In the fifth grade I was selected to join the elite Gifted and Talented class at Pine Grove Elementary. It was like going to prep school without the uniforms, a mini pre-Ivy League program for upper to middle class kids in public school on the East Coast. My family recently moved to an affluent neighborhood on Old Carriage Road, the address tells the story, it was a Martha Stewart-esque part country farm, part urban yuppie haven for doctors, lawyers and high-salaried white collar professionals in Northen Maryland. There, we were a Korean version of the “Beverly Hillbillies” (a comedic show from the 60’s about poor country folk who suddenly became rich).
We had a broken down, white ice cream parlor truck, (which belonged to my Fourth Aunt’s unemployed boyfriend) on our front lawn. It was parked on the dying grass, in full view of our neighbors, next to a rustic, wooden fence, that reminded me of the hurdles that prized thoroughbreds leaped over, but the wood was worn down by thunder and showers until it looked like sea wreckage, it was overflowing with yellow and white honeysuckle flowers buzzing with sun dazzled bees. The opposite fence that lined the driveway was blossoming with pale peach and white fragrant roses. In the front lawn there were several pink and fushia azalea bushes, a stout apple tree with misshapenly fat, lusciously juicy, sweet light yellow apples. Our multi-acred backyard was in wild disarray, blooming voraciously with dandelions and sun drenched buttercup flowers, which reflected naturally glowing sunlight through the skin of it’s petals when pressed to our sun warmed chins.
I was gifted and talented only in reading, writing and art. I read “Jane Eyre” for the first time when I was eight, then I read “Pride and Prejudice”, “Wuthering Heights” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” all before I reached puberty, but my math skills were barely passable. I had embarrassing difficulty with basic addition and subtraction while the rest of the class was advancing through algebra, I was still secretly counting with my fingers. I had a kind of dyslexia with numbers, I often reversed the order of the sequence. I think my brain was trying to race ahead of itself, for instance if I was trying to write the number 56, I’d write 65. This was especially a challenge when I later worked as a receptionist, I kept writing the wrong phone numbers down. I was lucky to have a boss who was dating a brilliant but absent-minded girlfriend, he understood that you could be an articulate genius with language but be absolutely inept with numbers.
The fifth grade Gifted and Talented class was my least favorite time in Elementary School, but Mr. Sunell was the best teacher I ever had in childhood. He knew how to inspire learning through interesting, innovative methods. He used humor expertly and had a class mascot called Mona, which closely resembled “Chucky” (the infamous rubber doll from an absurd 80’s horror movie). He animated Mona, gave her a ventriloquist voice and later painted her face a bright witchy green to surprise us on Halloween. Mr. Sunell knew how to entertain us and kept us motivated with candy and chocolate prizes, a pool party and a Baltimore Orioles baseball game grand prize that we celebrated at the end of the year.
Pine Grove was a modern, open-styled school which meant that there were no doors or walls between classes. It was a strange and novel idea that ultimately didn’t work. Because there weren’t walls, the noise from every teacher and student was audible everywhere. We each had plastic tray-like bins that we carried from class to class, I think the idea of this was to have a portable desk, but that idea was also impractical. But Mr. Sunell’s G & T class was one of the few classes had it’s own enclosed classroom with an actual door. We were separated from the rest of the students; we studied, ate lunch and had recess on our own schedule. We lived in our own sheltered bubble of giftedness.
I’ve never liked exclusivity though and felt the loneliness of being different both at home in our gorgeously affluent neighborhood, (where our immigrant roots were glaringly obvious) or at school with the G & T class I couldn’t fit in. I was the one Asian in the class, I couldn’t afford the expensive preppy polo shirts with the tiny alligator Izod brand patch at the left corner. My mother shopped at Kmart, a discount store that sold knock-off, imitation versions of clothes. Instead of the alligator logo my shirt had a penguin! The girls wore hand-woven friendship: bracelets, barrettes and pins, which they traded and gifted to each other; but I wasn’t part of their friendship circle. Both the boys and girls were into sports but I was uncoordinated, afraid to catch the ball so it often hit my face or hurt my hands. The kids laughed and wouldn’t pick me for their teams so I disappeared into my own mind with fantasy books like the “Chronicles of Narnia” and “D’aulaire’s Book of Greek and Norse Mythology”. I journaled, read what I could find of interest at the library and I began writing poetry. Being excluded gave me the space to carve out a resilient, individualistic personality, it was the silver lining to the hidden rainbow that would emerge much later, from the ominous clouds that hovered over a childhood full of unpredictable violence. Not belonging saved me from the ordinariness of conformity.