In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.
Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.
Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.
My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?
Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.
In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.
Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.
At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.
Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.
There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.
Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.
Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.
Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.
My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.
My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.
As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.
You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.
The (bird)shit hit the fan.
I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )
I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.
Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.
Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .
Why couldn’t I be more like . . .
Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.
Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.
I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.