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Lost in the System

Despite the trials of the previous year, I was still excited to start fourth grade. 

But thanks to the intervention of grade-school bureaucracy, I got to enjoy being a fourth grader for exactly one day. 

On the second day of class I was called out of Ms. Graff’s room and placed next door in Ms. Moroka’s 3-4th grade combination class. The office had come across a mistake; I was too young for fourth grade. 

Regardless of my GATE test being a few awkward shapes away from a gifted fourth grader, they determined that third grade was where I belonged, on account of my age. 

Ms. Moroka did her best from day one. She never said the words to me, but I could tell she thought that my placement was ridiculous. So, in one of the most confusing years of my academic life, I spent my 1985-86 school year as a third grader in schedule and name, while approximately 80% of my actual work was done in tandem with the fourth grade class. But what about next year?, you might be wondering. 

Ms. Moroka had a plan for that too, it just didn’t work out. 

She did her best, always trying to keep me challenged. I was the best reader in class, with the most titles read, including some that really seemed to surprise her. I kept all the ones that might get me in trouble off the list. That was the year that Heidi at Waldens introduced me to both Dragonlance and Interview With a Vampire. Both series had sex in them, but I knew that Dragonlance was safe to list while Interview With a Vampire should probably not get a mention. 

The following year, I was placed in Ms. Moroka’s class again, this time as a fourth grader, though just like the year before, she would have to differentiate the learning. Otherwise, too much of my work that year would be repeated, and worst of all, I would be forced to read the fourth grade textbook Sea Treasures two years in a row. 

But her plan didn’t work out. In addition to letting me work out of the next year’s textbooks, Ms. Moroka also made sure that I got tested for GATE again midway through my third (which should have been fourth) grade year. That second time, I gritted my teeth to get through that grisly pencil part and qualified. 

But there wasn’t a spot open in fourth grade at Gant where the GATE fourth grade class was. The administrators believed that there would be soon, and decided that it made sense for me to hang out at that campus instead of Tincher while I waited. 

But… since there weren’t any open seats in the GATE fourth grade class, or any of the regular fourth grade classrooms, some dumbfuck decided it made sense for me to patiently await my entry into the gifted program in a remedial fourth grade classroom, housed in an isolated bungalow out in the far parking lot. 

I was too young to argue the logic here, and wasn’t asking the Magic 8 Ball I’d won from selling all of those Cub Scout raffle tickets the right questions, so I could not appreciate how truly idiotic the reasoning behind this move actually was until it was too late. 

Mrs. Rayburn was perfectly nice, but the sense of foreboding and boredom in her room was thick like a fog as I sat at my desk and saw a copy of Sea Treasures waiting for me. I had no friends, and not nearly enough confidence to start selling shit on the playground. 

So I learned to be a troublemaker instead: making jokes in the middle of class, undermining the teacher’s authority, and doing my own thing because I was bored out of my damn mind. 

My four long months in that bungalow would have been a total waste, if not for all of the ways I learned to divert Mrs. Rayburn’s attention. If I made a joke while she was talking, most of the class would start laughing. That quickly became my favorite thing to do, and my teacher’s least favorite thing about me. 

My bad behavior was further encouraged by a classroom full of rule breakers, and thanks to the unrestricted learning at McKinney, most of the fourth grade work I was given in third grade was already a repeat for me. 

Getting a remedial version of that repeat gave me ample time to fuck around.

School was officially miserable. I dreaded going each morning, always arriving at least a half hour late, starting my morning in the office for a late slip before walking across the empty campus to the faded pink bungalow where I’d wait through another long day while nursing an ever-dimming hope that a spot with the smart kids might open for me. 

But the YMCA was still fun, and the definite highlight of each day for me. Candy stopped coming after she got caught shoplifting from the temporary Christmas boutique they’d set up in the gym. That worked out for me and Danielle. We got closer and closer. Especially since our moms were both always the last to show. 

On the final Friday before winter break, Danielle and I slipped out to the pool area while everyone was still waiting for their parents. We knew we had time, sitting on the bench with a short wall to our backs where no one could see us. She told me that her mom got a job in San Jose, so they would be moving over the break. 

I was heartbroken. Apparently so was she. 

Danielle kissed me. I kissed her back. It felt grownup, wishing her a merry Christmas and saying goodbye, my heart pounding with an unfamiliar timpani of exhilaration and hurt, unexpected happiness stirring into a sudden yet overwhelming sense of loss as Danielle left the Y with her mother and I knew that I would never, ever see her again. 

Just like that, my first dalliance with love danced away from me. 

I would never see Danielle again, though we did have exactly two phone calls. The second one was even more awkward than the first, and deemed too expensive by her mom. We planned a third call that never happened. After that, Danielle was relegated to my dreams as a recurring character for years. 

My birthday was a month after that kiss. Mom picked me up early from the Y on a Friday, just after four. She had a box — my birthday present, which she wanted me to open in front of Ms. Jean and Mr. Kent. 

Inside the box was a piece of paper telling me that there was finally a spot open in GATE. 

But it was at another school. Lowell.

So not only had my entire fourth grade year so far been worse than a waste of time, my birthday present was that I would be starting at a new school on Monday, where I didn’t know a soul.