Reflections on an elementary-school yearbook

As a young boy in Columbus, Indiana, I attended an elementary school called ABC Stewart. Last night, having been primed for nostalgia by some Thanksgiving-inspired reminiscing, my family and I went through old boxes in a storage room, where we came across the school’s 2004 yearbook.

Evidently, the school still wasn’t progressive enough for two squares to hold hands

The cover features a number of crudely-sexed stick figures of various colors, presumably a signal of the school’s multiculturalism, and not an entirely unwarranted one: my sister and I were one of three first-generation Syrian families there.

On the first page we encounter the founder, matriarch, and principal of the school, Merry Charmichael, whose basement was the first site of her Montessori pedagogical method in 1969. She sits on a parade float, waving to spectators, the sign for The Commons behind her. That building, I still remember, contained a spectacular kinetic sculpture, a metallic gadget which hurled a steel ball down a series of rails every hour.

Above her a sign reads ‘Celebrating Diversity’, although it features no black children, and includes a questionable rendition of an Asian boy’s face.

That year, the diversity parade featured at least three Syrian families

On the next page we find a list of staff, numbering 30 in total. First is Mrs. Charmichael, who is given the somewhat lofty titles of ‘Founding Executive’ and ‘Directress’.

Then there’s Mrs. Finnell, the math teacher with short brunette hair, whose most memorable teaching method was to have us take turns standing in front of the room and reciting multiples to the whole class.

Next to her is Mr. Owens, art teacher by profession and avid musician by hobby, who — due to my poor childhood understanding of the concept of a cover band — I regarded, for the longest time, as a member of The Beatles. It wasn’t too far off, though, because he looked like he was air-dropped from the 60s. I remember that he once passed out sheets of paper and instructed us to draw the thing we wanted most in life, and not feeling particularly introspective or poetic, I decorated my sheet into an oversized $100 bill. When he saw it, he snatched it away, held it up to the class, and used it as an example of what not to do.

Then we have Mr. Maulin, the reading teacher, whose room featured a very cozy loft which could only be occupied by a two kids at a time, giving me an early lesson about the value arising from scarcity and the allure evoked by exclusivity. He was also a Spanish teacher, and I remember very distinctly him drawing a face out of the incidentally anthropomorphic shape of the word ‘rojo’.

A bit further we find Mrs. Lynn, who sits just above a picture of Mrs. Lane, and that mellifluous duo taught my first-grade class. Mrs. Lane, with her radiant smile and short blonde hair, is that elementary-school teacher who every kid falls in love with, and looking at her picture both makes my chest flutter and compels me inexplicably to spell difficult words correctly.

Next to Mrs. Lynn we find Mr. Yates, the culture teacher, a tall lanky man with a friendly face, who without any evidence at all strikes me as a deeply religious man. Introducing the cardinal directions to us, he taught us the relative directions of West and East by reminding us that, with North facing up, we ought to spell ‘we’, and not (he said emphatically, drawing out the word) ‘ew’. On yet another occasion, as I read a geography book and struggled to pronounce ‘Liechtenstein’, he came up from behind me and said, in his deep resounding voice, leek-ten-stein, pronouncing every syllable slowly. I can still hear both of those words now as if they were said to me yesterday.

On the next row we have a woman whose face appears to be scratched away. Her name reveals her as Mrs. Evans, and she’s identified as the ESL teacher. This is somewhat ominous. I don’t remember ever being in an ESL class, despite a rocky transition from my home life to the Anglophone environment of kindergarten. I do, however, remember a teacher who resembles what remains of her features, and the two memories I have of her are both terrible. The first is that, when looking over one of my assignments, she criticized my cursive by saying it wasn’t indented enough (incidentally, this would lead to an overcompensation which was almost dysgraphic, remaining up until my college years).

I attribute the longstanding peculiarity of my handwriting, shown here in a high-school notebook, to a single comment made by an unfriendly teacher

The second memory is the following. I had refused to invite her son Chris to my birthday party one year, and in a cunning move bordering on abusive, she decided to bring up the matter in front of the whole class. “Did you mean to invite him?” she asked, and with no less than ten pairs of eyeballs on me, I had no choice but to say yes.

Adjacent to her we find Mrs. Brown, the music teacher, who shares with Mrs. Lane the distinction of being your stereotypical elementary-school teacher crush, but this time of the brunette and bespeckled variety. I remember her playing the piano as we all crowded around, and she taught us a delightful song called Mama Paquita, which I later learned is a Brazilian carnival song. I also have a memory of her teaching us the definition of the expression ‘bottom dollar’ after we sang the song Tomorrow from Annie.

Next to Mrs. Brown we have Mr. Hileman, whose photo, the yearbook tells us, is unavailable. I remember him as a burly man with short brown hair and a light reddish goatee. I have one positive and one negative memory of him. On one occasion I had gotten the furthest among all the students in completing a certain assignment about the structure of the atom, and to my delight, he mentioned me by name.

The other memory is a somewhat confusing one, since it suggests more parts to a story I don’t remember. I was at recess and, whether intentionally or not I couldn’t say, threw a daisy in Mr. Hileman’s general direction, so that it hit the top of his head. He spun around, fuming, and let out a few angry sentences which ended with: “And I never called you a terrorist!” Strange. Incidentally, Mr. Hileman would end up marrying Mrs. Finnell, the math teacher from earlier.

We come now to Mr. Powell, who was the first teacher I ever met at ABC Stewart, when we first moved to Columbus from the much smaller town of North Vernon. I’ll never forget when he said to me, encouragingly, “Don’t worry, I won’t bite!” Up until then, I had spoken mostly Arabic, and misunderstanding the expression as a literal assurance that he wouldn’t bite me, I became extremely confused as to why that had been a possibility in the first place.

Mr. Powell once had us do an activity in which one student closed their eyes, and the other touched a part of their body very softly, to see if the first student could feel it. In a psychology class years later, I would recognize this as a test of our sensory thresholds. Another time, he turned off the lights and had us shine penlights on our fingers. “Why do you think it looks red?” The answer, of course, was that our fingers were full of blood.

Returning briefly to the subject of psychology, another lesson was given to me on one occasion when Mr. Powel was handing out toothbrushes. He asked the students to raise their hand if they wanted to pick one out, and as you can imagine, all the students shot their hands up and rushed in front of him. I employed the strategy of sitting in the back, raising my hand slightly, just enough so that he could see me. To my delight, the strategy worked, and he moved some arms out of the way to pick me. It was a triumph of my burgeoning theory of mind.

Mrs. Olibo is the last recognizable face on the page, and I remember her as a kind of tomboyish Amazoness. Looking at her picture, she reminded me of Xena the Princess Warrior. In all my memories of her she’s in the gym, which leads me to believe that she was the gym teacher, although this may be a case of selective memory primed by my characterization of her as an athletic woman. She also had a daughter in my class, Megan, who I liked, but whose talkative and self-confident demeanor was antithetical to my anxious self, so that she remained inaccessible to my social sphere.

The mechanical contraption mentioned earlier. Source

On the next page we find the 6th grade class, which numbers six students in total and which, along with the 5th and 4th grades, has been designated as the ‘Meteors’. The only student I recognize bears the name Emma, and I remember her as a kind and gentle person, whose eyes were always smiling.

Among the 5th graders I only remember one face, a certain Yasuhiro, from whom I learned the word sucks as an expression of discontent. But when I used it at home, it drew the irritation of my parents, ostensibly because of its close phonetic similarity to a more severe word. For that reason, Yasuhiro appears to me as a kind of Promethean figure, who gave me my first proper introduction to the world of expletives.

Among the 4th graders I recognize one face, that of Taegan, although I didn’t know her name at the time. It’s remarkable how Emma, Tasuhiro, and Taegan appear to be old to me as I look at them now, even though in absolute terms, they’re of course only in elementary school. It’s as if, in my mind, they’re still the same upperclassman who I used to look up to, and they will remain that way in my mind forever. It’s a testament to the fixedness of our conceptual categories, and their ability to influence our perspective, and in turn, our realities. Looking at the faces of those three children (and theirs alone), I really do get the sense that they’re still my senior.

The 3rd graders take us now to the new designation ‘Planets’, which is shared by the 2nd grade class as well. The face which immediately captures my attention is that of Randa, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, and the only student from ABC Stewart whom I’ve met grown-up. Her parents knew my parents, and in fact her family lived across a lake from us, so that we could see their house from our backyard. In her picture, a pair of denim overalls and a sincere smile mask what I know to be a bold and unflinching spirit. As young children, we used to play The Sims, and she also ushered in one of the major milestones on my path to manhood by showing me the music video to Fergie’s London Bridges. She also taught me my first Russian word, yabloko, which means apple, and she was always so tickled by how funny it sounded to her. Last I heard, she was studying political science, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up as an ambassador.

I was in the 2nd grade when this yearbook was printed. First on the list is a girl named Alexandra, who was first childhood crush, and occupied the girl-next-door archetype. She poses in her picture with a gentle, effortless smile.

Next to her is Alexei, a Russian-born child who was adopted late enough for him to retain an accent, and who was always going on about how he wanted to be a police officer. Next to him is Camber, a girl whose skillful drawings are some of the more enjoyable parts of my otherwise inpalatable Facebook feed. I’m proud to say that I saw the burgeoning of her exceptional talent when she was still making stick-figures in Mr. Owen’s class.

Next to her is Clay, the closest an elementary school can have to a jock. He was a devoted fan of the Dallas Cowboys. One memory in particular sticks out to me. After a teacher told us that we had one hour to do something or another, he turned to me confusedly and asked, “Is an hour a long time?” What has solidified the memory of this question in my mind after all these years is its utter ambiguity, which left me unable to answer it.

Next to him is Conner, who in looks and demeanor always resembled a middle-aged man, even during recess with a juice-box in his hands. Nonetheless, I always had a strong desire to befriend him, because in my mind he was the quintessential American, and I felt that, him being a representative for the culture at large, our friendship would signal my successful assimilation.

Then there’s Your Humble and Faithful Narrator, wearing a red, white, and navy shirt, smiling fondly at the camera, like it was a dear friend.

Next to me is Jay, which is fitting, because in terms of academic achievement I always felt that we were neck-and-neck. He was a soft-spoken and thoughtful kid. A memory involving him constitutes the first one I have of cheating on a test. During a spelling test, we were told to spell the word ‘eight’, but frustratingly, I could only bring to mind the past participle ‘ate’, which of course is only its homonym. So, in what I considered to be a very discreet move but which realistically wasn’t in the slightest, I looked over to his page to procure the correct spelling.

Next to Jay is Chris, the aforementioned kid who earned himself an invitation to my birthday party under duress. I cannot tell you why I had so much animosity towards him. I remember that he was fond of Scooby Doo, which ensured that I never so much as watched a single episode.

Then we have Meghan, daughter of the aforementioned Mrs. Olibo, and next to her is Parker, a kid who I always thought of as somewhat dumbwitted, owing to his inability to recite the multiples of 5 in Mrs. Finnel’s class, a task which which was considered, even by the most absent-minded students, to be something of a freebie.

On the last row we have Ricky, the class delinquent, whose brazen defiance of our teachers was always such an intriguing thing to me, since most of my self-worth was derived from following the rules and not breaking them. There was, frankly, something thrilling about it, and therefore despite the disdain which the teachers felt for him, he took on the figure of a dashing rebel in my mind, whose antics, although not supported by me, I nonetheless looked on with a quiet respect.

Next to him was Umar, and he was the closest I had to a best friend. He was the only other Muslim in the group, albeit a Pakistani one, a cultural difference vast enough to nullify any sense of commonality. We shared a fondness for Pokemon, and poking around an old Pokemon FireRed game in high school, I was delighted to find that my Charizard once belonged to him, as it bore his name as the original owner.

Finally we come to Wyatt, a thoroughly eccenric kid, offbeat but always the source of a good laugh, who my sister and her friends tormented with the refrain, “Be quiet, Wyatt” (among small children you will find the most efficient and brutal neologisms and turns of phrases, rivalling those of the most skilled poets and copywriters). True to his form, his picture is the only one different than the rest, having been taken at a different time and setting, and his face appears up closer, turning slightly away from the camera.

In the next couple of pages we see a group of kids under the heading ABC, which was the kingergarten class. Among them is my sister, who poses with a faint smile involving only the mouth and not the eyes.

Across from her we find a boy named Noor, yet another child of Syrian immigrants, who through no fault of his own is associated with a single unpleasant memory. His parents and ours were friends, and so for a couple days’ time that my mom spent at a hospital, my sister and I stayed at his house. It was a strange and stressful time, during which few explanations were given for our sudden rellocation, so for all the kindness that he gave us, our circumstances ensured that we didn’t find ourselves receptive to his hospitality.

Between these two children a second face is crossed-off, in the same style as the first, this one belonging to Alicja, Chris’s sister. It may have been my sister who did it, because Alicja was just as annoying to my sister as her brother was to me.

ABC Stewart gave me some of the fondest memories of my life. You cannot know how warmly I felt, as the child of foreign immigrants, to be accepted by my teachers and peers. I longed for a sense of belonging to a greater culture from which I always considered myself an outsider. ABC Stewart was the first place I got that sense of belonging, and was a sandbox which allowed me to experiment with my bicultural identity — an experiment which, in many ways, is still going on today.