Tennyson Street School: brilliant

Brilliant: (adj) brightshiningblazingdazzlingvividintensegleamingglaringluminous
radiantcoruscatingvividintensebolddazzling, intelligentcleversmartastute,

Back in the farmlands of 1970’s Iowa when I was a kid in elementary school, I was not allowed to be bored. That’s not true; I was not allowed to say I was bored, so long as I kept my boredom to myself. In my family, if you said you were bored, you were assigned extra chores, usually fairly unpleasant cleaning tasks.

This was the first approach to self-discipline that I learned: do not say what you are thinking.

When I started school, I was initially one of those eager learners, the bright-eyed kid throwing their hand so high in the air, waving it so frantically, it starts to lift them out of their seat. Learning made my brain feel like I was flying, soaring over the corn fields and hog barns, glimpsing far away lands where people talked about visionary ideas and crafted new inventions and found wondrous new stories I’d never heard before.

In kindergarten, I was quick. In first grade, I was a delight. In second grade, I was an undisciplined behavior problem.

I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop myself from learning. Every question my teacher asked, I answered – even when she was trying to ask questions of the entire class. She’d tell me to let the other kids try, but then she’d ask another fascinating question, and I knew, I just knew the answer it was so fantastic, and before I could think I had thrilled my own brain with that soaring flight of connection and discovery. Again I would answer, shout it out, loud and proud.

Eventually they would label me “gifted.” My second grade teacher labeled me impulsive, undisciplined, and disruptive.

I remember the desks arranged in a mod circle, my young, beautiful teacher practicing the latest classroom structures for group learning. And I remember my desk removed from that circle, stuck back in the corner by the pencil sharpener and the trash can. Now I was not allowed to answer any questions. I became bored, and lonely.

When my standardized test scores came back, they were off the top of the charts. My No. 2 pencil was allowed to make the school look wildly successful, but my voice had been silenced. The group would not be learning from me, because I would see and hear very clearly in that silence outside the circle that I was not part of the group – I literally did not fit in. I was not normal, I was not okay, my thrill at learning was selfish, and I should not say what I was thinking.

What I learned in second grade was that I was a bad kid. This translated into behavior issues, especially with babysitters. Since my parents needed to work, I finally ended up going to my grandparents’ farm every day after school. There, stepping down from the confines of the yellow school bus to where their dusty lane met the edge of the gravel road, I felt free.

Grandma Jensen taught me about discipline – which was simply groundedness for my mental energy. I needed her one-on-one attention to help me learn to ride the powerful, wild horse of my mind, to channel my curiosity into self-mastery. With her never-ending patience, I learned to follow directions to sew a quilt, weed and harvest in the garden, wash clothes in a wringer washing machine and hang them on the clothesline, iron, chop, bake, knit – and write.

Grandma got me writing little stories about the things I was thinking and learning. She let me staple my pages together, and use markers and pens to make covers and illustrations.

My grandma was a brilliant teacher. She was my first, best teacher, supporting my endless love of learning. She gave me back my voice, a way to speak my mind, say my truth. I wrote about everything. I wandered the farm, exploring happily, silently noting details of monarch butterflies on milkweed, the rippling waves of a hay field like water, the variety of clouds overhead and whether they meant rain. I thought about worlds so small you’d need a microscope to see them, waves of oceans I had never seen, and soaring above the clouds like traveling through time, off into the vastness of space, where the light we see is only the memory of star shine.