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Some people don’t mind breaking the rules. They don’t care if others don’t like them and they can face the consequences of any wrong action without batting an eye. I am not one of those people. I hate getting in trouble. In fact, I’m afraid of it. I strive to avoid it and feel terrible when I miss the mark. I do my best to gain the approval of all, to never break the rules or do something displeasing. But I’m not perfect, and I make many mistakes. I learned this truth a long time ago. My rule-breaking paranoia began years ago, when I was little, living a completely different life.
I used to live in a small town. Even though I only lived there for two and a half years, it feels like I grew up there. I have lived in the suburbs for the majority of my life, but most of my childhood memories come from this small town. We lived in a little house, above the landlady we rented from. It was painted light gray, each window lined with black shutters. There were two bedrooms, one bathroom, an office, kitchen, living room, and a basement. The carpet was dull, barf-orange colored and the deer head mounted in the stairway to the basement gave me bad dreams. Outside, there were concrete steps that led from the driveway to the wooden porch and our front door. They were poured a year into our residence there, so while the concrete was drying my sister and I pressed our small hands into the wet steps, our mark on the town. A line of short trees next to an old, rusty clothesline that we often climbed on and the shed that held the lawnmower sat on the expanse of clumpy grass that was our yard. Behind the house was a small slab of concrete, not worthy to be called a patio, home to a birdbath that perpetually held a pool of disgusting water. Immediately after the patio was a mini cliff, as the house was built into a hill that had to be cut to accommodate it.
I went to kindergarten in that town, before I was whisked away to the suburbs. There’s only one school system for the whole town: elementary, middle, and high. My parents were nervous, like most; they didn’t want me to be separated from them for anentiree day. I didn’t want to go to school, either. I had been happy before, hanging out with Mom and my three-year-old sister, playing and sleeping all day. My teacher was kind and patient, good qualities for a kindergarten teacher. My sister always called her Mrs. Brownie. She was that sweet. We had recess three times a day, play time, story time, nap time. I wondered how anyone could dislike school! Kindergarten was my best school year, a year of play and learning. Everything we did was fun, even though usually we were learning things. That teacher was a master of learning in disguise. For example, the class would stand in a circle and dance to the ABC’s. I learned the alphabet forwards and backwards that way, which I still remember. I was a different person back then. I like to think I was quiet, discreet, and tactful, the peperfectchild, but I wasn’t. Loud, opinionated, and smart, I let everyone know what I thought (which horrifies me now). I used to brag about my long, straight hair, the ability to read better than my peers, my parents, my background. I was well-behaved, though, so when the teacher called for quiet, I stopped talking and paid attention. Thinking back now, I wonder how many of my classmates I annoyed, how many people actually liked me. I had one friend, a small, weird girl named Katie. She was obsessed with whales and always carried around a small toy, the cricket from Mulan. I’m not sure why I hung around her. Maybe it was because she was friendless. Or maybe I was the friendless one.
Recess was the best part of the day. Fifteen minutes at the beginning, middle, and end of the day were dedicated to the entertainment only a child can imagine. We were let loose, free to do what we pleased (but watched to maintain safety). It was during recess that I discovered what it felt like to be scolded, disciplined. At the end of recess, specifically, when everyone was lining up to go back inside. It was a hot day, at the end of the year, springtime, the last recess of the day. The whistle blew, signifying the end of freedom, and I jumped from the monkey bars I was hanging from. Katie, who had been playing with her cricket nearby, joined me in the rush to line up. She started talking about whales, again, how they needed to be saved, especially the humpbacks, their songs were so sad because they were dying, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t care about whales – we were in Nebraska! I barely knew what whales were! So I tried to tune out Katie as we made our way to the teachers, but it was hard. She had one of those annoying voices, high-pitched and whiny, and she wanted me to actually contribute to the conversation, like I cared.
“Don’t you think the whales need saving? They die all the time!” said Katie, looking at me intently with her huge blue eyes.
“Um, sure. Hey, wanna see my new backpack? I’ll show you when we’re inside,” I said, trying to change the subject.
“I saw it yesterday, ‘member? My mom said I should be a marina-ologist when I grow up since I like whales so much. You think I should?”
I was tired of whales. In an attempt to shut her up, I yelled, “Nobody cares about the whales, Katie!” Then I hit her. It wasn’t hard, just a little slap on the arm, just to let her know that I meant it. But it definitely didn’t shut her up. In fact, she ran up to tell the teacher, all tears and sniffles. By now everyone was lined up and ready to go inside. Everyone was lined up to see my shame.
The teacher, who took the rules very seriously, came marching up to where I stood. Looking down, I tried to hide behind the kid in front of me. That didn’t work. The teacher stopped right in front of me and asked:
“Bethany, did you hit Katie?”
“Yes,” I replied, sheepishly, still not looking up. The hole I was excavating in the dirt with my foot was the most interesting thing in the world.
“Now tell Katie you’re sorry,” said the teacher, determined to bring justice.
I finally looked up. I could see my reflection in the teacher’s sunglasses, staring back at me, taunting me. I felt like dying under the hot stares of my classmates, in the boiling glare of the sun, scalded by my own reflection. I was positive that I was going to melt right into the dirt, the heat was so intense. I was ashamed, but mad at myself, mad at the teacher, and mostly mad at Katie.
“Sorry Katie,” I mumbled. I hate you and you’re a big fat meanie tattletale and this is all your fault and you are so not my friend anymore –
“And you’re never going to hit her again, right?”
“Right,” I whispered, looking back at the ground.
Justice was served, and the teacher went back to the front of the line to lead us in. I could still feel the stares of my classmates, whispering about the fall of the girl that never got in trouble. With a self-satisfied smile, Katie skipped back into line, but I refused to talk to her. She was the worst friend ever. I didn’t talk to her for the rest of the year, which wasn’t a huge problem since summer was only a month away. My family moved that fall, so I went to a different school for first grade. I haven’t seen Katie since the last day of kindergarten.
I learned a lot in kindergarten. Not only did I learn how to read, to write my name, the ABC’s, but I learned about myself, too. I realized that warm spring day that I hate getting in trouble. The fear I have now of making mistakes and displeasing others stems from that recess so many years ago. And I haven’t hit anyone since.