I was ambidextrous as a child. When I first learned to write, I would write with my left hand until it grew tired, and then I’d switch and start writing with my right hand.
After a few weeks, the teachers at the public school I had recently started attending began to notice. They didn’t like it and told me to pick a hand and just write with that hand.
I heard them but didn’t understand, and anyway, I was always forgetting, so I kept doing it, at least until they got my parents involved.
My parents—and especially my mom—were hyper-vigilant about discouraging any behaviors of mine that they thought would be construed as odd, so they didn’t take the news well when they heard that I had been writing with both hands when I’d been expressly told not to.
But it wasn’t just this–the writing with both hands thing–that made my teachers and parents think I was weird. There were other things, too.
For starters, I couldn’t tell my left hand from my right one, which everyone else seemed to be able to do.
Also, I insisted on wearing the same pair of cowboy boots every single day, regardless of what else I was wearing, so I’d pair the boots with shorts, lacy dresses bought for me to wear to Sunday school, my softball uniform, or whatever else I happened to have on.
In second grade, I had started a new school. The class was divided into three reading groups, which were color-coded to distinguish them from one another. There was a blue group, yellow group, and a red group.
The rationale behind this, I think, was that the teachers didn’t want us to feel labeled based on our reading ability, but we did anyway because everyone knew the kids in the blue group couldn’t read, just as we knew the kids in the yellow group were average readers, and the red group was for the more accelerated readers.
I guess they didn’t know what to do with me because I was placed in the blue group. One boy in the blue group could not even say his letters. After a few days, they realized I could read, and they moved me to the yellow group.
I liked the kids in the yellow group better, especially a girl named Karen who became one of my few friends, but the books they were reading were “See Spot Run” books, the same ones I’d read in kindergarten.
Another week passed, and they put me in the red reading group and then, sometime during the following month, I was told I’d be tested for Target.
My mom, I could tell, thought this was a piece of good news. She glowed as she used the word “gifted,” when explaining this opportunity (as she called it), first to my dad and later to Nancy, our neighbor, and her friend.
All I understood was that if I placed into Target, then I’d have to leave the regular classroom for yet another reason. I already had to leave class once a week to go to speech therapy since I confused my “s” and “th” sounds.
On the day they tested me, they put me in a small room with a table and mirrors. There were Number 2 pencils on the table, and they told me they’d come back after a while to collect the test.
I answered the questions, which asked silly, easy questions like, “Which tree is taller?”
I don’t know how long it took me, but I finished the test and then just sat there for a while waiting for them to come and get me.
I wanted to draw and doodle with the pencils they’d left for me, but I knew that it would mess the test up if I marked on the Scantron.
I also thought about drawing on the table, but didn’t. Instead, I played with my hands and then twisted my earrings, things my mom always fussed at me for doing.
Finally, a teacher came to get me. She looked at me with an odd expression on her face and then took the test away.
I overheard this same teacher telling my mom later that day that I had finished the test too quickly, and that she was worried that I had spaced out instead of taking it seriously.
I didn’t know what she meant about taking the test “seriously,” but I did know what she meant by “spacing out,” which is something I heard a lot. “Earth to Christine,” they would say. “Are you spacing out, Christine?” the teachers would ask me.
“Did you space out?” my mom asked me that afternoon, as she drove me home from school. She’d recently quit smoking, but her small Chevy station wagon still smelled like cigarettes.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
I really wasn’t sure. I often had the feeling that I was sort of there and not there all at the same time.
I had a trick I’d learned, or rather, a technique I’d taught myself, where I’d withdraw into my mind.
First, I’d make myself very, very small and then I’d pull that little bit of me that was left deep in my mind.
I’d still be there enough to see what was going on, but I’d pull myself back so that I was more or less removed from whatever situation I was in. It was like I saw things through a thick window pane, or sometimes through a series of smaller window panes.
Before second grade—before I’d gone to this public school, which was in Marietta, Georgia—I’d gone to a different school across town.
I liked it better there because the teacher would let me do the workbooks at my own pace, and when I finished, she’d let me decide whether I wanted to do more work or whether I wanted free time.
I always finished the workbooks early; sometimes I’d ask for more work and other times I just wanted to play, which was okay with the teacher, who always smelled nice and smiled at me.
I could not stay at that school, though, because it was a private school, and my parents said we couldn’t afford it. The only way we were affording it to begin with is that my California grandparents—these were my mom’s parents—were paying the tuition.
Besides the cost, my mom said that I couldn’t stay there because she couldn’t drive me to and from school every day anymore, so I’d need to ride the bus some days. What’s more, I’d be letting myself into the house on certain afternoons, so she gave me a key, which she placed on a long chain-like necklace.
I was supposed to wear the key around my neck–underneath my shirt or sweater so no one could see it—on the days I was coming home to an empty house.
My mom, who’d stayed home with me as long as I could remember, would be starting back to work. She’d only be working part-time, but there’d still be afternoons when I’d spend some hours alone at the house.
On the chillier days, the metal of the key would feel cold against my chest as I’d walk from the school bus down the street toward the cul-de-sac where our house was. I felt both fear and pride as I’d let myself into the house, fix a snack, and then watch t.v. or read, waiting for her to come home.
She would normally arrive home well before my dad who commuted from our house in the suburbs to downtown Atlanta and then back home again.
One day they both arrived home at the same time, which was strange because it was winter, and it was still light out, so it must not have been that late in the day.
I could tell that something was wrong by the way they approached me.
My mom had cancer, they said, and she’d be having surgery at Northside, the nearby hospital. My grandfather had had lung cancer, and I sometimes watched soap operas, so I knew what cancer was.
I didn’t like hospitals. I’d had spinal taps and IVs when I was a younger child and still living in Virginia, and the smell of hospital cleanser and the sight of the antiseptic tile hallways made me think back to that.
My trick of making myself almost small enough to disappear only partly abated the dread I felt as I went in to see her for the first time after her surgery.
Just walking down the hospital corridor caused me to feel phantom pains along my spine as if my back wanted to remind me that I’d visited this sort of place before.
My dad had said I’d be able to see the stitches in her neck, but that didn’t prepare me for the glint of metal I saw. It looked like there was a zipper in her neck.
Seeing her like that, well the effect was that it felt to me like the person lying in the hospital bed was someone else — like it wasn’t really my mother.
Yet, at the same time, I knew it was her, and I understood, as well, that I was supposed to act normal, to act like nothing had happened or was happening.
Instead, I twisted my earrings with my fingers, making her cringe up at me.
She recovered enough to come home, but she had to get radiation therapy. Because she was trying to hold down her part-time job, her appointments were in the afternoons, so I’d be accompanying her several times when she went in to get her treatments.
We’d walk past the sign that read “Nuclear Medicine” into a sterile waiting room with leather chairs. I wasn’t allowed to go beyond the waiting room, so I’d wait there, flipping through magazines or coloring the pages the receptionist offered to me.
The ride there never bothered me, but I remember always getting car sick, sometimes to the point of vomiting, on the way back home after her treatments.
I was usually alone in the waiting room, but one day another kid was there. It was a boy who looked to be about ten years old. He was waiting for his mom, too.
He wanted to play a game where we dug our fingernails into each other’s hands to see who would cry “uncle” first.
I agreed. I had sharp nails and knew how to scratch. He told me to go first, so I did. I dug my nails into his hand as we both watched the second hand on an analogue clock tick. At nine seconds, he cried for me to stop and I did. I could see little red marks on his hand where my nails had left an impression.
Next, he sunk his fingernails into my left hand. I waited, without wincing, without making a sound. As the seconds ticked away, I silently drew myself up into a ball and imagined myself far away from it all. I didn’t even feel it as my hand started to bleed.
The receptionist, who’d been on the phone, must’ve seen what was happening, though, because she suddenly called for him to stop, to let go of my hand, and he did.
As he withdrew his hand from mine, I saw four little crescent moons full of blood on the top of my hand.
I was always surprised when other kids wanted to be friends, but that happened sometimes. Besides Karen, who’d play with me on the playground at school and invite me to her house to spend the night, I got to know a girl named Sarah. Sarah also had to go to speech therapy (she needed help with her “r” sounds), so she didn’t think it was weird that I had to go, too.
She was from a big family, so she couldn’t have friends over, but her neighborhood backed up to the subdivision we lived in, so she’d sometimes ride her bike or walk over to my street, and we’d play outside together.
I made friends with some boys my age, too. Close to the beginning of that same school year, a boy named Brandon passed me a note during class. I’d never been passed a note before, let alone from a boy, so I wasn’t sure what to do, but when the teacher wasn’t looking, I read it.
It said, “You are pretty. Will you go with me?” There was a drawing of a girl on the page (was it supposed to be me?) and there were three boxes, adjacent to them were the words “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.”
I checked the “Maybe” box and returned it to him after class.
During recess, he approached me and asked me why I’d checked “Maybe.” I told him I wasn’t sure what he’d meant in the note, and he said it just was to see if we’d be boyfriend and girlfriend. That sounded nice, so I agreed, and he took my hand in his.
Being boyfriend and girlfriend really just meant that we’d play at school together. I was quiet and would let him do the talking and decide what we’d play. He’d pick jacks or tag or sometimes we’d play four-square with other kids.
One day a different boy from our class came up to me and told me that he wanted to be my boyfriend instead. He said he knew the secret of Rubik’s cube, and he promised to tell me the secret if I agreed to be his girlfriend.
I agreed, and he let me hold his Rubik’s cube. My hands bunglingly twisted the squares on the cube.
That same year, I started taking piano lessons. My mom’s friend and our neighbor, Nancy, taught piano out of her house and my mom thought it’d be a good idea for me to learn.
The reading music part, which was supposed to be hard, was easy, but the playing part, which was supposed to be easy, was hard. My disorderly hands would wander over the keys and make strange sounds.
Some days, my mom was so sick that all she could do was lay on the couch, but as sick as she was, she liked hearing me play songs on the piano.
She hadn’t been eating like she was supposed to (I heard her and my dad arguing about it). She said she was too tired to eat. She also said she couldn’t taste the food anymore.
I knew she was supposed to eat even if she didn’t feel like it, so I made a deal with her: I’d play a song on the piano for her if, in return, she’d eat a few bites of food.
She agreed, so we’d pass the afternoons that way some days, my hands clumsily playing the piano and her, in return, eating a few bites of food.
She was so weak that I could see her hands shake when she lifted the food toward her mouth, but as long as she kept eating, I would keep playing songs for her.
Dr. Heather Duerre Humann teaches in the Department of Language and Literature at Florida Gulf Coast University. She is the author of one book, Domestic Abuse in the Novels of African American Women: A Critical Study, and she has published articles, essays, reviews, and short stories in African American Review, Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, South Atlantic Review, storySouth, Children’s Literature Association and elsewhere