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The First Day
When I first set foot in the classroom, there was already a task on the board. There were no introductions or helloes, just an assignment. It had nothing to do with the subject of the class, either, although I don’t think that struck me as strange at the time since I was too paralyzed by fear to even think about it.
The task for the class was to arrange ourselves in a line in birthday order – January at the left of the room, December at the right – without talking. There wasn’t any advantage of prior knowledge either; some of the faces of my classmates looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know most of their names, much less their birthdays. So we all walked around, trying to mime out the day we were born and get in some sort of an order before the teacher called time.
After a few minutes we were in line, although most of us had very little idea of how accurate it was. The teacher, who had been standing at the door observing the chaos, walked slowly to the front of the class and ordered us to rattle off our birthdays. Every time somebody said a date out of order, my heart picked up, although that only happened a few times. The teacher’s face did not betray her thoughts on our performance, so naturally my mind spiraled into worried speculation that we’d failed some sort of test and were all about to be given F’s before the school year had even really started. But she just told us to sit down.
I scrambled to a seat and sat at attention like the angelic little honors student I was. Normally, though, I wouldn’t call myself angelic. I was an honors student, but in most of my classes I was just as prone to doodling, zoning out, or sitting in the back and making snarky comments at the teacher’s expense as anybody else. But not there. Not then. Not that class. Even before the year had started, I knew that this was not a class for goofing off.
This was Dr. K’s 9H Global History.
At the end of the seventh grade, a select group of the intellectual elite from my middle school are recommended to skip the half of American History covered and eighth grade and move straight to Global. And by select few, I do mean select. There were other ninth-grade level classes, like math and science, which were fairly easy to get into. English was more difficult to get into than math or science, you could still get in if you tried hard enough. But Global was nearly impossible to get into. Perhaps forty students out of the four or five hundred in our grade were chosen. The true elite.
Of course, when I’d discovered that I was one of the chosen few, I’d been thrilled. Academics had always been a strong point of mine, and I was very competitive when it came to that sort of thing. My getting in, in my eyes, made me special. But that joy only lasted a little while. Soon I started to hear the rumors. I heard stories of essays every week, and of students with A’s in seventh grade getting F’s in this class, of students dropping like flies due to overwork or just plain terror, and of startling workloads, and of the general cruelty shown by the teacher. That was when the fear started to set in. I spent the entire summer being assaulted with stories of how to never, ever, ever get on Dr. K’s bad side. By the time school came, I was determined not to do so.
Dr. K confirmed most of the stories almost instantly. After first telling us that the point of the birthday game was communication practice, she launched into an absolutely terrifying speech. This, she said, was a high school level class. We would have work like we’d never had before. We would have more essays, we would have to outline textbooks, and we would have to write a research paper. We would need to expect hours of work every night. Today, in high school, of course, this is all normal for me. I do get essays and outlines and research papers and hours of homework every night. But then, back when an hour of homework was a bad night, she sounded completely unreasonable. I don’t even think I really believed her. After all, I was taking five high school classes that year, and hearing that same “high school classes will kill you” speech five times inevitably makes it less impressive. I should have believed Dr. K, though, because it was no exaggeration.
She mentioned something called NHD at some point. I looked at my classmates, scanning their faces to figure out if they knew what that meant any better than I did, or if we were supposed to. They looked just as lost as me. But by the end of the year, we would know what NHD was. We would definitely know what NHD was.
The speech went on. She described all the terrors of a high school level class. One of the things that stuck in my head clearest was her telling us that if we ever skipped this class, we’d be out of here before we could count to three. I dreaded the year already. But nothing was worse then what she said next.
“Some of you will drop this class. Some of you should drop this class. Some of you will not be able to handle it.”
And for some strange reason, that erased all the fear and replaced it with anger. Because with that one sentence, she hurt my pride. I realize now that that probably wasn’t directed at me, but back then it seemed like she was ordering me to drop. You can’t do it, she seemed to say, So why even try? And I resented that. I resented it beyond anything else she said that day, because I could handle it, and she was nobody to tell me I couldn’t. Who was she to tell me what I was and wasn’t capable of? Honestly, if there was one thing that guaranteed I was going to do something, it was telling me that I couldn’t. I resolved, there and at that movement, that I was not dropping that class.
“There’s no shame in dropping. If you don’t think you can handle it, you should drop right now.”
No. I could handle it. I would handle it. I would show her.
By the time the bell rang, I was full of irrational anger. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize that she was right. Some of the students couldn’t handle it, and some of them did drop, and there was no shame in that. I just wasn’t one of those students.
But of course, I hadn’t realized it back then, and I was somehow sure she was speaking directly to me. But she didn’t know me! She had never even spoken to me, and yet she had the nerve, the gall, the presumption to suggest I couldn’t handle the class! Well, I would show her. I would prove her wrong. I would stay in Dr. K’s class, no matter what it took. Nobody told me I was incapable of something, not even her.
Walking out of the class, fuming, I spotted one of the only people I knew in the room of near strangers: Jacob, a great friend from sixth grade who I had lost touch with last year. Fortunately, lunch was next, so perhaps we could catch up.
I caught up with him on his was to his locker, which was right outside the room.
“Hannah!” He exclaim. “God, I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I know, it’s been nearly a year,” I replied. “So, what’d you think of Dr. K?”
His eyes filled with self-righteous anger almost instantly. “I think I am not dropping that class! I can totally do it! Who does she think she is, anyway?”
“I know! She doesn’t even know us yet!”
We walked to lunch, and I was glad I had someone to share my sentiments with. Jacob and I have always been similarly competitive and overachieving when it came to academics. When we sat down in the cafeteria, we were still venting.
Soon more of our friends joined us. Jacob was fairly popular, so he was soon joined by a lot of people: Rachel, Alexandra, and Jordan, to name a few. I was soon joined by two of my favorite people, Rathna and Alyssa, two girls who were fairly quiet until you got to know them. Rathna was a smart, uncoordinated girl who I’d befriended in gym the previous year, and who over the next two or three years would become my best friend. I don’t even remember how I met Alyssa, but she was shy, creative, and eternally cheerful. However, Jacob and I had too much to say about what we’d just experienced to stop talking about it, even to greet them.
“She’s terrifying – ”
“Didn’t even say hello, just the moment we walk we had to do this stupid birthday thing –”
“Threatened to kick us out of our class if we ever acted out – ”
“Do you know how much homework she gave us? It’ll take hours to do, and it’s only the first day!”
“Why don’t you drop?” Asked Jordan. “It’ll be easier.”
“She kept telling us to; she doesn’t think we can handle this class! Well, I can handle it!”
“Me too! There’s absolutely no way in hell I’m dropping that class!”
Jordan raised his eyebrows at us and our overachieving manner.
“Is she really that bad?” Asked Rathna. I hadn’t noticed the slightly terrified look on her face. It was then that I remembered that Rathna was smart. Very smart. Smart enough, in fact, to maybe be accepted into 9H Global…
“You have her next period, don’t you?”
Rathna nodded as Jacob and I tried to make up for some of the damage we’d just caused.
From the very first day, I’d known that Dr. K was not a teacher to cross, and I’d known that the class was difficult. But it was what I didn’t know that made that past forty-five minute class a life-changing period. I didn’t know that for the first time in my days as a student, I’d have to work and work damn hard to get the A’s that had come naturally my entire life (although the four hours of homework she gave us that first night certainly set the tone correctly). I didn’t know that the elusive “NHD” that she mentioned, (and, frustratingly enough, mentioned in passing several more times before telling us what it was) was a history competition that would be the first thing I ever really strived to win, the first thing I ever really, really wanted with my whole heart. I didn’t realize that the class would bring me closer to Rathna and Jacob than I’ve ever really been to anyone, or that the people sitting in that classroom with me were some of the nicest, most interesting, most fun people I’ve ever met, and that they would become my first real, lasting friends. I didn’t realize that that class would help me realize that I am not in fact a normal, typical girl who strives to blend in, and helped me start to see that I am in fact a nerdy, quirky, strange specimen of a human being. It would help me accept and even love that about myself.
That class gave me lasting friendships with people I still love more than anything. It taught me to actually work at school. It developed me into the nerdy, strange, overachieving, hardworking person I am today. And really, when I think about it, it all went back to that moment when I decided that nothing, nothing, would ever make me drop Dr. K’s 9H Global History class.