In elementary school I was going through hard stuff for a 6-year old. My parents divorced, and remarried in a span of a year. I was the baby, I was expected to move through the motions without protest. I was expected to be okay with new sisters and brothers, a new dog, a new mom, new dad, two Christmases, and two bedrooms. Our new life looked like my brother and I buckling in the car on Friday and living out of a duffle bag until Sunday.
I remember in first grade they told me I would have to be held back. It was May. The weather was warm and bright. I was uncomfortable with the news. It sent a hot vibration through my body, telling me I was inadequate. I was small, unthriving, incompatible, unfit for moving on. My friends would all go on into the 2nd grade, and I would stay back, reviewing the same concepts, coloring in the lines again, rereading the same words.
I would later learn that it was because my brother had to be held back too, and since we were only a year apart, they didn’t want us to be in the same grade. So forms were signed, hands were shaken, and just like, that I would repeat the 1st grade.
A few weeks later I had an outburst. The teacher told me to stand outside the classroom. I unapologetically declined. Standing in the hallway was for bad kids, I wasn’t a bad kid. So, no thank you Mrs. Jackson. I would stay right here, at my desk with my Trapper Keeper filled with yellow construction paper.
I remember she stood over me, looming and tall, requesting me to go outside. This time her voice was filled with strength and laced with a firmness that was never before used on me. She grabbed my arm and escorted me out. I protested. I was hard and loud. Everyone could hear. Boys and girls looked up, they stopped cutting their yellow construction paper to watch me, the girl who would repeat the 1st grade, get in trouble.
I screamed as her hand squeezed my frail arm, I kicked and grabbed the door frame, holding it tight, holding on for control, for my dignity. I yelled at her, “I HAVE ASTHMA!”
Now I laugh, but I remember very clearly that it was the excuse that I offered. Obviously, I didn’t fully understand what asthma meant. I just knew that I spent a week in the hospital because of it. Somehow that made me special, like my behavior could be excused, or at the very least understood.
When I went to the hospital because of an attack, I lived in a clear tent where the air was perfect and new. It was pumped in just for me, it was my air. Clean and unpolluted with smoke that was always embedded in my clothes from my parent’s cigarette habit. The heavy smoke lived in my drawers and on my sheets, on the walls of our house, on the fur of the cat. But this air, it was different, it was perfect and it was just for me.
I had to wear an ID bracelet. It was stainless steal and had a cat and a dog etched on the front of it. It had the letters ASTHMA right under my name. It was a label that I didn’t understand, but I wore it, the label, the bracelet, I wore it. The extra links of the bracelet would drag on my desk when I reached for my pencil. The soft clatter; it was the sound of special. I was special because I had been sick, because I had it hard, because growing up wasn’t easy for me. I had to live in an oxygen tent, I had to wait until after 5:00 to have my mom pick me up from the babysitter’s, I had to share a bunk bed with my brother, share my cereal with step-sisters, and repeat the 1st grade.
I wore that bracelet as if it was my badge.
I got sent to the principal’s office after that outburst. I remember sitting in front of the large wooden desk. I could barely see over the stacks of paper, but I remember the principal, she wore a blue wool suit and had short brown hair. I remember she smiled a lot, she showed her teeth. I thought she was supposed to reprimand me. But instead she was soft and gentle. I told her I had asthma. She nodded, and smiled, because she understood.
I never got in trouble after that. I went on the repeat the 1st grade with a different teacher, Mrs. May. She was kind and she never made me stand out in the hallway. Repeating the first grade was about stopping, and freezing time, and doing it over again. I was able to heal and get use to these heavy things that were a part of my life: splitting my time with my parents, my broken lungs, cereal sharing, and watching my friends go into second grade.
Pause and repeat.