Let me start by saying I grew up reading Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘James and the Giant Peach’ but I was way too old for kids books by the time he wrote ‘Matilda.’ And, since I usually avoid kids movies — and even avoided them as a kid — I went to see ‘Matilda’ on Broadway without any preconceived notions of the story. I went because I love musicals and ‘Matilda’ got rave reviews.
It was a great experience. I even shed a few tears at the end. Why? ‘Matilda’ reminded me of being a little girl in a life & death battle with MONSTERS. Yes, MONSTERS!
The Monsters in ‘Matilda’ are of the human variety. Matilda’s hateful, mean-spirited, intellect-numbing parents and the truly monstrous headmistress of the prison-like school, reminded me of a very bad period of time in my childhood, when I attended a school that inspired my parents to move before the next school year began.
I entered the austere building — complete with bars on the windows — an out-going, confident, articulate and affectionate five-year-old and a few months later I’d been beaten down into a withdrawn, depressed and very quiet little girl. Like Matilda’s school, adhering to the RULES — without question or exceptions — was the big lesson and nothing we did in that first grade class encouraged intellectual growth or independent thinking. (I’d been jumped ahead, skipping Kindergarten because I’d attended pre-school and already had basic reading skills, etc.)
Each time I tried to have a rational discussion about an irrational rule, my objections were quashed and I received demerits. As these demerits racked up, my mother was called into the principal’s office to discuss my misbehavior. The rules included being required to pin a handkerchief to my dress and weekly exact change for milk every Monday. The more sanitary tissues in my pocket did not fulfill my handkerchief requirement and, as no change could be made, the Monday my mother did not have a quarter to give me on the way to school I had to eat my graham cracker dry with the other kids “whose mothers didn’t love them enough to provide exact change.”
We had deportment lessons to ensure that we walked up and down staircases properly (alternating the leading foot) and, if you were left out of an exercise in which everyone was asked to write on the board, you had to suck it up and sit still.
I didn’t have the words until many years later, but that school became my model of a totalitarian state, headed by a monster principal with equally monstrous minions — especially my teacher. The more she ignored me, the more I withdrew, becoming less and less able to express what was happening to me.
Then one day, she called me to her desk to defend myself. I don’t remember what she asked me, but suddenly I couldn’t answer. Words failed me, but my body rebelled. I vomited on my teacher’s shoes and then next time I went to school I was in the kindergarten class. My parents search for a new home in another school district went into overdrive.
No school is completely monster-free to an imaginative child, but Lakeville Elementary School was paradise when compared to that place. Yes, there are monsters under the bed and on the playground — and sometimes at the front of the classroom.