Wednesday, July 14, 2004


One day I was called out of my third-grade class and sent to the office. No one saw fit to tell me why. I walked past the speculative gaze of my peers, out into the dusty hall -- the halls of my elementary school were always dusty, despite (or maybe because of) the janitors with their yard-wide mops, who seemed always to be listlessly sweeping them. So far as I could tell, what they did all day was to push the dust from one place to another.

Down the halls, my stomach feeling empty and queer. I stepped carefully over one of the lines of dust left by the mops, and went into the office.

The secretary directed me to the counselor's office. I didn't know the counselor -- a shy earnest youngish man -- but I could tell immediately that I wasn't in trouble. He explained to me that they were thinking of moving me up to fourth grade. First they had to give me some tests, to see if that was really the right thing to do.

That was a relief. I liked tests. He got out the colored blocks that you could make patterns with. "Oh, I like that one!" I said. He raised his eyebrows. I could have explained that my mother was a graduate student in psychology, and she, being the only one of her circle with kids, donated me whenever someone needed to give a kid an IQ test for an assignment. (This, you must remember, was the mid 1960's, and giving intelligence tests was something any grad student in psychology would be expected to know how to do.) But the idea that adults might need information from me was one I had not yet absorbed; whereas the negotiating leverage conferred by silence is apparently something that every ethnic Norwegian knows from infancy. I sat and waited. The young man, nonplussed, pulled out more intelligence tests, looking more and more desperately for one I wasn't familiar with. Finally he hit upon a vocabulary test. "I've never taken that," I said.

I exulted in my heart, because if there was one thing in this world I knew, it was words. I read constantly. There was a supposed two years' worth of readers in the back of my first-grade classroom; I had cruised through them in a month. The only naughtiness I commited in school -- I was very obedient and docile, as a rule -- was to slip science fiction books inside of my textbook, so that I could keep reading during class.

There was only one word I didn't know, on the test -- "ascend" -- and it was easy enough to guess, since I knew "descend." The counselor said that meant I had a college-level vocabulary. Apparently I was going into fourth grade next week.

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