Friday, January 18, 2008


[Reminder: Some of my posts, including this one, are memoirs of my abusive childhood. In this post I'm relating events that happened in the Fall of 1957, after my 8th birthday. The links to the right can be used to follow backward through the memoirs, or to restrict viewing to other kinds of posts.]

My new school was Van Asselt Elementary at Beacon and Myrtle. It's almost virtually unchanged from 1957. What's more, I was assigned to a class that met in the old building, which was the school building my Father attended when he was 8. What's still more than that, my teacher was one of his former elementary school teachers.

[Above: Van Asselt today, showing the 3-story old building that was the school when my Father attended. The long low building in front and to the right of that is a "modern" 1-story addition that was present in 1957. The other smaller structures are portables. We had those in '57 too. The only significant changes from the 50s are the trees in the foreground, part of the beautification of Beacon Avenue. Interesting that from the 20s to the 50s, all the change was to expand the school, while from the 50s to the next millennium, all the change was to pretty up the road passing it by.]

Army Brats regularly have the problem of having to reprove themselves over and over again at each new school and in each new neighborhood. But you usually don't have to prove yourself to people who have expectations based on who your parents are. This was a weird situation.

This is how I wrote about it a few years ago for a writing exercise. (I've brought up this incident before in these memoirs in A Tale of Two Parents I.)


My father was stationed in Korea at the start of hostilities. He was part of an Army Intelligence team assigned to break the Chinese code. He was shot at, once. The sniper missed his heart but nailed his soul. When my father returned on my first birthday he took it out on me. I'd be dead today, except for the intercession of the memory of a certain red bird, which prompted a response from me that saved my life.

Speaking of red birds, I'm reminded of something that happened in the third grade.

The first day of class our teacher, Mrs. Haugen, took note of my name and asked if I was any relation to John Wesley Browning, who had been one of her students more than thirty years earlier. I said yes he's my father and then she went on and on and on in class about what a great student he had been and how if I was even half as bright as him I might be the best student in the class.

This was not complete hyperbole since my father got nothing but A's in all his classes in all his years of school from 1st grade through 12th; I know because I've seen the plaque the Seattle School District gave him in commemoration of the achievement. But my own school records showed C's and D's from the first two grades so there was no chance that I was going to get a plaque like that. And anyway I had already decided that I didn't want to be just like my father. There were things about him I didn't care for and if he got that way by being a perfect student then maybe being a perfect student wasn't worth it. So all in all I didn't appreciate the comparison, and in hindsight I think it might have shown.

A few days later Mrs. Haugen had given us all a reading test and based on the scores she assigned us new seats. She put the high scorers in the file furthest right, the next highest in the next file over, and so on. Then she told us that according to which file we were seated in we were Bluebirds, Robins, Finches, Sparrows, etc. As I had gotten one of the highest scores I was therefore going to be a Bluebird.

That was too much for me. I said, "I don't WANT to be a Bluebird!"

She laughed and said, "But you ARE a Bluebird. Bluebirds are the best and your score was ..."

"I don't care. I don't want to be a Bluebird, I want to be a Redbird."

"Well, we don't have Redbirds, the closest we have are Robins and you wouldn't want to be a Robin, Robins don't read as well as you do."

"I'd rather be a Robin than a Bluebird, at least they're a little bit red."

All through this the class had been laughing (except for the Robins, of course) and Mrs. Haugen had been grinning like I was playing a cute joke on her, but I meant it. If I was going to be a bird I was going to be a red one and that was that.

Then with mock seriousness she said, "You can be a Robin if you want but that means you'll have to sit with the other Robins and people won't know what a good reader you really are."

So I said OK and got up and picked up my books to move to the Robin's file and now everybody got quiet because it wasn't funny anymore.

Mrs. Haugen told me to sit back down where I was and there was a long silence, as she just stared at me as if she was trying to decide whether or not to call for the men in the white coats. But finally she smiled again and announced, "All-RIGHT class, we have Sparrows over here, and Finches in this file, ..., and over here on my left we have five Bluebirds and one VERY unique, STRONG-HEADED, Redbird."

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