I was white too. There are a LOT of bullies and some of us just look like kids who can be bullied. They ALWAYS find us. it’s like we are wearing a big sign that says “bully me!” somewhere. I never understood it, but more kids I know WERE bullied than weren’t. And I think social media has made it MUCH worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I *loved* going to school. I did! Really…. I still remember loads of things happening and none of them had anything much to do with what we were learning. I also always, always read, I probably destroyed my eyesight as early as 6 when I continued to read under the bedspread and the shutters closed. I was the storyteller for my younger siblings, I made a story of everything. I was Null in math, still am, although I’m very good in controlling my shopping bills, my online orders, comparing prices, consumptions or whatnot. I liked but instantly forgot everything I learned in history, geography and I loathed geometry. When my forms (squares, octagons or whatever) met within 1cm I was happy, they mostly didn’t…. Now all I need on a daily basis, are my language and communication skills, the language of my heart & brain, all the rest can be done by calculators or other little helpers. I shall be forever thankful for my teachers, they weren’t anything ‘special’, they were just ordinary human beings with lots of stuff we held against them but also with the facility to teach us what we needed to know for life.
    I was by no means the most popular kid, with most I rubbed along but was often ‘put down’ by the girls (never the boys, in all those years) who thought they came from a better background. The ones who were also shunned by them, I was utterly pleased to find that they made great ‘careers’, not in the sense of making pots of money, but they used their learnings for a fullfilled life and made enough money to lead good lives. One of th’e ”glory girls” organised for many times, get-togethers of our classes. I could hardly ever be with them because I was always abroad. Then, the last time I ‘just’ made it and what did she do? She spoke very negatively about ‘one of them’ who posed so many questions, who didn’t know how to get to the meeting point etc etc. The ‘kids’ were falling silent as she was ranting. Then, my vis-à-vis at the table said to me: Do YOU know what she’s going on about? Who is she talking about? I said: It’s me, she talks about me. Everybody around us couldn’t believe it. I stayed cool and said that I very much appreciated that this woman organised the event but that obviously she wasn’t a very happy person. Many came to talk to me after the meal and meant to ‘give me courage’. That woman was clever enough to realise she went too far and said at the end that ‘that’s it; I’m not going to organise another get-together. All this because she didn’t like me when we were 12-14yrs old…


    • Those mean girls were absolutely EVERYWHERE. In every country, speaking every language. They drove me crazy too until I finally broke and beat one up (who knew I could?) … and after that, they left me alone. They bullies tormented Owen until he grew into his full height, at which point everyone decided to find someone smaller. Owen is kind of huge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good for him. I was never one to hit, always try to argue…. but I cd have happily hit that one many times. Only I was also quite shy then.


        • Something just snapped. I kicked her with the orthopedic shoes she was making fun of. Then she followed me around asking me why I did that. I asked her if she was REALLY that stupid. She never bothered me again.

          Liked by 1 person

          • GOOD for you! I can’t stand people who menace others, and especially those with a handicap. But of course, if their parents don’t educate them on the ‘differences’, how on earth are they going to learn to see with seeing eyes?! The other thing I have my problems with is sheer stupidity. If someone is IQ challenged, I am very patient. If not, I’m not at all…..


  4. During a conversation with a neighbor recently, I related that I LOVED science. I hated math though because in my time the teachers were instructed to teach math so boys could learn it (and yes everyone learns differently) but to pass the girls who were failing because they’d never ‘use math’ any way. I excelled at English and was in advanced placement classes from the time I hit high school. The thing that was lacking and neglected in those days was the fact (and I’m sure it was obvious) that I had little to no social skills and I loathed my peers (all but a very few). But in grade school (up to grade six) and aside from those foster years (grades 2-4) I did well in all subjects and while not the most popular kid, I had friends and nobody bothered me nor teased me. Maybe because it became known I’d pound anyone who was ‘mean’ – to others or myself. I lost that status in 7th grade and never regained any semblence of ‘normal’ (whatever that is) social behavior. I’ve never regained it. I hope that if I were in school (junior and high school) now that someone might pick up on the fact that I had some serious issues. These days it’s okay because I’m not ‘out there’ in public trying to fit in. My family (which was part of the problem as I became a teenager and continues on today) tells me when I happen to interact with them that I’m still considered the family ‘weirdo’ and that my social skills are really poor. Well DOH! It wouldn’t bother me except I really need to find work and soon. My brothers told me ‘you better learn to get along with everyone. It’s hard enough for people your age to get hired at all and you probably don’t have a chance.” Yeah. Thanks for the support guys. I think most people probably deal with some kind of trauma from their childhoods, even if it’s mild. Nobody gets that ‘perfect’ childhood depicted by unrealistic TV shows and movies.


    • I had no social skills either. I was smart and I read any book I could get my hands on, but I had no idea how to talk to a kid my own age. I don’t think I got really comfortable with people my own age until I was well past 40 and now, like me, don’t like me … I really don’t care. It’s the one big plus of getting old. At a certain point, you really DON’T care.


  5. I was bored in highschool, lost in math and annoyed by english (which should have been my best subject) because the older teachers just wanted us to diagram sentences and gave us entirely too much Shakespeare and Dickens and almost no poetry beyond (genuflect here) Frost. Millay? Shock and horror. The newer English teacher turned out to be the Principal’s stoolie, reporting anything that might get us kicked out on sight. Her English comp. requirements were minimal: page and 1/2. If we had more to say, write small. Less, write big.
    And after graduation, in the receiving line, one older woman had the nerve to tell each of us to ‘enjoy your youth, you will never be this happy again…” Not a lot to look forward, nope. Im amazed no one went home and shot themselves.

    The only thing I liked about school, I realize now, was the companionship. I was an only, and we lived in the country, with no kids my age around. No wonder I read so much. I hear you, Marilyn, about the reading. It’s too bad they don’t just let the advanced readers loose in the library stacks, and allow them to come up for air at lunch time…


    • I used to read in my lap under the desk and hoped no one could see what I was doing. But school was hard, not because it was difficult, but because it was DULL. I was lost in math, but the things I was good at — everything BUT math — I was so far ahead of the official class schedule (and I wasn’t alone – the curriculum was designed for the dumbest kids in the school and anyone smarter than that was bored all the time.) I’m genuinely, deeply grateful no one told me those were the happiest times in my life. I might have shot myself.

      There were good times. Mostly, riding my bike in the summer and exploring the woods and roads. School was better than being at home, but pretty much anything was better than being home.

      We lie to our kids. We tell them childhood is the best time of their lives and mostly, it isn’t. It can be okay and for some kids, I suppose better than others … but young adulthood? THAT was fun.


  6. I can’t say about now but when I was young I felt that a lot of teachers were just teachers because they had missed a place at university and Teacher’s College was the consolation prize. Punishing a child for reading too much seems as crazy as punishing one for not understanding the work.
    I did not like school on the whole but I did have a few teachers who made learning more interesting and perhaps more importantly put ideas into my head that I would not have had otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked school because it wasn’t home, but there weren’t a lot of inspirational teachers. They were mostly older and were there until death did them part. There were some good ones in high school, but most were just tired and slightly bored.

      Liked by 1 person

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