Chapter Three: School Days
These were my first memories of school. The awed and frightening sensation that hit me when I faced off with that giant building, long and never-ending hallways, and large classrooms. The scents of sweat, dusty chalk, and brand new books in those classrooms. Children with gap-toothed grins, scabs and cuts from fallen off bike rides or tumbles in the grassy hills engraved in their skins, and loud screams and joys of laughter and chatter that were emitted from their mouths. The feeling that I was the smallest of ants as I walked on the polished speckled waxed floors with the sound of my clickety-click shoes drowned out by the booming noises and enthusiasm that bounced off the walls.
This was what I knew. Up until the time I went to school, my entire life revolved around my chronic kidney failure and torrent family life. Perhaps I should have felt grateful to school as a way to escape from all of that and more. However, school was just another adjustment and must-have in my life that was there and that had to be dealt with. My childhood school days began as a neutral requirement, and then continued on as a series of indistinctive images that did not make any sense until much later on.
The most important piece of information I was aware of even before I stepped foot into that intimidating school building was that my fellow peers knew more about me than I did about them. There was proof in that factoid when I was hospitalized before my first kidney transplant and a beat-up shoebox landed on my lap. The inside of the box revealed a pile of letters filled with scraggly and shaky handwriting that formed chopped up words and fragmented sentences from my classmates. Years later, I learned that it was my beloved teacher, Mrs. G, who had my classmates write these heartwarming and personal letters. She was the one that made sure they were delivered to me in my time of turbulence. Now that I think about it, I highly doubt that my classmates even knew what they even wrote and whom they wrote to.
Mrs. G had shoulder-length dark blonde hair and a bright, pearly smile that outshone the colorful stickers, glossy posters with cartoon character children, and number and letter decorations that decked out her cozy classroom. It became apparent to me as a sick child as to whom the superficial adults were who did not know what to say or do so they ended up overdoing and over saying. Mrs. G was that genuine, loving, and lovable adult that was never overbearing in her ways. I was blessed that my introduction to school was with her as a representative. The warmth of her hand radiated on my back when I walked into the classroom and the many pairs of blue and brown eyes swiveled on to me with curiosity and scratched surface awareness about my sick predicament.
1987/Age 5: First day returning back to school; I am in the back.
All my classmates and teachers knew the surface story about me: Although I had a kidney transplant, I was still known as the sick one and, therefore, I was different. Missing out on a few school days that escalated to half a school year or even entire school years had already ostracized me. I was the new, sick, different, fragile, mysterious, and weird kid all rolled into one. I never had a cute classmate child that I could call “a friend,” but then again, I never made an effort. The truth was that I did not know how to behave like a child and around children after I was accustomed to my adult family members and nurses and doctors when I was in the hospital. The social butterfly that I was when I was in the hospital with one nurse to the next was replaced with a bewildered and wide-eyed child me that just could not belong and could not take in all that there was to take in fast enough with all the school assignments and all the energetic and lively children. My classmates ran around freely to play tag or “freeze tag,” while I sat on the sidelines because I feared overexertion to my kidneys. What if I hurt them? They whipped out jump ropes and hopped in coordination to silly and song-like rhymes, while I tripped over the rope. My extent of exercise was pumping my legs on the swing set of the children’s playground so I could fly so high that no one could find me, catch me, or entrap me. Mostly, I just sat and observed everyone else. I smiled brightly and was more than content as the people watcher and observer of all things.
My classmates’ response to my anti-social and peculiar ways fell into extremes of attempting to include me or ignoring me completely. Perhaps I should have cared and should have tried harder, but I really did not. It was the first time that I found it more fun to speak and mingle with my teachers (like Mrs. G) rather than with these children who were my age chronologically, but not my age in what life had handed thus far to me versus them. It was the first time that I remembered feeling old rather than a free and laughing child that was unaware of hospitals, pain, needles, and even death.
As a result of the obvious exclusion from my peers, I threw myself into learning and letting the power of knowledge overcome me. Any socialization with my classmates went from backburner to non-existent. I was the vigilant and diligent student that thrived on and practically swallowed information whole. I practiced my handwriting on trays filled with sand and perfected every letter of the alphabet. The grainy sand was roughly smooth against my fingertips. It amazed me how each letter formed a word and had the power to communicate. I was a bookworm from a young age, starting from picture books to falling headfirst into the extraordinary words and worlds of fairy tale stories of another place, another time. Books were an escapism from my family and isolated ways with my classmates. I discovered numbers and the magical answer that came about with an addition or subtraction sign. I depended on my fingers to calculate. I was awestruck at how numbers revealed time—the seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days. I observed the metamorphosis of plump caterpillars into beautiful butterflies that fluttered their wings to freedom. I devoured fun games that revealed directions and countries around the world. I hated gym. Although I was in a modified gym class to safeguard my transplanted kidney, any movement put a damper on my spirit that was destined for knowledge rather than physical exertion and challenges. The wealth of wisdom I learned from my school subjects brought me to a new and beautiful world, and succeeded in me temporarily forgetting any confusion or loneliness I experienced in those moments when I was the outsider looking inside at the world of exuberant children without a care or concern.
When I remember my school days as a child, it is clear to me that my life did not begin from the moment I took my first breath from birth, but it started from the moment I stepped foot into school after my first kidney transplant. It turned out that the greatest adjustment and challenge of school was not school or studies. Rather, the ultimate challenge was taking the fullest advantage of my first kidney transplant to truly live my life as a happy and carefree child among my peers and at school. It was a daunting task, but as time went on, I slowly began to look forward to school with a hungry brain that needed to be fed knowledge and a life that needed to be lived to the fullest. I toddled eagerly towards this newfound childhood free of illness and full of new possibilities, and I began to delicately polish off the indistinctive images of school to create a happy childhood masterpiece. School pushed me to fulfill what my first kidney transplant gave me the privilege to do: Live my Life and bask in the beauty and goodness of it rather than all the sadness and pain.
1987/Age 5: Ready to begin my new life!