When a Unicorn loses its Horn it’s left with a Bump, isn’t it? At least, that’s what I tell people … it could be I was a Unicorn in a past life. I think it could be a real possibility.
People have often asked me, as they leaned in for a good look, “How’d you get that big bump in the middle of your forehead?” I’ve had it for a long time but oddly enough it doesn’t show up in all of my childhood pictures. Perhaps it was the lighting or the grade level but the bump was sometimes invisible. Even without it in the picture I was told by my classmates, year after year, that I ruined our group photograph. The flash often caught me unaware and although open, my eyes look unfocused, like I was pretending that I wasn’t there. I looked like a sorry kid and I guess that since pictures don’t lie I was sort of a sorry kid.
I didn’t like being in school, I didn’t have many friends, my grades were poor to middling, I definitely wasn’t Miss Popular, heck, the only list I ever made was “most likely not to succeed.” I daydreamed my way through elementary school; daydreaming was like wearing a protective cloak, and my seat a magic carpet that took me beyond Lewiston to castles and caves, anywhere but the classroom I was meant to be in. Of course, to my classmates I looked like a grinning, drooling dope and was told so on every occasion. The jeers and hurts rolled off my back as I sought to go deeper – I wouldn’t even hear the teacher call my name until she was standing over me and I’d come to looking into her worried eyes. I was probably just another unknowable, unreachable mystery to her, another kid to pass on, a kid to wash one’s hands of – but before I went anywhere would I please construct one more marvelous bulletin board?
My drawing was the only piece of me that I kept in my soul, it was my constant fight with God, “If I ignore it [my talent, my strength] will it go away?” My teachers would enter me into art contests without informing me, they would request drawings with specific titles and let me go at it while my classmates droned on with their studies. When I finished, my drawing would be snatched up, put in an envelope, licked closed and mailed by a certain date to a certain place. I think it enlivened my teacher’s day awaiting a chance to announce to the principal that one of their precious students won a celebrated contest. I was posed for pictures, told to hold a certificate toward the camera and smile, or shake the mayor’s huge hand and smile.
One art contest was for Father’s Day: Draw your Dad doing what he likes best – I drew my dad shaving in the bathroom and I won a gift certificate to a clothing store. Another contest had to do with preventing tooth decay and I fashioned something up with construction paper and won – I think I was in 4th grade – and my teacher, Mrs. Poulde, was ecstatic that I had won representing her 4th grade class. (Collectively – what had all the rest of the class done? Put up with me? Shared my talent, collectively?) I was hustled off to the Mayor’s office, posed with other honorary winners and photographed for the newspaper. A Halloween picture won me a window to paint, it was a double contest with two gates: winning by grade level and then competing on the painted window grand scale level. Everyone felt that I let them down when I didn’t win against 6th graders or junior high kids, and I secretly vowed to get out of the contest racket for good – except I didn’t always control my entries.
I had a good trade in the bulletin board business and my blackboard drawings were awesome, too. The deal was that I’d work on the bulletin boards during recess time (and avoid all unnecessary social blunders and cold weather) for which ever teacher asked me for a design, sometimes they were specific requests, other times I was given absolute freedom to create whatever I wanted – these boards stood out in their brilliance! and I was praised throughout the school. This period was short-lived because I was treated like an idiot-savant, dopey but talented in an area that threatened no one’s statis-level-wise. Art, after all, was for sissies and dopey girls like me, you couldn’t save a life with a piece of chalk or construction paper. My teachers saw this but did nothing to interfere – bolstering self-esteem didn’t seem to be high on their to-do-list.
It wasn’t that my teachers didn’t care about their students, it was just that teaching parameters were different in those days, teachers were more removed, less friendly, more administrative. Teachers didn’t share anything about their home life (we weren’t even aware they had a life beyond being Mrs. Clark and looking tired; we didn’t think that they had husbands although Mrs. generally indicated they were married!) and we didn’t share much beyond what we did on our summer vacations. They only saw you cry when you scraped your knee or broke your thermos.
School was dull and full of social rules that felt like a mine infested jungle to navigate. I did have a best friend, Donna Woodhead, we got along because we both liked to draw and had wicked senses of humor, or maybe she was shy and I was compassionate. We both were kind of tall and we played imagination games, and we liked to run around the playground – maybe we were wild horses. Donna liked horses, I didn’t start riding until I was older – before or between my scoliosis diagnosis, which happened in 5th grade and before we moved to Vermont (or the end of the world) during my 7th grade Christmas break. I had my appendix out before the scoliosis diagnosis, which was lucky because I would have had to suffer the cast rack again; the doctors would have cut me out of the body cast like shucking a quahog to get to my rupturing appendix.
Even though I never broke any bones I knew the routine of a hospital children’s ward due to several hospitalizations for my ears, tonsils and adenoids, appendix, and crooked back. I got my share of get-well-cards and flowers in vases that my mother saved to put in my bedroom at home, one was a girl on a swing – it looked like one of those petite German figurines – but it wasn’t, I think it came from another foreign country, maybe Mexico. It was a toss-up between my ears and being stretched on the rack when the doctors put the body cast on me as to how much pain I could endure.
The pain from my ears was a throbbing stabbing pain and the rack felt horrible and never-ending, I was stretched until each bone separated and I was suspended in mid-air, harnessed under my chin and hips. When my cast was dry the doctors unharnessed me and told me to sit up, as I leaned forward I felt my bones snap back into alignment, pop, pop, pop! I went to school dressed in turtleneck sweaters stretched over my cast and elastic band skirts. If I wasn’t popular before, I was a freak after my diagnosis. I pretended that I didn’t care, that being called Turtle and Quasi didn’t hurt, I told noisy adults that I had been involved in a skiing accident.
Skiing accidents were more popular than scoliosis but by 7th grade I made a career out of my diagnosis by using my old cast, x-rays and horrific Eastern European photographs (supplied by my Boston orthopedic doctors) of twisted girls and old ladies in end stages of scoliosis to win science fairs. How would I have known I was using photographs used to document degenerative skeletal disorders to prove the need for extermination during Hitler’s regime? I wasn’t taught anything about the Holocaust until 8th grade in Vermont or maybe during 10th grade World History. By this time my back brace was accepted and my nickname was now Razz since my father’s name R S Berry on his mailbox announced it to the school bus twice a day.
Children experience a world of hurt growing up, and no adults ever seemed to think that it collected in our little hearts. Which is funny because they were children once, they act as if their brains were erased leaving them mindless zombies, unable to understand children at all. We are thought to be immune to pain, that our little brains aren’t connected and our nerve endings incapable of firing off signals in S O S. Starting with boy baby’s circumcision to old dentists with slow drills and dry Novocaine needles, to spankings and beatings, and school humiliations, to not being picked for sport teams and being told to your face you were stupid, to skinning knees and breaking teeth, to being told it would hurt them more than it would hurt you … we were full of pain and a lot of us fell asleep with our constant companion, whether it be hunger or throbbings of one kind or another, severe illness or lack of love, we knew when and where we hurt.
If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger. One day during recess a crowd gathered around a straw haired scrawny girl who was putting on a show and tell: she was showing her false teeth, both uppers and lowers, around to oohs and aahs. She was eleven, possibly twelve, and her father had pounded the living crap out of her without any consequences on his part. Somehow she survived and earned the trophy rights to show her false teeth to the world. On the same day a boy held a switch blade to my cast encased neck and when he discovered his error he let me pass into the school before I became too chilled to warm up, as the cast was a great insulator, it tended to take on and keep the outdoor temperature.
After seeing the girl’s false teeth the switch blade didn’t even faze me. We were all freaks, me and the show and tell girl, and the bald boys and girls that came back to school after the nurse found head lice. Not even the pregnant junior high girls were a big deal leaning into the chain link fence as they waited out physical education class, bellies straining their red gym outfits. There were sections of Lewiston that were pretty rough and I think that our little 6th grade group of suburban kids got a lot more education than our parents had planned on – on the bus ride to and from Frye Elementary and the walks to Luigi’s for pizza lunches (our school lacked a kitchen so we were marched to the junior high or sent “home” for lunch, the teachers didn’t care which line you stood in) and bomb raids in the basement of Ste. Peter and Paul Church. It wasn’t just rock and roll that entertained us, most of our little group was beginning to enter puberty which upset the social pecking order and made it harder on us freaks; empathy was hard to come by in 1965.
Which brings me back to my head bump, I got it from hitting my head on the cellar wall, not once but twice because it felt good. I was tricycling around and around the furnace, faster and faster when I veered off toward the wall, hitting the trike’s tire against the wall. The impact sent me flying head first into the concrete wall at a high rate of speed. Laws of Physics say that when we push we are equally pushed back, well, I don’t know about that but I saw lights and stars that felt kind of nice, so I got up and did it again! It took years for the calcium to build up to the size it is now, about a quarter-inch or so – I call it my unicorn bump – and it’s funny but whichever of my students asks me about my bump, and they do so without any qualms, always understands my reason for running into the wall the second time.
The absolute funniest thing about this whole story is that during a recent visit home (Easter, Thanksgiving, etc.) to my folk’s house, while wiping the dishes one evening, my mother turned to me, sighted on my bump and asked me how I got it! My bump has been a noticeable part of me for approximately 45 years or so, you would think Mom would have asked me about it sooner, it’s not like she had more than three children to keep track of. As she touched it she said, “You might want to get that looked at, it might be cancer.”
KBP August 16, 2010