Wednesday, September 18, 2019

First Day of School


I started school when I was six, and until I entered that first-grade classroom I cannot remember having been in the presence of another child my age.

The school was run by an order of German nuns who had fled Hitler and come to impart punctuality, discipline, good posture, and the German language to the daughters of the Barcelona élites. It was an expensive school, and my parents would not have been able to afford it if I hadn’t been their only child. But the nuns’ German accents carried a whiff of exoticism that my mother, whose fondness for strange people and places would later lead the family to Ecuador, found irresistible.

That first morning, not just my mother but my father too marked the solemnity of the occasion by walking me to school. As my classmates and I were being marched into the building, I turned for a last look at them. Why weren’t they coming with me? When Schwester Maria showed me my desk, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was in a room without a relative in sight--no parents, aunts, grandparents, or great-uncles and -aunts—just strangers.

I already knew how to read, so that part was no trouble. Nor, unless she addressed me in German, was Schwester Maria a problem, since I was well accustomed to dealing with grownups, whom I usually found to be reasonable and who could be trusted to keep their word. What terrified me were the other girls.

I could make neither heads nor tails of these turbulent midgets, who exhibited none of the courtly manners I was used to from adults. On the very first day, in German class, we were called on to read a list of words: die Mutter, das Mädchen, etc. When it was my turn, all went well until I got to der Vater. Not realizing that in German “v” is pronounced “f,” I gave it the Spanish pronunciation, which, unfortunately, also sounded like the Spanish word for “toilet” (el vater, from “water closet”).

To say “toilet” instead of “father”! What could be more hilarious to a class of six-year-olds, on the first day of school? Instead of calmly correcting me, as my mother or my aunts would have done, my classmates burst into gales of laughter that only stopped when the Schwester rapped on her desk.

But that was nothing compared to the sufferings I experienced during playtime, when my classmates exploded out of the classroom and into the gravel yard, screaming at the top of their voices. Why were they yelling? Why were they running around? What was I supposed to do? I was used to being led and instructed at every step by adults, but here nobody was explaining anything. I had no idea of how to approach the other girls, start a conversation, or join a group.

We all went home for lunch, and when it was time to return to school, I told my mother that I was done. I didn’t like school, and wouldn’t be going back. She answered that of course I had to go, I was a big girl now, etc. I resisted. She tried to take my hand. I grabbed the arms of the rush bottomed chair I was sitting on and held on with all my might. But she pried my fingers loose and I had no choice but, sick at heart and weeping with humiliation, to go down the marble stairs of the apartment house and out on the street, to what felt like my place of execution.

One day I heard a girl ask another “me estás amiga?” (are you my friend? the use of the verb “estar” implying the temporary nature of these friendships). So the next day I gathered my courage and approached one of the more popular girls, the beta if not the alpha of the class.

Me estás amiga? I asked, tremulously. And she answered “no,” flicked her braids, and turned away.

That was it for me on the playground. All during class I dreaded the approach of play period, and all during play period I longed for the bell to ring so I could take refuge at my desk. I did finally find one girl to share the misery of those play periods. She was even shyer than I--the omega of the grade. We didn’t particularly like each other, feeling an obscure contempt for our mutual weaknesses, but we tolerated each other because we had no choice.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, I developed amblyopia, or “lazy eye.” My mother rushed me to the ophthalmologist, who said that the only way to keep me from losing sight in the lazy eye was to cover the good eye with a patch for one year.

This did save my eyesight, but it was disastrous for my social life. One of my more boisterous classmates—bright blue eyes, blond curls, freckles—looked at my patch and screamed, “it’s contagious!” And the whole class squealed and scattered. Fortunately her father, who was a doctor, heard about this and made his daughter apologize, and I shed my leper status.

I spent my school years oscillating between mind-numbing boredom and heart-clenching anxiety. The boredom occurred in the classes that involved reading—History, Spanish, and Religion. Every year, on the first day of school, when the new books were distributed, no matter how hard I tried to control myself I would race through and read them to the end, which left me with nothing to discover for the rest of the year.

The anxiety-producing subjects were German (I never did understand the difference between dative and accusative); arithmetic (my father had no talent for numbers, so my family excused me on the grounds of heredity); handwriting (both my father and his father had exquisite handwriting, so there I was a bit of a disgrace); and handwork (crochet, knitting, and, later, embroidery).

But physical education was the worst. Until I entered first grade I had never thrown a ball or raced another child. My inexperience, combined with poor depth perception caused by my lazy eye, made phys ed. a trial all the way through college.

In grade school, calisthenics, for which we wore knee-length bloomers under our uniform, and which were led by a nun in full habit, was a relief, since I was tolerably good at following precise directions. Also, perhaps thanks to the flexibility I inherited from my double-jointed paternal grandfather, I excelled at forward and backward somersaults. (Since the nun in her long habit was our only phys ed. instructor, I can’t imagine how she demonstrated these.)

As it happened, the subjects that scared me most were taught by nuns (we had lay women, native Spaniards, for the others). However, despite the bitter stories that people often tell about their Catholic education, in my twelve years of Catholic school in three different countries I did not see a single instance of a child being hit or treated in an improper way. There was strict discipline, certainly, but by the same token, even in my co-ed high school we never had to worry about being threatened or harassed by our peers.

Nevertheless, it is true that I was afraid of the German nuns. But I think that that had to do with language. Their Spanish was far from perfect, and when they ran out of patience they ran out of Spanish too. Being scolded or simply instructed to do something quickly (schnell!) by a frowning nun in a foreign language terrified me, so my strategy was to pass unnoticed. At the end of the year I never got awards for academic performance. Depressingly, my prizes were for “buena conducta y aplicación”—in other words, I was well-behaved and did my homework.

The boredom/anxiety ratio shifted over the years. After I felt comfortable understanding and speaking English I grew less anxious and more bored, with the exception of math and phys ed. classes, which continued to mortify me all the way through college.

I am happy to report that my fears of other people disappeared long ago. But sometimes at night, when I think about that first day of school, I can feel once again in my palm the hardness of the arm of the rush-bottomed chair I clung to, and the despair at being fished out of the calm waters of my infancy and flung into the roiling torrent of the world.

Third grade. I'm in the middle row, next to Mater Hilaria. The girl who mocked my eye patch is at the other end of the same row, next to the lay teacher.



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