Early Learning

Not long ago, Lisa from Satsumaart asked if I’d be interested in getting a daily writing reminder telling me to get to work and giving me a little push of a prompt to get me started.  Given my desire to get back to my long-ago daily writing practice, this seemed like a great plan, so I said yes.

I haven’t done well with this activity.  I’ve written a little, but mostly not.  The daily emails have been a reminder … but mostly of how lame I am.  Yes, I’ve had work.  Yes, I’ve had to travel.  Yes, I’ve had an unfortunate summer cold.  Still, I could have written more than I have.  I did finish a story that needed finishing, but the distance between me and daily writing seems to be widening rather than shrinking.  And let’s not talk about the difficult relationship I seem to have with this blog lately.  Feh.

And then I thought maybe I could work on both at once: use the prompts to get myself posting again.  So I went to my email and randomly chose one of the the writing prompts and got: what I remember about kindergarten.  Sometimes, looking for memories is like dragging a lake.  Kindergarten, however, floats just below the surface.  Easy pickings.

_____

St. Ann’s.  Ossining, New York.  My family lived in Mamaroneck, but I was in Ossining because for that year my brother and I lived with my aunt and grandmother.  At the time I thought our living there was my fault because I was the reason we were going to that school.  As an adult, I realize that probably wasn’t the case.  Maybe there were things going on with my parents at the time that made it necessary for Tony and me to live out.  I also thought it had to do with my mother’s pregnancy with Fox being a difficult one, but the timing on that theory is off.  Somewhere in the back of my brain is the idea that maybe my parents were thinking of splitting up, but I really just don’t know.

In any case, Tony and I lived in my aunt and grandmother’s apartment.  It was a one-bedroom place that was both big and small.  Big in that one person would surely have been quite happy and comfortable there … small in that one person with as much stuff as my aunt owned really needed a separate apartment just for her things … and even smaller given that there were four of us in the house.  I have no memory of where Tony slept.  Maybe on the sofa?  I shared a bed with my grandmother … which is how I learned that I am a kicker in my sleep.  (Be forewarned, future lovers!)

Living with them was nice.  There was the occasional unfortunate moment like having to eat rutabagas (blech), but there were many more fabulous moments like going birding with Mildred early-early in the morning in the woods up behind the apartment complex, field guides in hand, binoculars slung round our necks.  Like my grandmother combing her long silver hair each night.  Like telling her stories to keep from having to go to sleep.  Like her popcorn balls and cornmeal mush.

I had been in preschool the year before, a mostly benign experience of singing the name game and seeing a boy’s penis for the first time (we were brought to the bathroom as a group and lined up boy-girl-boy-girl, which is pretty odd if you ask me).  I had been looking forward to “real” school forever.  Preschool hadn’t lived up to expectations, but I accepted it because it was, after all, pre.  But kindergarten was supposed to be the real thing, the long longed-for, magical SCHOOL.

I am an unreliable narrator.  I need to say that.  I was five.  How perfect could my memory be?  And, too, I’m a storyteller: a natural liar.  Just know it.  My memory of starting school goes like this:  I went to the kindergarten near where we lived in Mamaroneck and came home complaining that all we did was play and sleep, that no actual learning was happening.  My mother switched me to another school and I came home and complained again.  Then she switched me to St. Ann’s and said it was my last option and Tony and I would be going there together.  Probably this isn’t what happened.  Or at least not exactly.  You don’t “suddenly” put your child in a private school when you have no money simply because there was too much playing and napping and not enough book-learning.

In any case, Tony and I went to St. Ann’s.  We had uniforms.  I had my first pair of loafers.  Penny loafers, as will become important in a minute.  Tony and I were two of only four or six black kids in the school.  St. Ann’s was young then, not even ten years old when we got there.  Maybe it’s a little more integrated today.  The mission statement on its website says, “We celebrate our cultural diversity through an active partnership between students, parents, faculty, staff and parish community. This mission is guided by a philosophy of love, kindness, and respect for all.”  Sounds good.  Sounds like something they learned after Tony and I did our time there.  Back then, pretty much no one was happy with the arrival of two more brown-skinned children.   Kindergarten was my first experience of having someone actively dislike me, my first experience of having someone’s negative response to me be based solely on my color.  The nuns didn’t like me.  My teacher didn’t like me.  My classmates didn’t like me.  Except for one.  Tony’s experience was no kinder.  He hated that school so much, he put a staple through his finger one morning so he wouldn’t have to go.

I remember being in the girls room — the lavatory as I was taught to call it that year.  I was washing or drying my hands when another girl told me my shoes were wrong.  I looked down and saw my loafers, the same as everyone’s loafers, and looked back up at her.  She pushed her foot forward, turned it right and left, asked me where my penny was.  She pointed out that every other child had pennies shoved into that totally unnecessary slot in the fronts of their shoes.  “They’re penny loafers,” she said, and wondered if I was too dumb to know that or too poor to do anything about it.

The boy who sat in front of me in class spent a lot of time that year turning around to tell me ridiculous and racist things he’d learned from his father: that God doesn’t listen to black people’s prayers because if he did, we’d all be white already, that people aren’t born black but are given a particular shade based on the doctor’s determination of how dumb or evil they will be as adults.  I remember being annoyed that I had to listen to him day after day, remember knowing that I was already more educated than he was because I could read and write and he couldn’t, remember making a fool of him by writing his name on a piece of paper and showing it to him only to have him grab it and rush it to the teacher, to show her I’d written what he must have assumed was a bad word only to be told that it was his name.  I remember telling Tony a lot of the things that boy said to me and having Tony tell me how stupid they were and how much they didn’t make sense.

My teacher might have been unhappy to have me in her class, but I owe her a thank you.  Early in the year she had the brilliant idea of segregating me from the other children at recess. I don’t remember what my time on the playground was like before she had that brainstorm.  I have no memories of it, which could mean it was completely awful … or was so bland as to make no impression.  In either case, she offered to let me stay in and read if I wanted to.  I was the only reader in the class, and we had a shelf full of books. So I started reading.  I read during recess, I read while she was introducing the letters to the rest of the class, I read every chance I got.  Books took me out of that room, and I loved them for it.

My one friend was Cecelia.  I don’t know why she decided to be friends with me but was glad she did.  Later I would think about her and be amazed at her courage.  I remember leaving school with her one afternoon and having her say goodbye and head over to where her father was waiting to drive her home.  He saw the two of us together and was clearly not happy about it.  Rather than wait for his daughter to get in the car, he chose to tell her — loudly and with me very obviously in earshot — that he didn’t want her having anything to do with me, that she knew better than to play with “coloreds.”  I figured that was it for me and Cecelia, but she was right back at my side the next day, and for the rest of the school year.  Who was she at five years old to so easily defy her father’s order to keep clear of me?  I’d love to know who she grew up to be.

We had a full-on graduation from kindergarten: caps and gowns, valedictorian and salutatorian and speeches and everything.  I want to say again that I was the only child in that class who could read or write.  I could do math.  I wasn’t the valedictorian.  It wasn’t going to be allowed.  That might be the only time I ever saw my grandmother truly angry.  They let me be salutatorian instead.  I was happy enough.  I didn’t understand any of the drama.  All I knew was I got to make a speech, and I looked pretty cute in my cap and gown.

Here I am that morning with Cecelia.  Neither of us looks particularly happy, but I certainly look more okay than she does.  In my memory, Cecelia is always smiling.  Looking at this picture makes me wonder what friendship with me cost her.  I got to stay in during recess, got to keep myself apart from the other kids fairly often even when we were indoors.  That wasn’t the case for her.  Did the other students shun her on the playground because she wouldn’t turn away from me?  An even greater act of defiance than disobeying her dad.  I hope I was a good enough friend to her to be worth it.

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9 thoughts on “Early Learning

  1. Oh, wow. This was so riveting. It makes my heart sick to think of little kids enduring that sort of bigotry, even though I know it happened. And still happens.

    I’m glad that you had a friend there. I wonder, too, whatever became of her.

    I’m glad you wrote about this. Actually, I think you should write more about this. I think it would make for a really amazing novel. Have you ever read anything by Rumer Godden? There is something in this story that reminds me of her novels. (She’s one of my favorite authors.)

    Also, you were freakin’ adorable.

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    1. Thanks, Alejna. I really wish there was some way to find out about grown-up Cecelia. I just choose to imagine that she stayed as fiercely self-possessed as she clearly was at five. And I’ve Rumer Godden on my list of authors to check out now!

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  2. I totally agree with Alejna — I’d love to read more from here. The telling has a novel-like feel to me too; I want to know what happened to this child!

    I have been wondering how the prompts have been working for the people who haven’t been able to do them regularly… whether it’s been helpful to know they’re there, or guilt-burdening. At any rate this incredible post came of one of them, and that makes me glad. If you’re on gmail you could always set up a filter for them so you don’t have to see them every day. 😉

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    1. I, too, like the idea of exploring this in fiction. I did some writing about it years ago before I really had a handle on my writing. Maybe it’s time to go back to it.

      Thank you so much for inviting me to join you with the daily prompts. Yes, sometimes they do inspire guilt, but not in a beat-myself-up-over-it way, just in a gentle reminder way. I hope they’re working for you, too!

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  3. Molly

    Well done. The trusting self-confidence in your face in the photo is witness to your personality, and probably also to the love that surrounded you at home, even without your parents. What a fine family.
    I’m glad you’re writing again.

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    1. You’re right, Molly. I had a lot of love at home. I may not have gotten along wonderful well every moment of every day with my family, but they most definitely loved-loved-loved me. That, Cecelia and being 5 years old are surely why St. Ann’s didn’t have a lasting devastating effect.

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