I was made to determine the intentions of the letters. What were they getting at? I didn’t know; I never knew. They were disembodied, and I felt disembodied looking at them. This, I believed, was not a way to learn, words euthanized and parsed, their innards splayed out in unnatural combinations. I wanted everything back where it belonged. I did not want to abide by the alphabetic principle. I could read the words, and I understood what each word meant. I did not need to know why I could read the words. I just could. Seeing them this way, so exposed, so broken down, made me uncomfortable, produced in me the kind of anxiety one feels when one is about to fail utterly. The instructions were like a very long joke with no punch line: circle the short vowels, underline the long vowels, underline each schwa twice, draw a line through the closed syllables, draw a star over the open syllables, place an “x” beneath the dipthongs, highlight the digraphs, put a dot over any vowel-consonant-E spelling, write the sight words on the lines provided. This wasn’t funny at all. I was only one person. Furtively, I looked around. To my right, a boy worked feverishly, one hand arced around his book, the other white-knuckling his bite-marked pencil. There was no access. To my left, the diabetic girl calmly circled and underlined, her workbook wide open. It must have been the extra sugar. Hers was a candy-eating disease, the only cure for which was to drink a juice box and eat two pieces of chocolate, every morning at ten o’clock, while all of us watched. And even though it was difficult, I forgave her. But this—her nonchalance, her aptitude—was too much. I felt like she was taking away my knowledge, siphoning it from my brain with a straw, as though it was ten o’clock and my head was the juice box and she had permission. I wanted so badly to pull her hair, to bring my fist down as hard as I could on one of her chocolate-scented hands. Instead, I craned my neck, just a little, just enough to see which things got circled and which got underlined. I made my page a more perfect duplicate of hers, my lines straighter, my circles rounder.
Kristen Iskandrian’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Fifty-Two Stories, and many other places. She has a PhD in English from University of Georgia. She contributes to htmlgiant, blogs at kristeniskandrian.blogspot.com, and tweets at @KristenIsk.