Conformity or Cooties?
Reflections of a High School Graduate
By Aminy Ostfeld, Chronogram
I spent kindergarten and first grade in a Montessori school where Caucasian, African, and Pakistani kids all played together. We were each assigned different books to read and different math problems to do, based on our skill levels. The boy who knew how to tell time before his classmates was treated as a hero, just like the girl who could draw beautiful pictures. Overall, we were not only expected to be unique, we were encouraged to be.
When I moved to a public school, in second grade, though, I noticed a very different atmosphere. My classmates generally ate the same lunches, watched the same TV programs, and played the same games. Teachers didn’t notice that kids who were different from the norm were shunned, called rude names, or believed to have “cooties.” The ones with mental or physical handicaps were ridiculed most frequently and most harshly, until they formed a separate group that didn’t play or even have conversations with the rest of us.
But disabilities weren’t the only causes of teasing and name-calling—any obvious difference was enough. For me, growing up in a progressive household in a conservative town was a recipe for being teased. When I told classmates I was a vegetarian, they called me weird, and the containers of refried beans I brought to school didn’t help my social status either. After I could no longer stand the disgusted looks my classmates gave my food, my mother consented to letting me take white bread and cheese sandwiches (organic, of course) in Ziploc bags like they did. Proud that I played creative games instead of watching TV, I once admitted to my friends that I had never seen “Blue’s Clues.” They, who watched it on a regular basis, were shocked and disapproving. So I started watching TV.
Elementary school felt like a competition to find who could be teased the least, who could be the most normal. At the same time, though, we played games where the winner stood out and was admired. Teachers taught us our multiplication tables by holding contests to see who could do them the fastest. Gym class consisted largely of running races and playing dodge ball, and kids who lost these games were often ridiculed.
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