When I was in elementary school, there was nothing I wanted more than to be named student of the month. Every teacher up through the fourth grade at my school participated in this program, with each teacher choosing one student to honor each month. I can recall how antsy I was during every ceremony, waiting for the day the teacher would surely call my name.
I was a good kid, and a part of me always will be. To this day I can still recall, moment for moment, the one day I had my name written on the blackboard in kindergarten. I had been trying to get a pencil that rolled to the back of my desk and my teacher thought my groping around in the darkness of my table cubby was me pretending to play the drums. It remained the only mark on my career as the perfect student for a long time to follow.
In no manner was I unaware of the fact that I was a model student. I listened to my teachers, assisted other students when appropriate, cleaned up promptly and thoroughly, and I performed better academically than the vast majority of my peers–and I knew all of this. It was pretty easy for me to deduce that I would soon enough be awarded student of the month–I was an obvious pick.
In kindergarten, I spent the entire school year being passed over for other students who spent a lot of time doing what they weren’t supposed to do, but according to the teacher they had, “Recently shown great improvement in character.” I handled this well enough, as I knew that the very last student of the month was supposed to be special, reserved for the most exemplary student in the class. There was no doubt in my mind that it would finally be me.
But it wasn’t. The award went to a boy who had spent the first part of the year hitting children and smarting off to the teacher. Half-way through the school year, this little boy had some sort of a breakthrough and had reformed himself; thus, he was a model student and worthy of celebration.
In first grade, the same pattern presented itself yet again. Every month I agonized and squirmed and every month I was passed over. On the last day of school, I asked my teacher why I was never chosen and she told me, “Sarah, you are such a joy to have in class and you never give me problems, but you just don’t smile enough.”
For my second grade year, I made a resolution to smile more. Even when I did not understand what there was to smile about, I forced myself to bare my teeth. This lasted approximately two weeks, after which point I decided I looked stupid and my face hurt. Those two weeks of agony and embarrassment did not pay off; I was not student of the month that month.
Or any of the months to follow. I confronted my second grade teacher earlier in the year than I had confronted my first grade teacher. According to her, the reason she wasn’t picking me was because, “You’re too frowny for a little girl. You should try to be more bubbly.”
Bubbly. I associated this trait with the little girls who giggled a lot and batted their eyelashes and the cute boys in the class. The girls who would goad the boys into chasing them on the playground and twirl their skirts. I can recall laying in bed that night thinking it over; even if it would earn me my beloved award, I knew that bubbly was nothing I wanted to be.
The trend did not end in 3rd grade. At this point, I was not excited each month when the time came around. Instead, I approached each ceremony with bitterness and anger. Three years had been enough to teach me that the award did not celebrate being good or doing the right thing–it was a way to reinforce traits that appealed to the teachers in boys they deemed borderline and girls they deemed cute.
I did not confront my teacher that year. Instead, she sought me out one day during recess, after one of the ceremonies–I suppose I must have been extra frowny that day. What she told me was the same song, just a different singer.
She thought I was a great kid and she was thankful to have me in her class, but I was just too gloomy. I needed to be more outgoing, needed to have more fun. I needed to smile more and laugh more. She said that when I didn’t smile, I looked sick because of my pale skin and the darkness around my eyes.
It wasn’t about who I was, it was about how I appeared and who I pleased.
That day, I broke my good girl character. I looked at my teacher and said, “I’m sorry I am not one of the cute girls.” Then I walked away to play teatherball.
That year, on the last day of school, I was awarded student of the month. And I didn’t care.