Time Capsule: First, Second, and Third Grade
In my previous entry, I was a forlorn romantic pining for my one true love: infinity. Today, I am a time-traveler. In this two-part tangent of Illiterate, the temporal continuum becomes condensed and I strum the threads of time in a power ballad of personal history.
But first, exposition. My parents would turn their noses up at Anobium’s hoarding series. They are the anti-hoarders, purging freely and effortlessly. They save what is genuinely precious—photos, yearbooks, keepsake Christmas ornaments—and shuffle the rest off to where it needs to go. As their behavior applies to me, this means that I recently received a package from them containing some schoolwork from my younger years. Reading through the assignments, I don’t recognize the author, but I see myself in there. Part of it is in the inspiration, the alienation, the macabre mood and dark humor. They read like seeds to my present sapling. I may never really be able to say with any concreteness what I am, but on these pages I can see what I was.
At the completion of my first year in grade school, my teacher filled out an evaluation of my overall performance. I understood that teachers of young students are given the task of molding attitudes as well as minds—side note: this “life” instruction is actually why I have vowed never to pursue elementary education as a future career prospect; I simply don’t have the patience to teach social skills on top of academics—but it never occurred to me how much a first grade teacher has to function like a behavioral psychologist.
Here is the final page of my evaluation, written verbatim:
well adjusted to school
(does he have kids over?)
excellent—knows a lot of words
chooses a variety of books
very good—using lots of words and when he doesn’t know a word he sounds out many of the letters
not as aggressive as earlier in year (hitting, kicking)
kids complain about him at times—working on this
Essentially, I was a bright, shitty kid. And this is where I start to see the strained creation of an identity. From my teacher’s notes, I can glean that I sought social interaction but didn’t yet know how to function in those situations. Yes, being an only child has its perks—it’s murder on social development, though. Basic concepts like sharing and respect can’t be told; they have to be instilled through practice. So that question about whether or not I had friends over to my house is an unexpectedly keen observation: I didn’t, at least not regularly or with kids my own age. My neighbors were all a few years my senior and played aggressively, as older boys often do. You can see the difficulty of forming an acceptable, responsible, and personal identity for this young writer.
But what of the writing itself? The first piece of actual writing that I could find among the files is a letter. Now I’m not entirely sure what this is for or who this is addressed to, but I have a faint memory of older students—fifth-, eighth-graders, maybe even high school freshmen—visiting class in a sort of mentorship program to break up the year with a less traditional pedagogical strategy. Translation: Older kids are cool and we’ll totally listen to what they have to say.
April 2, 1992
Thank you for helping us find all the adjectives on our list. I wish you could come more often.
Some day betwen April 1st through the 7th I will get a rock tumbler for my birthday. I already got a bike for my birthday. Hope you have a good year.
Your Study Buddy,
The interesting thing to note here is that on my first draft of this letter, I wrote “Josh” instead of the first-person “I”. It’s an odd but clear example of the kind of abstract thinking that must be developed when writing. The act itself is distanced, even when writing from the first-person perspective. I’d compare the dynamic to Plato’s table in The Republic. He argues that there are actually three tables. The first is God’s table, the ethereal concept of this specific object. The second is the table that the carpenter (not necessarily Jesus) builds. And the third would be an artist’s rendering of the table—so, a painting or photograph or sculpture. The way it was explained to me, it would be like stacked carbon paper: the top layer is the original and all subsequent copies are removed, losing certain detail, and shifting farther away from the origins the deeper into the stack we go. Relating it to writing (and identity), the first “I” would be the abstract, intangible idea of an identity, and the second would be the expression of that identity—the behavior, attitude. But the third “I” would be the artistic expression: the journal entry, the online profile, the first-person non-fiction story. “I,” as it is expressed on the written page, is twice removed from the actual essence of one’s identity, so it would make sense that it would present some difficulties when learning how to wrangling real and imagined concepts and first-, second-, and third-person viewpoints.
It would also explain why even the invented stories of a young writer typically feature the central character as a representation of the author him- or herself.
What follows is a story I wrote in the third grade, what looks to be the final writing assignment for the year. It’s written on a piece of paper cut into the shape of a t-shirt, naturally.
My Magic Tee Shirt
One day at school a boy named Josh was boring to death. He was at school for 2 hours until the bell rang “Man’ I thought I’d never get out of there alive.’” Josh went home on the bus. He got the news paper, hung his back pack on the door knob, and got his key. He unlocked the door and went in. He said, “Mom are you here?” “Yes I have something to show you” Mom said. It’s tee shirts. The next morning Josh put one of the tee shirts on. Then he went to school. When he got in the hall no one paid attention to him. He looked in the mirror and saw everything but him self. A half hour went by. He finally found out that he was invisable. Then he started to like it. He rang the bell early, pulled down the fire alarm, and pretended to be the principle and told the kids to go home. But the next morning Josh got cought ringing the bell early. “I guess I’m not invisable.” And he got expeled until May 17th.
All things considered, that story may well be even more soul-bearing and revealing than any intentionally soul-bearing and revealing memoir work that I have done. Donning my armchair psychologist hat for a moment, I can see overt expressions of isolation and loneliness, of rebellion and misbehavior, which are all things that my first grade teacher observed.
Traveling back to the future (which is actually the present, which is actually the past, starting…now), I don’t know that the evaluation of 27-year-old me would look much different. Regardless, it’d be twice removed from my original essence anyway.
Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.