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By any yardstick it was a life-long learning experience
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Everything I needed to know about prejudice I learned in the first grade.

My mom said I was lucky to have been assigned to the class as the teacher was retiring the next year and had a stellar reputation.

All I remember was a year of being told I was "stupid" even though I was in the accelerated reading group.

My crime was to pick up things with my left hand. That, in the teacher's estimation, was a sign of stupidity.

She finally became so frustrated with my desire to pick up scissors and pencils with my left hand that she announced if I kept doing it I would get swatted.

And swat she did. Every time she spotted me with either pencil or scissors in my left hand she'd rap my knuckles with a ruler.

She finally broke my "bad habit" on the day a photographer from the Roseville newspaper was coming to class. She had won a state award for her teaching techniques for reading. About an hour or so before the photographer arrived, I picked up a pencil again with my left hand. On this particular day she meant business. She walked up with a metal yardstick and hit the back of my hand. It stung like it had never stung before. I wanted to cry but I was in fear that she'd just hit me again.

My mom didn't find out about it until two years later when a doctor who had taken X-rays asked how I had managed to get a hair-line fracture on my left hand. When I related the incident my mom - taken aback - asked why I didn't tell her when it happened.

I told her I figured it was my fault since the teacher said people who picked up things with their left hand were stupid.

I had no idea that I was meant to be left-handed or that it was quite natural. After that one day with the yardstick I figured I'd better do it the way the teachers wanted or something worse would happen.

In a way, it wasn't the teacher's fault. She had been told that left-handed people were somehow inferior in terms of their ability to grasp things. Apparently someone who does things different is in danger of becoming stupid.

Too often we are quick to judge people simply because they look or do things differently.

We have a nasty tendency to either taunt or shun those that don't fit into our perception of reality whether it is religion, politics, ethnicity, looks, or behavior.

What's normal for you is naturally abnormal for someone else. That, however, isn't justification to result to taunting or striking someone with a yardstick.

The reason I was in the accelerated reading group was due to our neighbor in Roseville. She happened to be a teacher. Catherine Gates got me to start reading when I was 4. By the time I was 5, she had me reading to her from the front pages of the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Union.

If my first grade teacher had known that she might have beaten me to a pulp. After all, kindergartners aren't supposed to be able to reach let alone attempt to read newspapers.

I do credit my first grade teacher with making me more tolerant of others.

It wasn't, though, the lesson she intended.