If You Think Failing Art in First Grade is Bad...

There was something else before that, and I wrote about it at the recent writing workshop. Because it started out as therapy for my eyes only, it's an untidy piece of writing, and then we were to read one piece in front of others, so I had to put in more details about the US for my Kiwi audience. I haven't been able to tidy this up because I can't decide for whom I'm writing, but it's all true. You think I have problems, it stems partially from a very bad start in my academic life.

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In Japan, children start school in April preceding their seventh birthday, or in the April the child turns seven if the child’s birthday is in April. I would have started school in April 1965 if I were in Japan, but my parents planned to stay in the US, so I was scheduled to start school in September 1964. In the early months of that year, only vaguely aware of the shocking assassination of a prince-president and knowing nothing of the war in Asia, I blissfully attended Casa Elizabeth Seton, a picturesque Catholic kindergarten in Tucson, Arizona. I loved making pictures, singing songs and doing the may pole dance. I fought with Michelle Lupo in the back of my mother’s black and white 61 Chevy until Mother stopped the car and told the two of us to "Get out and walk the rest of the way home!" I could say my alphabets and knew how to spell half a dozen words, and I was learning a little bit of Spanish. And for some reason, my Dad was mighty proud of his little girl being two-and-a-bit-lingual.

Abruptly in August 1965, for reasons I was unaware of at the time, my parents decided to return to Japan. That summer, my loving and well-meaning aunts and uncles bought me American picture books, which I don’t know where they purchased back in those days, sat me amidst my cousins, some of whom didn’t remember who I was and waited for me to read the books out loud. I felt the expectation unreasonable; I hadn’t started school, so why should I know how to read? But I felt my much older cousins impressed with this stranger possessing powers beyond her years, so I had to step up. I can still recall their round faces caging me in, huge round eyes staring, everybody holding their breath in awe.

I would open the book, glance at the page, close the book again knowingly, and retold the story in Japanese, because “You all wouldn’t understand it if I read it to you in English, would you, and why do you need to look at the pictures when I’m telling you what the story is all about!” I carried the mounting pile of books obligingly everywhere I went, making sure they knew that I was the gifted one.

It was a torturous, humid summer, being the center of the clan’s hot tiny universe. Cousins from afar stayed at my grandparent’s house and the rest lived at the end of the street. This was the start of their summer break, and they set their naked childish curiosity on me. So everybody got together every single day, and I took upon myself to carry the burden of the main attraction for their summer break. To my great relief, however, the Tokyo Olympic Games started mid-August, and my cousins’ interest in me waned, and I found a comfortable spot being just one of the grandkids in front of my grandfather’s television.

My parents must have been relieved the timing of our return was not disruptive to the commencement of my academic career, as there was plenty of time to enroll me in a respectable “mission” school. Prior to the entrance exams and interviews to my mother’s Alma Meta, and its smaller but academically superior sister school in October, my parents were instructed not to teach me reading, writing and arithmetic by the schools, so my inclinations and potentials could be accurately assessed during the screening. And like idiots, they obeyed.

When my prestigious school finally started the following April, I discovered that everybody in class could read Japanese fluently. That, I understood immediately and felt appropriately miserable. But these girls could do more, something else entirely beyond my comprehension. Mr Eto would ask the class to sing the first line, and my class mates duly chirped, “doh, doh, so, so, la, la, so”, and I did not know if I was on the same page or even the book as the rest of the class. It took me a few weeks to learn that they were reading the funny little black and white dots, some with tails, some without, hanging in every which way like laundry on clothes line. These girls were reading music.

Thus my academic career started with a solid, unshakable mutual understanding by both my teachers and myself that I was not a chosen one, and in a matter of eight months, at age 7 years few weeks, I had been transformed from being two-and-bit-lingual, to illiterate in three different languages.


  1. I want to snuggle up with that little 7 year old and start reading books. Books from Mexico and Japan and Brazil and England and Holland. Let her learn languages and places at her own pace. Explore the world from a cozy safe corner of the universe. And before you know it she will be soaring about the universe finding more and more fascinating things with every step and conversation.

    Oh, but you've already done that Meg, you just had to be brave and do it yourself.

    Perhaps you should find a seven year old, teach her your secret and help her uncover the joys of reading?

    Here is one of my *favorite* inspirationally artistic blogs. I think you will like today's entry about artist Arthur Simo

  2. That 7-year-old certainly learned quickly to fend for herself. I'd say she became much too precautious; Mama thought she was much too spoiled when she was 3 and 4 and 5 and 6.

    I see a kid with a soft marshmallow face on her first day of school in the class pic, and something inside her changed kind of quickly in the first few months. I can't remember much; I don't even remember if I liked school.

    Compared to young Arthur, I sure had no legitimate outlet for my fears/anger/frustration/whatever. And my sister was born 5 months before I started school, so Mom pretty much had no time for me.

    Boy, my dark ages, eh, Lynne.

  3. Gee, I'm really feeling sorry for my 7-year-old self now. I never thought of that time, except I was getting on with my new life. And because I was a big sister, I wasn't allowed to show fear, etc., because it would inconvenience Mama. Then of course when I started Junior High, my brother was born and that was a mix of elation and abandonment... I wrote about that, too.

    Oh, no, I don't want to fall into THAT hole...


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