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It's not that I was an outright nitwit of a child. It's that the things even a nitwit could do with little or no instruction often confused me. Simple, everyday sorts of things tripped me up. Stacking metal chairs, for example. Everybody in class just seemed to know exactly how to fold the seat up into the back and then nest them all together like Pringles potato chips. I sat on the floor for ten minutes with one of the things as if somebody had told me to just stare at it. Concentrate hard, Augusten, try and turn it into an eggplant with your mind. You can do it! The other children appeared to be born with some sort of innate knowledge, as though the action of folding and stacking child-size metal school chairs was gene tically encoded within each of them, like fingernails or a sigmoid colon.
I seemed to lack the ability to comprehend the obvious. From the very beginning there had been warning signs.
Like every kid just starting school, I had to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance—something that would in many towns today be considered prayer and therefore forbidden; akin to forcing a child to drink the blood of a sacrificial goat or unfurl a Tabriz prayer rug and kneel barefoot on it while facing Mecca.
While I managed to learn the words, memorizing isn't the same as understanding. And of course I was never tested on the meaning of the pledge. It must have simply been taken for granted that even the dimmest child would easily grasp the meaning of a phrase such as I pledge allegiance, especially when that phrase was spoken while standing at strict attention and facing the American flag, hand in a salute above the heart. There was so little room for misinterpretation. It was the Pledge of Allegiance, not Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
Still. If one of the teachers had asked me to explain the meaning of those words—which I chanted parrot- minded and smiling each morning—they certainly would have been shocked to hear me admit that while I didn't know exactly what it was about, I knew it had something to do with Pledge, the same furniture polish my mother used and that always, inexplicably, made me feel sunny. So each morning as I spoke those hallowed words, it was the bright yellow can with the glowing lemony scent that I pictured.
Excerpted from You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs.
Copyright © 2009 by Island Road, LLC.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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