I always find it strange when I hear people say that their earliest memory is something like their first Christmas as a baby. Or any sort of insanely early memory from those first few years of life. I was not blessed with that kind of brain. In fact, the very first vivid memory I can recall is of Nova Elementary School in the spring of my second grade year.
I guess it’s entirely possible that I have memories earlier than the second grade. After all, I know I won an art contest for drawing a spaceship pretty early on, and I remember my spaceship was placed on the curved school wall along with the fifth grade art winners. You know – the big kids. I think that was before second grade (maybe even kindergarten). But I’m not sure I’d call it a “memory.” It’s just an image, really, of that spaceship on the wall. And a moment of feeling truly proud of myself for the first time. I don’t remember receiving an award. There’s no story that goes along with it, and I kinda feel like memories should tell stories or else they’re just “moments” or “images.” In fact, if I really think about it, there’s a few things I can remember from preschool, too. One is of sitting around a television watching the Challenger shoot into space and then explode. Again, no story. Just an image and feelings of confusion.
But what makes the second grade my “earliest memory” is that I know for a fact it was the second grade; it’s the earliest memory I can put a date on, and more importantly, it’s a full-fledged event: a story – not just a “moment” or some feeling I recall – etched in time in my brain. It was Mrs. Roebuck’s very decorative second grade classroom. I know it was spring, because I remember the smell of the freshly cut grass, the warm weather, and the excitement in the air that the school year was ending.
Mrs. Roebuck had a relatively standard way of dealing with discipline known by most elementary children as the “card system.” Now, my guess is that the card system was and still is the best way to deal with discipline, but in case it’s not as common as I believe it to be, I’ll provide a brief explanation. On one of the bulletin boards, not far from the multi-colored alphabet or the “four seasons” board, there was a list of every student’s name in the class, and each student had his or her own cardboard slot filled with green, yellow, red, brown, and black cards. As you can imagine, green was the “good” card. It meant you weren’t in any trouble at all. Yellow was a warning. Red meant that you’d lost a privilege of some kind and were in some form of trouble. Brown meant that you were probably being sent to the principal’s office. And black? Well, no one had ever made it to black. Black was so bad, so unimaginable that we didn’t know what happened if you were ever given a black card.
The real brilliance of the card system was the shame it evoked. If you got in trouble, Mrs. Roebuck made you “pull” your own card. And something as simple as getting a red card could really harm your self-esteem. You wanted to be liked by your teacher and your classmates, and for some weird reason, the card system played into how you felt about that.
One day, we lined up and headed off to lunch, and when we returned for nap time, we walked into the class to the sight of complete horror. Every single card had been pulled in our absence to black. What started with a few people gasping and yelling, “They’re all black! All our cards are black!” ended up with the entire class in tears and begging Mrs. Roebuck for her forgiveness. What did we do to deserve this? And what did it mean? There was a panic in the air, as though it was possible our lives were ending, as though the third grade wouldn’t come. I could say that I remember Mrs. Roebuck trying to calm us down and telling us it was a mistake. But I don’t. All I remember is the immediate shame that overwhelmed us. If our cards were all black, we had to have done something wrong.
I’m a big believer that the memories that stick with us tell a story about how we became the people we become. I don’t really know what those black cards and the shame that came with him – the unwarranted shame – says about who I am, but carrying shame is so innately human, is it not? So early on, we’re conditioned to recognize that we are subject to good and evil with rewarding and damaging consequences for our actions, but sometimes, those consequences don’t always match the actions. Sometimes, life turns out so opposite of how good our actions or intentions were; a bit like Job’s friends searching for whatever crime he committed to earn divine punishment, and yet, we can be punished for absolutely no reason at all. The way we carry around shame, it’s as if we always need to understand why something bad happens when there may be no reason at all. Life’s randomness doesn’t stop us from carving some meaning out of it even when there isn’t any.
It’s time to learn that some black cards are handed to us for no reason at all. I guess if I wanted to be thoroughly Augustinian, I could say that we all deserve black cards, because hey, we’ve all done something wrong at some point, and while I think he’s right, you know, that we’re all depraved, I don’t think we should live our lives carrying the shame of the black cards everywhere we go. We should live our lives like we want to believe in the green cards. Or as though there aren’t any cards at all but variations of the green card, because it’s not about earning it. It’s just about trying. And accepting the hand you’re dealt.
That’s my earliest memory.