It was all lost on me. I learn differently than they were set up to teach.
I mean, what good is there in testing a child on her understanding of The Outback of Australia when she lived in a tiny Canadian planet? And less so when she was still carrying the shame of earlier in the year when the teacher had admonished her “I hope you’re joking, Ilana” in front of the entire class when she had expressed her worry that an ostrich would ruin the Neanderthal hunt by sticking its head into the hole meant to trap an elephant.
Believe me, I also hoped I was joking Mrs. Iron.
We were sitting on the floor as a group. It was one of those moments where the teacher was admiring herself for teaching so alternatively. Away from desks. And I ruined it for her. Nevermind the stiff neck a child gets forcing herself to look up at a teacher holding a book in a chair above her. Neglecting how uncomfortable linoleum is on a kid’s butt for more than twleve or thirteen seconds. Disregard the elaborate fantasies I was having about the boys and girls around me. My teacher shamed me deeply and at eight-years-old it was determined by me and everyone who turned to look at me in that moment that I couldn’t learn. Do these definitive moments in a person’s life fascinate everyone? That one moment mother, I mean, teacher, I mean . . . is there a difference really? . . . let the whole class know that I would never make her happy.
It was a drop in the bucket and yet the moment stuck with me, defined me. For years afterwards, I wondered if I had been joking. I worked the moment out in my brain again and again and searched for what I had missed. I read Scientific American articles about Neanderthals. I stared at the pictures. I thought about jokes. I thought about mammoths and elephants. I thought about ostriches. I thought about the hairy slouching men pictured in textbooks and imagined the elephant standing in the hole. The elephant always as a child wading in shallow water, watching peacefully as the barbarians speared it to death.
Nothing moved in textbooks and fighting was for parents. And recess.
And the elephant never really bled. Overall, it was totally cool with the evolutionary expression of the human machine. Anything else would be barbaric.
Of course, there was always the chance an ostrich saved it. But then, oh the horror of all those hungry hairy humans was too much to bear. All those men with suede swinging between their legs. If not for that hole, if not for that elephant, where would humanity be now? Where?!
Of course, I was joking. Of course.
I could never seem to get a proper grasp on the things I was intended to understand. I looked at pictures and coloured in the o’s in the textbooks, but really I just kept thinking about my own vagina.
My first remembered failed test was on Australia. Reality was hitting home and a career in Marine Biology was seeming to be a very unrealistic goal.
Like conceptualizing a hole large enough for an elephant to fall into, I could in no way picture the difference between The Outback and the rest of Australia. In large part this had to do with the index card in my head having one single picture for the word ‘island’ and that picture was of a mound of sand in a blue ocean with one palm tree jauntily hanging out on it. There may or may not be a treasure chest here.
I believe I was in grade 7 at this point. No really. Seventh grade and these images dominated my imagination and fed my so-called intellect.
And my high-firing, understimulated intellect worked like this. If, in my mind’s eye I could see all parts of this ‘small island continent’ where exactly was The Outback? And where was the word to describe the rest of Australia? Where was the ‘In-Front’?
It was a battle of semantics in my head with incredibly limited definitions mostly drawn mentally in the style of New Yorker cartoons.
So much of my early education was based on studying opposites. To learn another language – grande only in relation to petite. To learn morality – bad only as a tool to learn good. Learning ‘recycle’ vs. ‘waste’ and so on. I was programmed to understand new concepts only in reference to that other new concept we learned yesterday or are going to learn right now. Pay Attention! And smack comes the ruler on the desk. Good morning to you too.
There was a lot of waiting for how everything was going to be related to the next thing we were going to learn. My brain learned to entertain itself and make its own connections.
I was perpetually stuck in semantics and I would continually miss the so-called point.
And right there, that is the point.
In any case, back to Australia.
I thought since there is no corresponding opposite word to describe the Non-Outback part of Australia the word Outback must be implying some kind of Australian infinity. And beginning at the most desolate centre point of sand, scrub, cactus and a family of kangaroos it extends in most directions outward through only un-inhabited areas until it puts its toes just out of sight of the Ocean. The Outback as described in the social studies textbook, is a vast seemingly never-ending landscape that encompasses all of Australia. And possibly New Zealand? And when you are there, wearing a wide-brimmed hat is recommended.
I failed that test and like many other similar tests when it was returned to me I didn’t know what I had gotten wrong.
And similar to every other uncomfortable, confusing and eventually devastating moment in my life, I told no one about it.