The Existential Brutality of Kindergarten
We often look back on kindergarten with warm nostalgia. This is because we have purged the horrors of the entire experience
We often look back on kindergarten with warm nostalgia. This is because we have purged the horrors of the entire experience from our minds.
Kindergarten is brutal. It is our first real introduction to the broader world beyond our parents and doting caregivers.
Kindergarten teachers have an agenda. They boast about how they shape young minds. Can you think of anything more existentially horrible than having your mind molded by someone else?
I attended kindergarten at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School. I was the oldest child in our family, and thus the first to have to navigate the public school system. I didn’t attend preschool because almost no Gen-Xers attended preschool. Of course, we weren’t called Gen-Xers in the 70s and early 80s.
It was in kindergarten that I met my first bully, confronted an authoritarian regime for the first time, and where I first embarked on a life of wanton property destruction. It was also during this year that I learned something about where babies came from.
My mother was determined to make sure that my first year in the public education system would be as humiliating as possible.
Mom had bought me a backpack with the cartoon character Ziggy on it for school. Mom loved Ziggy. She had an entire collection of Ziggy cartoons that she had cut out of the newspaper. There was always a Ziggy cartoon on our fridge.
The backpack was “cute,” Mom told me.
The bag was not cute. It was teal.
Not blue, or red, or green, but teal. Ziggy was not just some print silk-screened onto the bag. His nose, legs, and hands protruded from the front flap of the pack in 3D. A stuffed Ziggy was imprisoned on the flap of my backpack. Even worse, my backpack was square, like a messenger bag.
Messenger bags wouldn’t be a thing for another twenty years.
I wanted a normal style backpack like every other kid had — rounded top and with a flat bottom. The Ziggy bag had narrow straps that fell off my shoulders. The front flap snapped shut, instead of having a zipper. It was designed to ruin the life of a five-year-old boy going to school for the first time.
Mom didn’t care.
I wondered if she secretly loved Ziggy more than me.
It was the worst backpack in all of Longfellow Elementary.
I hated the backpack. I had fought hard against its purchase and wore it with shame to school.
Nobody said much about it until the second day of school when we were all sitting around in a circle at the end of the day with our backpacks on the floor in front of us.
I sneezed all over Ziggy.
Not a regular sneeze. Not the kind of sneeze where everyone politely says, “Bless you,” afterward. It was a projectile sneeze. The kind that makes everyone pause, gape, and wonder how you are still alive.
Snot hung from Ziggy’s nose and hands as if he had just sneezed. My classmates yelled, “Ew!” and then started laughing.
I closed my eyes. My class sounded like a demented sitcom laugh track.
One kid thought it was so funny he couldn’t stop talking about it.
Every chance he got for a week, Jack would reenact the Ziggy backpack sneeze. He thought he was a regular Johnny Carson.
I thought he was a jackhole.
Once his routine got old, Jack went from making fun of my backpack to pushing me down in the sandbox.
I complained to Dad about the sandbox pushing. He suggested the next time I push Jack back. Dad assured me that once Jack learned that I would fight back, he would back off.
Later that week, I had a chance to test out Dad’s wisdom.
Jack came up and pushed me down in the sandbox and began to walk away. I stood up and went after him.
Right before I had caught up to him, the bell rang. Teachers and kids were streaming back into the building. Like a hero, I pushed Jack as hard as I could, from behind. He fell on the asphalt. He began to cry and said he was going to tell on me to Ms. Woodward.
I panicked. I didn’t want to get in trouble. Why hadn’t I thought to tell Ms. Woodward about all the earlier pushing? Why had I listened to my dad? Pushing Jack? I was a fool! And now instead of a victory over my nemesis, I was looking at real trouble.
As Jack began to stand up, I had a flash of inspiration. I reached down to help him up and offered him a truce. My terms were simple. If he agreed not to push me or tell on me, I wouldn’t tell on him or push him. He agreed. We went into class together, and from then on, there existed a state of quiet, anxious Cold War between us.
The rest of the fall passed with any other major faux pas on my part. However, the daily disgrace of my backpack weighed heavily on me.
Every day my Ziggy backpack earned me razzing and sneers from the other boys and a few of the girls in my class. I learned to pretend it didn’t bother me.
I had been working on a plan to rid myself of the teal canvas albatross. Every day, I poked the corners of the bag with a pencil. I had the beginnings of a hole in one corner that I was trying to make bigger, and another hole was about to breakthrough on the opposite side.
The real problem I was having at school was my stubborn teacher.
We’d been working on writing numbers for weeks and weeks. My handwriting was awful, and Ms. Woodward was giving me grief over my “8s”. She wanted us to write them figure-eight style, with what I thought of as one regular letter “S” stuck together with a backward letter “S”. When I did things her way, she complained that all of my “8s” were sideways. I agreed. They looked like fallen gunslingers, fatally shot right outside the saloon.
That’s why I liked to write my “8s” with two circles on top of each other, like a snowman. My “snowman” 8s were always standing perfectly straight and upright.
One early spring day, our differing philosophies collided. A parent volunteer had been tasked to help me learn to make my “8s” using the ridiculous “S” method. I refused. The volunteer thought I was stupid.
She guided my hands in the proper technique, and then she asked me to try. I used my tried-and-true two-circle method. The volunteer eventually got frustrated and went over to Ms. Woodward. When I saw my teacher coming over, I knew it was trouble. She told me if I kept making my eights with two circles, I would have to stay in from recess and practice my “8s”.
She said it in the fake sweet voice all teachers use when you have gone so close to the edge that they must threaten the most-dire consequences.
The volunteer came back and asked to write a row of “8s”. Then she left to bother another student.
I did as she asked. I wrote the “8s”, but I wrote them my way. When she looked at my neat row of straight standing “8s,” she asked if I had used two circles. I nodded. She glared at me and raised her hands over her head and pulled on her hair. Mom had never even done that.
Next thing I knew, Ms. Woodward had me sitting at a table with a pad of gray paper with light blue dotted lines while my classmates went out to recess.
Ms. Woodward told me to draw “8s” the proper way. She then went about the classroom doing whatever kindergarten teachers do at recess. I wrote line after line of “8s”. I wrote them the proper way, my way. When Ms. Woodward came to check on me, she asked what I was doing. I told her I was doing what she asked me to do.
“But, those are not proper.” She said.
Her tone suggested she thought I was a little dense.
“Yes, they are! They’re standing up straight, and when I draw them your way, they fall down.” I said.
Ms. Woodward sighed. Not a small sigh. But the kind of sigh that when you let it out, it causes your entire body to deflate because you exhaled all of your air and most of your will to live. The bell rang.
Ms. Woodward took my paper and said that was enough practice for today. It turned out to be enough practice for the rest of the school year. I never had to write another “8” in kindergarten. I never mentioned my stand against the creeping authoritarianism to my parents. Even at age five, I knew better than to rat on myself.
I just kept working on sabotaging my backpack.
One day in May, just a few weeks before school got out, I put on my saddest face and took my backpack to Mom.
I showed her the hole.
“How did that happen?” She asked.
She stuck her finger in the hole.
“Well, it will have to last for a few more weeks.”
“But, Mom!” I said. “It has a hole!”
“I’m sorry. We’ll just have to try and find a new one like it this summer.”
At that moment, I developed a new strategy for dealing with my backpack. I began to silently and quite fervently pray to God that all the Ziggy backpacks in our town would disappear before summer.
It didn’t work.
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