Counting Obsessively

1st day of school

Me, happy to be headed to the 2nd grade. Bob not sure about Kindergarten. He did well.

In the third grade, I began counting manically. I was eight years old and had attended eleven schools. There was no kindergarten when I was four years old. We lived on “the eastern shore” as Mom called it. Dad told me it was Chinquoteague Island, where the horse Misty lived. I loved that book and it wasn’t until I was twenty that Dad admitted we hadn’t lived on the island.

However, we’d taken ferry boats from the shore in North Carolina to an island for picnics. I could read pretty well, due to Mom reading stories to my brother and me. At one point, she demanded, “You learn to read! I don’t have time to sit and tell you stories over and over again.”

So before I started the first grade, I could read simple sentences like “cows eat grass.” Mom went to the principal of the tiny local school and convinced him that I’d do well in first grade. I was given a chance and excelled in the little school-house with small class populations.

We moved soon after that, to Florida. There, my mother and father argued that since I’d already begun the first grade, it would demolish my joy to be put back into kindergarten. The principal relented and I did very well, as I continued to do through until the second third grade in Ohio.

The first was in Indiana, my birth state. I loved the teacher and everything about school there. I was good at math (!!) and composition, deportment and my report card said “gets along well with others.” I got all “Es” for Excellent at that school.

So it was a shock to do poorly at my second third grade. The teacher was snappish. On every assignment, she wrote things like “failure to follow directions.” When required to sign one of my reports cards, Dad wrote “I do not think Dixie understood the assignments.”

Now I understand why I began my obsessive counting. It was a way to cope with failure in school, formerly a happy place for me.

I’d add up the numbers in a street address. 247 Meadow Lane was 2+4+7= 13. That was bad luck. But 434 Acorn Street was 11 which ended up as 1+1= 2. A good number. It meant that you had a friend. Two people.

I’d sit in class, counting how many steps the teacher took from her desk to the blackboard. As she was writing instructions in chalk, I’d figure out the calculations. Why six steps in the morning but four in the afternoon? Did that mean she was tired in the early hours but eager to get the day over nearer to three o’clock?

She’d call on me and I’d be lost in math.

Dixie! Did you even pay attention to what I asked?”

I’d look on the blackboard. Something in cursive about “use each kind of punctuation in a short story.” Quickly, I wrote in cursive “The good dog, a brown one; was chased by a fox. But Oh! Can foxes swim? No—I do not think so.”

The teach strode over, fourteen steps to my desk, and read my story for the entire class. She accentuated the punctuation marks. Laughter.

As I walked to the school each day, my head swam with numbers, laughter, strange instructions from the teacher. I was lost.

Decades later, I told my mother that I had clear memories of all my schools except for the third grade in Ohio.

That’s because of that asinine principal and your mean teacher.”

What do you mean?”

You were six years old, we’d moved to Ohio from Indiana. You’d done so well. All excellents on your report cards from all your schools. Six first grades. Three second grades and another third. I took you in, like always, to meet the principal. Your other principals had been so friendly. This one said ‘she’s going to have a lot of trouble keeping her grades up in My school. I hold students to the highest possible standards.’ You were so scared, you were shaking walking to your classroom.

You came home crying because the teacher had reprimanded you for holding your hand up too often. Two weeks later, the principal called me on the phone and said ‘I guess I should apologize. Your daughter is doing quite well here.’ I said ‘Apologize to Dixie!’”

I don’t recall an apology from either the principal or my teacher. But I have blocked out that entire school experience.

I was born to super OCD parents, both of them cleaning all the time and keeping everything ship-shape. Books arranged squarely. The entire house or trailer or motel room dusted, floors mopped every day, bathrooms so clean you could eat off the toilet (ew!) and all of us kids taught how to shine shoes and scrub counter-tops hygienically.

So of course, there is a familial tendancy toward OCD. Also, I’ve read the literature on the brain disorder, including this one.  “Hyperactivity in certain subcortical and cortical regions occurs in the brains of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. On the basis of imaging studies, Insel proposed that inappropriately increased activity in the head of the caudate nucleus inhibits globus pallidus fibers that ordinarily dampen thalamic activity. The resulting increase in thalamic activity produces increased activity in orbitofrontal cortex, which, via the cingulate gyrus, completes the circuit to the caudate and produces increased activity in the head of the caudate.” (Stanford Medicine Journal online)

But it was that scary, frowning principal that made me start counting as if my life depended it.

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