I belong to a Facebook group for people who grew up in my hometown. Most of the people are around my age. For the past week or so, the group has been posting class photos from grade school, which led us to talking about the teachers we had. The subject of Mr. Dillon came up, and the ensuing conversation with other people who hated him was enlightening, to say the least.
Mr. Dillon was my fifth grade teacher, the first male teacher I had. Up until fifth grade, I loved the academic aspect of school. I loved reading and tests and homework and projects. I loved learning. I got all As from first through fourth grade. Concentrating on being a good student and getting good grades helped keep me from being despondent due to the fact that I had no friends and was often picked on by my peers. I just kept my head down, buried in books, and while I was definitely emotionally scarred by my social situation, I wasn’t completely destroyed by it. I was learning. I was working hard. I threw myself into book reports and ditto sheets and prided myself on my grades.
Mr. Dillon changed everything. He was hard, cold and mean. Up until then my teachers had all been warm and kind. They understood I was painfully shy and rarely called me out in class. They acknowledged my love of learning and fed it by giving me extra credit assignments when I finished my work ahead of the class. They prodded other kids to be kinder to me. They consoled me when they weren’t. Most of all they were good teachers who made me enjoy coming to school despite the crap I had to put up with from classmates. Mr. Dillon, not so much. In the beginning, he mostly ignored me, focusing instead on the troublemakers in the class, giving them the attention they so craved. He laughed at their cruel remarks and allowed them to have the run of the class.
Learning became a chore. Mr. Dillon’s greatest fault as a teacher was his dullness, his unwillingness to make any aspect of learning fun. He read from textbooks, wrote on the board a lot and gave a lot of quizzes. I felt like I was doing nothing more than memorizing what was in the textbooks and I missed the sort of interactive learning my previous teachers provided. I missed the projects we worked on. Mr. Dillon called on me often. When I spoke quietly, he bellowed at me to speak up. When the other kids picked on me for being so quiet and small, he encouraged them simply by laughing along with them. He often slammed his hand down on my desk and asked loudly if I was paying attention even though I gave no indication I wasn’t. He paired us off into teams for certain projects, letting us choose our own partners. He knew full well no one would choose me and often made me stand in front of the class while saying “Who wants to work with Michele?” And it wasn’t even so much the ridicule that bothered me. It was more that I had begun to hate school. He took the one thing I loved — learning — and turned it into a nightmare. He made me become hyper aware of my social ineptness and that coupled with the chore of school work turned me into a wreck.
I started to go to the nurse often, so often that my mother had to come in and talk to the principal and the nurse about what else might be going on that I wanted to go home so often. I was embarrassed by the situation and also didn’t want my mother to worry, so I told them nothing was wrong. I never complained about the lack of friends or the ridicule by both my classmates and my teacher. I may have said I didn’t like Mr. Dillon, but what kid doesn’t at some point say they don’t like their teacher?
My grades dropped. For the first time I got a report card I wasn’t proud of. I struggled through the fifth grade and that struggle was foreign to me. I cried some nights, I cried some mornings. And I became full of anxiety and fear. I had my first small anxiety attacks that year, though I didn’t know what they were then. All I knew was it was hard to breathe sometimes, especially late at night when I sat awake in the dark full of dread at the prospect of having to get up and go to school and do it all over again, five days a week. I resented Mr. Dillon for making me feel that way. That resentment grew into a hate, a hate that made me feel guilty because hate was a bad, bad feeling.
This was the year my “friend” from across the street told me she could only hang out with me at home and I shouldn’t acknowledge in school that we were friends. This was the year the boys from down the block ratcheted up their torment of me. This was the year I lost any sense of self worth I might have been developing. This was the year I was made to feel small, smaller than I already was.
Where my other teachers might have protected me or at least defended me from the elements, Mr. Dillon was complicit in what transpired by his acceptance of, and his participation in it. He was the trigger point in an anxiety disorder that would plague me for all my future days, and still does. And I just put that together yesterday after participating in a Facebook thread that merely mentioned his name. It was oddly comforting to see others write about how they feared or hated him. It wasn’t just me, then. He didn’t single me out. But back then, I didn’t know he was just a monster in general, taking a certain glee from making children miserable. I didn’t know he was a man who probably hated his job. I thought it was me. I thought it was my fault Mr. Dillon seemed to hate me. I was too quiet. I was too small. I was too weird. I didn’t fit into his teaching style. It was me. I made him hate me the same way I made the kids pick on me, the same way I made those boys torment me. It was me.
I was never the same after fifth grade. Even though I had a wonderful teacher in sixth year, I was still filled with anxiety and fear. School would never again be a good experience for me. I spent each class terrified my teacher would call me out, slam her hand down on my desk or laugh at me. My school anxiety flooded over into other aspects of my life.
I can’t blame Mr. Dillon in total for how my personality and outlook changed that year. But he played a big role in it all. And I’m just now realizing it, just getting around to figuring out where all this started. Will it change anything? No. But it’s interesting to have this revelation now, to trace so much of who I am back to a certain year, even certain days, days that never left me.
There isn’t a novel like ending for me here where I look up Mr. Dillon and confront him, maybe ask him why he was so aggressively belligerent toward me, why he stayed in a job he obviously hated and then there’d be a deep conversation in which Mr. Dillon reveals his own demons and apologizes to me for turning me into an emotional wreck. It doesn’t work like that. Mr. Dillon is long dead. He wouldn’t even remember me if he was alive. I was just another kid in a long line of kids he trolled for reasons unknown. But I do have a weird sense of being able to close the door on something now. There are lot of factors that led up to me being the person I am today. Mr. Dillon played a huge role in several of those factors. It’s enough that I can pinpoint that. It’s enough that I can lift some of the blame off the shoulders of my ten year old self. It’s enough to give myself a vantage point from which I can see how things started, and use that to work on how things are. I feel like a door has opened to a healing of sorts. Maybe I knew all along that Mr. Dillon played a crucial role in my mental well being, but I closed that part of my memory off for a long time. The Facebook thread pried that door open just enough for me to get a glimpse of what really was.
I hope Mr. Dillon found some peace with himself before he died. I hope he let go of the bitterness and anger that so obviously plagued him. I know I’m not going to hold on to this anger I feel toward him right now. I’m just going to use what I’ve discovered to move forward in my life and let some of my years-old feelings go. But maybe I’ll stay away from that Facebook group for a while.