A Child’s Sense of Reality

The first house I ever lived in was a blue, two-story home on a cul-de-sac in Colorado Springs. Everything about that place is gigantic in my memory. The staircase from which I used to wave goodbye to my dad when he left for work stretched for miles. The backyard I sled down in the winter was a mountain slope. The cul-de-sac itself was a bonafide parking lot, and I had to run a mile from my front door to the end of the road to catch the ice cream truck.

Only, it turns out that none of those memories are accurate. I revisited my old address a couple of summers ago when I learned that the old house burned down in the wildfires that ravaged the state. I hadn’t been back in nearly 15 years, and I couldn’t believe how imprecise my recollection of my childhood home was. The house (or what remained of it when I visited) was wedged between two just like it on a crammed cul-de-sac barely large enough to allow me to turn my car around. The hill in our backyard: barely a noticeable gradient on this patch of grass between the house and road.

I was talking to a friend about childhood memories and things misremembered recently when this experience arose. It got me thinking about other times my child brain got things totally wrong. Here are a few of those instances.

Twice I grossly overestimated the punishment I’d receive for a perceived wrong. 

One of my few memories from preschool is of the first time we learned to finger-paint. The teacher passed out the paints and canvasses (probably sheets of 8 1/2 x 11-inch computer paper) and told us to paint something with our hands. I immediately started smearing the page with all the colors at my disposal, resulting in a mess of orange, green, purple and blue that looked like nothing. When the teacher came to my table and asked what I was painting, I panicked. Was I supposed to paint something real? Would the teacher think I was stupid for not painting something she could identify? I looked at the painting and described it as the first thing that came to mind. “Fire,” I said.

The teacher smiled and walked away. And now, somewhere in the depths of my parents’ storage space, there is a framed photo of nonsense with a small tag that reads Fire by Timothy Pate. 


Around the same time, my dad taught me how to use a magnifying glass to start a fire. Perhaps not the thing to teach a four-year-old, but let’s not focus on that. We sat together on the back porch one summer’s day and concentrated the sun’s light in order to burn holes right through stacks of newspaper. My dad gave me the magnifying glass to keep, and I in turn decided to use it for evil.

One day, sitting in my car seat waiting for my parents to start the car, the sun shone through the back window and over my shoulders. The magnifying glass trustily at my side, I pulled it out and focused the light on the very car seat in which I was seated. It didn’t take long for the light to burn through the fabric—sending up smoke and igniting small frames briefly. I moved the glass to see what I had done. There, right in the middle of my car seat, was a smoldering black blemish that my parents would surely lose their minds over.

Until I was no longer required to ride in the car seat, I spent every ride covering the torched mark casually with my forearm. I didn’t tell my parents about the indiscretion for another few years.

My understanding of colors was a bit off.

In first grade, I was selected as part of a group to write short stories that would be placed in the school library. It was a great honor. One perk of writing this story was that the teachers did “author’s profiles” of the students selected. We were each called out of class (!) to give answers to a short questionnaire, which would later be posted on a cork board with the other “authors.”

One of the questions posed to me concerned my family pets. At the time, we had four dogs, but I was closest to a German Shepherd mix named Annie. Let me reiterate: a German Shepherd mix. The teacher asked if I had any pets; and when I told her about Annie, she asked what colors she was. My answer: green and black.

Annie was straw-colored and black. My teacher tried to clarify my strange response, but I stuck to my guns. Annie was green and black. I even drew a picture (probably as accurate as my portrait of Gypsy) to prove it. What can I say? My mom taught me the American Sign Language alphabet before she taught me my colors.

I thought I was so clever.

The next year, I was again asked to write one of these books. That year, I wrote about an animal I held an obsession for: the bat. I insightfully titled this installment Lots of Bats.

I had probably been reading lots of Goosebumps or some other tale that included hidden clues in its pages, and I thought I’d incorporate this tactic into my own writing. How did this play out? I included “hidden” illustrations of bats in the pictures that went along with my book. See below:

Lots of Bats


Can you spot the bats?

It’s fun to look back and see how wrong I was. How confidently wrong I was. And it’s a good reminder of how drastically inaccurate our perceptions can be even now. Growing up doesn’t necessarily mean that we see the world any clearer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.