I went to morning kindergarten when I was 4. I was one of those late birthday kids who got in just under the wire. I brought with me my huge imagination and my giant lack of social skills around other children. My teacher, Ms. Susan, was a very sweet lady who could play the piano. I lucked out in that she totally knew what she was getting herself into with me.
Back when I thought I was a wolf and pooped on the neighbor’s lawn? That neighbor was her sister.
The first day, we all sat on the floor in a circle and introduced ourselves. We had to say our name, what time we went to bed, our favorite food, and one thing we would like to do when we were grown up.
My name is Holly. I go to bed at 13 o’clock. I like Ravioli. I want to marry Lurch from The Addams Family.
That was all true except the bedtime. It has been said that children are honest. No, they lie. As we went around the circle, the bedtimes started at 8 p.m. and then got later and later. Kids were already trying to outdo their classmates. The last three before me said that their bedtimes were 12 o’clock. I could totally play this game. 13 o’clock for me!
I already knew my letters and numbers and how to draw. Art and music and playing outside and playing inside and naptime was all right with me. There were so many new things to explore. They became familiar and old quickly because I understood them already. I played alone for the most part.
I did not make any new friends. I would go back home and immediately retreat into conversations with Lion and Snappy. These were my stuffed toy cats. I would hide in the blue bedroom and lie on the floor and draw girls in long dresses who ruled their own countries with neither a prince nor human subjects. Queens, wise and beautiful, would keep the land safe and the animals safe. And Lurch would be their butler. I loved him, but someone had to help clean up after the animals.
I was not allowed to have animals. I was not allowed to play outside or get dirty. I read and reread all the books my grandparents bought me, even The Charlie Brown Dictionary series. I started learning to play their old Sears Silvertone organ and got pretty good at it.
They wanted to keep me safe. They had rescued me. I was their responsibility. They had the best intentions, but I was already heading toward the deep shadows. I was already isolated and too quiet and friendless. Then I started getting sick.
Deprived of sunlight and exercise and friends and animal contact, I quickly became a chubby, sickly kid. I ran fevers, vomited, slept a lot, missed school.
Every two to three weeks, they took me to the pediatrician. The same man who had told my mother that I “just had a big imagination.” I was never told what exactly was wrong with me. But every trip ended in a painful shot in the ass, ten days of nasty pink amoxicillin doses and a Filet-o-Fish from McDonald’s.
They must have thought it was a reward, a treat for going through the pain. Fish was healthy, right? Fat kids shouldn’t eat all that red meat. My grandparents did not go out to eat. My grandfather ate Swanson Friend Chicken dinners and canned peaches. My grandmother ate salmon patties and pickled onions. Ninety percent of the time, I ate Spaghetti O’s or Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.
I didn’t want a Filet-o-Fish. I just wanted to play outside. I just wanted to feel good.
Decades later, I found an old ledger they kept of how they spent my dad’s death benefits for my care. Alvie and Lillian wrote down every penny. They were terrified that the state might take me away if they did something wrong with the money. My heart hurt for them in their fear and desperation to keep me. But I also felt this rising tide of anger because they systemically ruined my immune system. The pattern of pharmacy and McDonald’s receipts and the calendar marked with missed school days and doctor’s appointments mapped out my young life. Every three weeks, in Lillian’s loopy cursive, three lines repeated:
Tingleff Pharmacy – Amoxicillin
My world was so small. I tried so hard to fill it with imagination and music and drawings. But I was reaching the edges of their universe, driven into the shadow of autistic behaviors. I had come to that place on the map where all the sketch lines fade to a blank page. By the time I was five, I felt both trapped and lost.
In 1974, no one had ever heard of the autism spectrum or “stimming” (self-stimulating behavior). My stimming was a direct response to feeling lost and disconnected. I didn’t sit in a corner or bang my head or flap my arms. I developed much more embarrassing and harmful behaviors.
The first one was lying in a dark room and pressing as hard as I could on my eyelids so I could see colors and shocks of light. At the time, no one had taken me for an eye exam but I was already severely myopic. The world around me was blurry, somehow not real. I could not clearly see it. I was called clumsy and awkward. I would press my eyes sometimes and pretend I was dead until I fell asleep.
The second one was much worse. It was brought on by a walk home and a black cat.
When I began first grade, I was terrified. Suddenly, I was in a sea of hard little desks and assigned seats. There were twice as many kids. There was a tank of guppies in the back of the room that we could not look at during class time.
I was fat and pale and sickly and anti-social. The very first day, one of the kids, Kelly, said he would walk me home from school. I thought he was being nice because his aunt had driven me to kindergarten. But he lead me to a path in the woods around the school and disappeared. It was funny to everyone, even my teacher. Except I was half-blind and lost. I did not even know my own neighborhood enough to get home. I knew to stay out of the woods, but there I was. By the time my grandfather had gotten home from work and found me, it was nearly 5:30.
I was dirty and crying. I was hungry and tired. I was taken to the doctor the next day for another shot, where I screamed and kicked a nurse in the chest because I wasn’t even sick. I was exhausted and ordered to eat my Filet-o-Fish, which I promptly vomited onto the kitchen floor. Lillian punished me by taking away my crayons and paper for a week.
The third week in, some of my classmates had found a small black kitten roaming around the edge of the woods by the playground. The teacher said we could keep it as a class pet long as one of us took it home at night. Of course, I volunteered the first night. After my years of experience conversing with Lion and Snappy, I was meant to care for this little purring buddy.
I came home that afternoon, the kitten snuggled against me purring loudly.
Lillian stopped me at the front gate.
“You put that goddamn thing down right now!”
“But I have to bring it back tomorrow. I have to!”
“Holly Anne! You get ride of that goddamn cat!”
“No. He’s my friend!”
She reached out and slapped my arms and hands until I dropped the kitten.
The kitten landed on its feet and began to meow furiously at me. I just stood at the front gate bawling, books on the ground.
She grabbed my collar and dragged me in the house. I watched out the front window as the kitten rubbed itself along our gate, meowing and looking toward the house. Lillian went out with a broom and chased it away.
She came back in and screamed about how she hated goddamn cats for fifteen minutes.
I knew everyone would hate me. I hated myself for not keeping the kitten safe and warm and fed. I knew it was small and felt lost. It felt like I felt when I was left in the woods. No one else saw it like that. I was now the bad kid two times over. I brought home a verboten animal, even though it was one of the first times I felt a kinship with a living creature. And I lost the class pet – not just lost it but drove it away to die in the woods.
I began stimming my straddling my desk chair during class and rocking back and forth. I would do this throughout the day randomly as any active learning drifted past me. The teacher was horrified that I was “playing with myself” in class. The kids thought I was weird and horrible and dirty. Honestly, I was lost. I would sing songs in my head from television shows like “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”. I did not connect this behavior to anything sexual. I was five.
I was told to stop it at once! I did for a bit, but then I was lost again and I couldn’t press on my eyelids while sitting up.
Eventually, Ms. Buzzard moved me to the back of the class to be shamed and punished. I already couldn’t see the board in front, so down the rabbit hole I went. Sometimes, I would forget and fall into stimming. Sometimes, I would turn my desk fully around and squint at the guppy tank. This was construed as utter defiance.
The new principal, a heavy-handed tyrant who stormed around the school flipping a wooden paddle in his hand, was called down. He took me into the hallway and told me to grab my ankles. He landed two solid swats on my hind end.
It was the first of many.
Alvie and Lillian came to school for Parent’s Night. Ms. Buzzard and the Principal Tyrant told them all about my disgusting behavior. In front of all the other parents, they were very clear that I played with myself during class and belonged in Special Ed. Lillian turned and slapped my face.
From that point on, I went silent. I no longer played music or sang little songs or had conversations with Lion and Snappy. I did not talk to my grandparents or kids or anyone. I would not land in Oz or find Wonderland. Not one adult ever asked why or what was wrong. My mother was living two states away with her new husband. The entire school considered me garbage; a fat, sickly, useless, awkward lump with a swat target on her ass.
I showed up at school. I did nothing. I slept a lot. I did not play. I took the shots. I took my medicine. I took swats nearly every week from Principal Tyrant for random things I supposedly did wrong or just noncompliance. It taught me nothing and I didn’t care. I was told to sit down and shut up and not rock or move. I did. Twice I got a swat for peeing my pants in class. I raised my hand to ask to use the toilet. I was told to put it down.
I thought a lot about my little black kitten friend and how I would give him all my Filet-o-Fish if he would come back. I would hide him in the back shed. I would sneak out and feed him and talk to him. I would be queen of the land and keep him safe. I would wear a long green dress. And people would not be welcome. Doctors, teachers and tyrants would not be allowed inside the borders of my country. No grandparents, no Filet-o-Fish.
For the first time in months, I got out my crayons. I drew a girl with yellow hair with a crown in a long green dress. She was standing in front of a castle with a ferocious black panther. He was her protector. There were woods behind the castle, but they belonged to her. She cared for all the creatures there and could walk the paths with her eyes closed. And she was free.