7/16/20

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

When the vice-principal of Waukesha North High School called me over my lunch hour on Tuesday, I had that immediate visceral reaction we all get when a vice-principal calls. All four of my kids went there, my three big kids graduating in 2002, 2004 and 2005 and Olivia just last year. I graduated from there in 1978. And so my first response was to duck.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“Nothing,” he said. “You don’t have kids here anymore, Ms. Giorgio.”

Then he went on to tell me that “many people” nominated me to be inducted into Waukesha North’s Wall of Fame. The committee agreed that I should be there. To be put on the Wall of Fame, you “must have graduated from Waukesha North at least five years go and you must have demonstrated citizenship during and after high school, and must have made a significant contribution to the community and society.”

I laughed in response, that same laugh of surprised joy as whenever my teachers there told me I’d done a good job.

It’s easy to pick the Wall of Fame as my Moment this week. But it goes deeper than just getting an award.

Waukesha North was the third high school I attended. My father worked for the government and we moved frequently. I attended schools in Berkeley, Missouri, Esko, Minnesota, Stoughton, Cedarburg, and Waukesha, Wisconsin. I don’t remember much about Missouri, I was only there for kindergarten. But in Minnesota, the teasing started. I was born with a condition called strabismus, making my eyes cross in to my nose. My first surgery was at 16 months, then two when I was eight, and two when I was fifteen. I no longer see out of both eyes at once. My eyes aren’t straight, but they’re as straight as they’ll ever be. Unfortunately for me, in 1966 when I was in first grade, a TV show called Daktari premiered, complete with a cross-eyed lion called Clarence. I was immediately branded as Clarence, and Clarence I stayed until I moved to Cedarburg for the first semester of my junior year, a few months after my final surgery.

The teasing was about more than my eyes. I was a quiet kid, introspective, much preferring to be on my own as opposed to in a group. I spent most of my time with my nose in a book, or scribbling my stories in a notebook. I wore my hair long, down to the backs of my knees by senior year, and I curtained it over my face to keep the world out. Which meant I was an easy target. When I was in Minnesota, the school system had only just started allowing girls to wear pants to school, and only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They couldn’t be jeans. So when I moved to Stoughton in 6th grade, I wore a polyester pantsuit on the first day of school. Where everyone wore jeans and t-shirts. I just didn’t have a chance. My eyes, my clothes, my withdrawn personality – once again, easy target. Many years of misery.

Remember Ally Sheedy’s character in the Breakfast Club? I could have played that part without acting.

By the time I got to Waukesha North, in my second semester of my junior year, I was a profoundly sad, profoundly angry, wreck. But I found myself suddenly in a place with people who spoke my language, who heard it, who understood it. The arts were held in just as high esteem as sports. I kept hearing my name over the PA system during morning announcements for the things I did, right alongside the athletes. I joined the school newspaper and the school creative writing magazine. There was a creative writing magazine! I took classes that I never even knew existed: creative writing, journalism, Growing Up In Literature & Reality, Mystery & the Macabre, Science Fiction & Fantasy. And I suddenly had teachers who not only listened, they heard me. And I was no longer teased. No one knew me as Clarence.

And I wasn’t Clarence. I was just Kathie. I fit in, and I stood out, and I belonged.

Despite being in this safe place, or maybe because of it, I found the profound sadness and anger surging up. I didn’t know it yet, but I was three years away from being told that I was dealing with chronic depression. My creative writing teacher, my English teachers, and my psych teacher, along with the administration, were concerned and they called my parents several times, asking them to get me into therapy, or at the very least, allow me to see the school psychologist. My parents were firm believers that psychology and those practicing it were “shysters full of mumbo-jumbo and gobbledy-gook.” They “ripped hard-working people off, charging exorbitant prices, and putting all the blame on parents.” They said I was only looking for attention.

Which, of course, I was. But not in the way they said I was.

And so the teachers and the administration decided to take a heady risk. They got me in to see the school psychologist, without my parents’ permission. I was not yet 18; legally, I wasn’t allowed to make my own decisions. But that school had my back.

Waukesha North High School saved my life.

To this day, I am grateful for the amazing care and compassion of my teachers and staff.

So this being put on the Wall of Fame, to me, means I didn’t let them down. I’ve lived up to whatever it was they saw in me. I hope they’re proud. I’m pretty sure they are, as one of the letters of recommendation came from my high school creative writing teacher. It’s because of them that I’m still here.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

My high school graduation photo. I wasn’t allowed to have my hair in front of my face.
Me now.

 

 

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