How do you fail grade eight? You fail grade eight by being a child whose body language includes slumped posture, and downcast eyes. You don’t look people in the eye because you have such low self-esteem that you can’t. That would be a bold and confident act. It’s almost as if looking someone straight in the eye would make you vulnerable to losing whatever spirit you have left.
You fail eighth grade by pretending you’re sick on days when you’re supposed to be getting marks for public speaking in your grammar class – what we once called ‘Language’. You simply can’t face being that visible. You know you’d rather die.
You fail eighth grade by pretending you’re sick on exam days. You fail because you can’t concentrate on what the teacher is saying about the causes of the first world war. Your mind wanders out to greener pastures. You fail because when you are trying to study, you are yearning for that cute boy in the class across the hall. Hopes and daydreams keep you going.
You fail, because you have trouble remaining in the present, which is not warm and fuzzy. It is critical, judgmental, full of hopeless despair. You fail because you believe girls are dumb — and you are dumber than most. You fail because you have become self-defeating.
In those days, when you failed, it meant you repeated everything. It also meant that the smart kids and many teachers looked down on you, avoided you. Almost as if they might catch your state of mind. Ironically, some of the subjects become more familiar the second time around, enabling you to scrape through and move up a grade. But this does not necessarily improve your self-image.
In my case, it actually felt as if I were cheating: my improved marks were only because I was a failure.
The reality was slightly different from my self-image. In my “steno” classes, I was very good – probably one of the faster typists, and good at transcribing notes taken in Pitman shorthand. The curves and lines and dots of Pitman were strangely fascinating.
And there was Mr. Lawson. Mr. Lawson spoke to me with the same respect and consideration he showed to everyone else. And he didn’t have me merely repeat. He said I ‘didn’t need it’, and gave me new challenges, like “Rapid Calculation”. He introduced me to the “Man from SPEBSQSA” (the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America) as ‘the girl who could do the job’. They paid me to type (and ‘edit’) their monthly newsletter.
“Vic” eventually made me the producer of the high school newspaper. And when an open-house was held, he had me show parents around and explain our various activities, machinery, etc. There I had knowledge, skill and confidence. There I was comfortable being visible.
I swear that when I walked into Mr. Lawson’s “commercial class”, I felt lighter. I stopped feeling as if I were tripping over my own feet. When I eventually graduated from high school, that I was able to get the first job I applied for, was due to him. That I was able to move up in the business world – even in an era when that was almost impossible for women – was his doing.
At some point in my adulthood I realized that “bachelor” Lawson was probably gay, and knew very well what it was like to be a miserable kid. He probably spotted me a mile away. At our high school’s 40th anniversary reunion, I was so excited that I’d have the chance to thank him. But he was too frail and ill to come. He died not long after.
I’m not religious, but I feel an impulse to say, bless him. Bless John Victor Lawson. And I thank him in my heart by ‘paying it forward’ – by trying to make a difference to someone else now and then, by never forgetting what a miserable adolescent feels like. What else can a grateful girl do?