Bringing Brainy Back

Originally posted on Medium | June 30, 2020


2021-07-07 11 min read

I missed the single most important moment of the millenia to work on an essay for my 7th grade science class. I was working on this paper so hard, so diligently, so intently, so creatively that I only slightly turned to hear the roar of shock and awe that erupted from the living room that fateful Sunday afternoon. I was pouring my heart into this paper so laboriously that I had not even heard a whisper about what happened until I was at school the next day. Clutching my double-spaced, Times New Roman-ed masterpiece, I walked into class to everyone abuzz with the tasty nectar of gossip. Curious to know what I possibly could have missed while writing the best 7th grade, two page essay on ___(I don’t remember) ever written, I sidled up to a couple of friends only to discover, with intense FOMO-ific horror, that during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, live on technicolor TV, Justin Timberlake pulled off Janet Jackson’s top, exposing her booby to the world.

I completely missed this groundbreaking moment. And for the next two weeks this was all that everyone was talking about. People were imitating the pull on the bus. Kids around me started the conspiracy theory that it was all planned: How could you even pull off a top that tight? She had a pasty, so obviously she was expecting it. 12 year olds lamenting the innocence that haloed JT was now gone. And here I was, pop cultureless, because I had spent my evening locked away HAPPILY working on this paper. What a sham!

But the real disappointment happened two weeks later when we were getting our papers returned with grades. Typically these moments were my favorite part of the school day. Sitting in eager expectation, waiting to see where the red ball point strokes fell on the page. And even better, now that we were in middle school we got LETTER grades. I was eager to see what grade I had received on this epoch of a paper. I was last to receive mine. It was at the bottom of the pile and I remember this because I had to wait so.very.long to get it returned to me.

You never want to see a long string of handwriting accompanied with your grade. It’s never good. Middle school is the big time. The only time you receive a written statement on your classwork is when something bad has happened. A “see me after class”-esque notice, if you will. Teachers don’t have the time to write, “You’re amazing! Great job! I really liked your use of clip art in this glorious piece of work!” Not anymore. Things were serious now. But I saw the line of text gracing the top of the page as the paper floated down to my desk.

The first thing I reacted to was the B-. Which sent lightning through my veins. Excuse me?! I put my blood, sweat and tears into this. I missed a damn boob plop for this. On what grounds, Madam?! ON WHAT GROUNDS? The next thing I read was the message next to the offensive B. “Good paper, but it seems like it was plagiarized. [And then the inevitable] See me after class.”

I was more afraid than I was angry. Being asked to stay after class was akin to being arrested for armed robbery in my book. (And my book had a flair for the dramatic, clearly.) I was instantly nervous, palms sweaty, mom’s spaghetti and all. It didn’t even occur to me that I had the right to be indignant. I just felt like I was in trouble and apparently I was. But for what? I remember thinking I didn’t even know how to plagiarize. I remember thinking that plagiarism would require me to first obtain an essay about ______ (again, don’t remember) and then copy and paste it. But how would I do that with my dial up connection? How would I go about searching for this? ((Keep in mind that this was a simpler time, before 12 year olds had smartphones and before kids figured out they could get away with bloody murder from behind the keys of their hot pink iMac desktops. We still used books. And we walked 50 miles to school everyday, while listening to In Da Club on our Walkmans, etc., etc.))

I was still at a loss for words when I walked up to the teacher’s desk. I wondered why she thought I was a cheater. Did she always think this about me? I hated that I did something wrong in her eyes, since all I wanted to do was impress her with that paper. Did she even know what prime time televised phenomenon I sacrificed for this? I was also confused about what our conversation would entail. She already said she thought it was plagiarized. What am I supposed to do? Fight back? She’s the teacher. That’s not the natural order of things. What move did I have here?

I reached her desk and instead of saying anything I just held my paper up to her with a questioning face. She nonchalantly looked up and asked, “Did you copy this from somewhere?”

If I was physically capable of blushing it would be happening then. “No…” I said, still confused.

She shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like your words.”

“I wrote it myself.”

“Okay. Well it really doesn’t seem like it.”

And that was it. She sent me on my way and I left, feeling better because I wasn’t in trouble. But while walking to the schoolbus I still felt like something was wrong. No one else had to stay after class to talk to her. She also didn’t explain to me what exactly “seemed” plagiarized. Also, there was the issue of the B-, which, perhaps, was the biggest issue for me at the time. The biggest injustice I could have experienced in those days was a “low” grade. I pulled the paper out of my backpack while on the bus ride home and didn’t see any marks in the rest of the paper. Just a misplaced commas circled here and there ((my, lifelong, issue)), but no notes or edits or question marks or anything to indicate that there was something wrong with my paper.

I’m sure I told my mom about this. I’m sure she was probably outraged about this. I’m sure she probably even called the teacher. But I don’t remember that part. ((Apparently, neither does she. I just asked her about it and she literally got re-defensive and ready to fight someone. “She did WHAT?!”)) No, I don’t remember what happened afterwards. I just remember that I became so wary after that day. And now I’m always wary that someone thinks I’m cheating.

I have gone grocery shopping, paid, put my things in bags, and then I realize I’ve forgotten to buy something. A couple of times I have gone back into the aisles, with my shopping bags, to grab that last item and go back to the checkout. This act fills me with an anxiety like no other. I’m just on guard waiting for the security guard to body search me, accuse me of treason and make a public example of me. This is why I have purses filled to the brim with old receipts. I actively think, everytime I leave a store, where is my receipt just in case someone asks me if I actually bought my groceries? It’s an additional item on the PKW check. Phone? Yep. Keys? Got em. Wallet? Right here. Proof of innocence? Check! We can go now.

I have bred into me this idea that I will be accused of things I have not done. I am constantly second-guessing myself. I have written songs that I thought were pretty nice, but then I will spend nights awake trying to ascertain if I have just subconsciously taken the song from someone else. And then, after wracking my brain to see if I’ve heard the melody somewhere else before, I search my lyrics across the internet in case I haven’t stolen those from somewhere too. One time, I redacted a song of mine from Soundcloud because I heard a song on the radio with similar lyrics to mine. It didn’t matter that I posted my song years before the radio song had been released. It didn’t matter that they were completely different songs. I shuddered at the notion of someone happening to listen to my song and thinking, “What a hack. She stole this song.”

The year before the plagiarism accusation, I sat in a science class, with the same geek energy as exemplified by the aforementioned paper-writing process. The class was arranged into group seating, with 4 students at each table. I sat next to a girl, we’ll call her Amelia, mainly because I don’t remember her name. During one of our first tests in the class, while I was happily doodling punnet squares on my paper, I felt a pair of beady Amelia eyes peering at me. I looked up and saw that it wasn’t me she was looking at; it was my test. She quickly looked away. Hmmm maybe I was just imagining that. She probably wasn’t even looking at my paper, I innocently thought. Who cheats these days, anyway? In this economy?!

But I kept noticing her looking over. It was actually quite blatant. She didn’t give any fucks. She was even craning that Amelia-ass neck of hers. So I slammed my arm down on the desk and cradled my precious Mendelian scribbles, protecting them from this dragon the plebeians call Amelia. She continued to try and look at my answers! The gee dee NERVE, Amelia! Also, the little nerdling that I was probably got more upset about this occurrence than I needed to be, because, boy was I fuming. Adult me kinda wants to tell this child to chill. But let’s validate her anger for the sake of the story, shall we?

I kept my emotions bottled while I finished my test. I got to that level of kid-feelings when you’re on the verge of tears, but you don’t know why and you can’t control it. ((Actually, that’s also a late-twenties feeling too. Probs gonna be a mid-forties feelings thing as well, at the rate I’m going.)) At the end of class, I went up to my teacher and told her that Amelia was cheating off of my test. Her response could have come from a number of places. Maybe this teacher was having a particularly long day. Which, teaching 6th graders all day, I assume was everyday for her. Maybe she already had ongoing issues with Amelia. I know I sure would if I had to teach that heathen. Who knows what the cause was, but I was crestfallen when I received this exasperated response:

“Don’t be a tattletale! It’s fine! She probably just needed some help.”

Now, again, I was more upset about the fact that I had somehow managed to upset my teacher than I was about the fact that Amelia had gotten away with Dahmer-level crime and even left DNA at the scene. I already had received this tattletale mini-lecture in the 4th grade, Teach, thank you very much. ((To be fair, John S. should NOT have been jumping as high as he could to hit the door threshold, but okay, point to you; I am not the door threshold police. I get it now.)) I didn’t have a tattling policy at home. If you were doing something wrong, it was wrong. And if you were doing something wrong, especially when you knew it was wrong, then you received rightful punishment. But I had learned my lesson. I learned that sometimes doing things at school didn’t get you in trouble like it would at home. Especially if those schools were full of white teachers and your home was full of Black people and immigrants. (Okay, just two of those. And “those” being my parents.)

This time was different than the previous tattling times. I wasn’t the one doing the wrong thing. The Cheating Amelia was. AND she was doing that wrong thing to me. And the teacher was now mad at me; me, the one who experienced the harrowing ordeal. Somehow her cheating and me having an issue with it made ME the monster that was keeping this poor, sweet girl from receiving the help she so desperately needed. I was still mad, but there was after-school pizza waiting for me, so, like many traumatic events in my life, I repressed the occurrence under the comfort of something hot and cheesy.

But now I think about Amelia and this forgotten-named, 6th grade science teacher and I think about what she was REALLY saying to me: Don’t you have enough? You have good grades. Be thankful for what you have and stop complaining. Why are you asking for more? No one is taking anything away from you and you’re spoiled for even bringing it up. You’re further along than anyone expects of you, so calm down, you uppity, insolent turd. Or something along those lines, but definitely in the “uppity” realm. My experience, my education, and my achievements didn’t matter. Me wanting to be smart and wanting to do well was a bother to her. Repeat: my desire to learn and do well was BOTHERING my educationally licensed TEACHER. And this other child, this child that couldn’t be bothered to try, deserved more consideration than me.

I used to think the imposter’s syndrome kicked in once I started working in an office. That’s probably because all my lady coworkers started circling around articles and think pieces about it. And I was amused to see there was a name for feeling like a gaslighted piece of shit all the time. But, no, I think it began before office life. I think the seed was planted in these small instances between teacher and student. I was being trained to believe that I was wrong. And that was a lesson so easy to learn.

When I was accused of plagiarizing I was being taught that I’m not supposed to do well, that it looks suspicious. I was being taught there are low expectations for me; that there are lower expectations for black girls and god forbid you try and rise above them. And since then I have always been met with low expectations. From when people say I’m articulate, as if it’s a surprise that someone who looks like me talk English good. Or when I was in college and upon learning this knowledge, kind, elderly Minnesotans I met would say, “Oh, good fer you!?” with a look of surprise on their faces, as if they had already counted me out of the running for a secondary education. And when I was presented with simple tasks in the workplace and told to “stay in my lane” when I offered to contribute more of my skills.

This is not to say that I haven’t had amazing mentors who have supported me and pushed me to work harder and think bigger. Even the small gestures of teachers along the way make a huge distance in a society that doesn’t expect me to amount to much. For instance, when I was in 3rd grade I got called out of class by, of all people, my first grade teacher. I actually thought she missed me and wanted to see me. You know, a casual, midday teacher-3rd grader hang. But no. I had taken it upon myself to do all of my brother’s homework and his teacher, who was the same teacher I had two years before, knew immediately. I felt the burn of disappointing a teacher creep up in me, but she told me I wasn’t in trouble, but that I had to give my brother a chance to do his own homework or he wouldn’t be able to learn like I had. And I don’t know if this is a result of that incident or not, but within that same year I was enrolled in a program for students with too much time/energy on their hands, where I got to exercise my exploring brain in the comfort of other like-minded meddlers and sophists. I wholeheartedly believe that taking notice of and nurturing someone’s potential is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

I never missed another Super Bowl Halftime Show after the JT and Janet year. But nothing exciting never happened again. Unless you count Left Shark. Which, actually, now that I think about it, I do. I absolutely do count Left Shark. The whole country came together over Left Shark. What a beautiful pre-2016 existence we were all living. And much like Left Shark, sometimes me being my best self is gonna look like I’m breaking the rules. But if I’m given my one shot to go out there and dance, you best believe I’m going to dance the best I ever have.

Originally posted on Medium.

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