“Mama, ya estoy lista.”
It was still a little dark outside, but I had already donned my navy blue pleated skirt, Peter Pan-collared white middy, and matching navy blue cardigan. I had put Band-Aids on my heels because the new white oxfords cut into my tender skin, unlike my usual red Keds. Last night, Mama had put my hair in paper towels and rubber bands so that my colochos would look beautiful. I would have preferred a ponytail, but it was a small price to pay for the most exciting day of my life. Papa had informed me that the monjitas would be able to teach me about the world, the stars, reading, writing, numbers and animals—the only pets that we were allowed to have in the apartment were goldfish, small turtles or a canary, and I wanted a gatito. It would be maravilloso to hear about caballos, gatos, perros—REAL pets! I always wondered what they ate, how you took care of them, What You Did With Their Messes? Most importantly, I would be away from Mama’s eagle-eye and my tiresome baby sisters.
“Juanita, ven a comer!”
I ran into the kitchen, knocking over Margarita’s building blocks and hopping onto the chair closest to the big wood-burning stove. Mama would make tortillas on the surface of that cast-iron Aga; I would pop the caps that Bobby McConnell gave me from his Roy Rogers toy pistols. This morning Mama had surprised me with my favorite breakfast. Instead of the usual tortillas con queso, she had made avena, with leche evaporada, azucar y mantequilla. I tried not to disturb the melting yellow pool of butter as it spread across the creamy oatmeal. Dipping my spoon at the edge of the bowl, I scooped out a tiny amount and licked it.
“Muchachita, deje de jugar con la comida.”
“No estoy jugando, Mama. Es que me encanta ver la mantequilla derretirse sobre la avena como un lago, y es tan sabroso que solamente quiero zambullir mi manito en la comida y chuparme los dedos, pero ya sé que me quemara si hiciera eso, y también que te enojaras, pero, más que nada, estoy nerviosa porque no sé como me irá este día y…” I tried to let Mama know that I wasn’t playing with my food, that I just liked the way the oatmeal looked and that it was so delicious that I savored every spoonful and that it was still too hot to eat and I was kind of nervous, and. . . .
“Hijo de puta, chachalaca, suficiente!”
Mama turned my head towards the cereal bowl, and removed the paper towels and rubber bands from the 20 little hair bundles. I gripped the edge of the table tightly as she pulled a damp comb through the front part of my hair and twisted a portion of it into a barrette, without disturbing any of the glossy ringlets.
“Ahora, apúrate, que ya no tarda Señor McConnell.”
I hurried to eat as fast as I could, but, in minutes, Bobby and his dad were ringing the doorbell. Mama had talked to Marina, her Nicaraguan friend who lived around the corner; they had come to an understanding that, since Bobby and I would be attending the same school, his dad would walk us to St. Charles School on his way to work. Grabbing my Roy Rogers lunchbox, I sped to the door, yanked it open, and greeted Señor McConnell with a “Buenos días.” Bobby’s dad smiled at me, and said, “Hello.” Then he poked his head around the door, and acknowledged my mother with a “Hello Trini, we’re off to school.” Mama nodded, smiled and waved at him.
Bobby and I had already run down the steps and were waiting at the corner of Lexington and Nineteenth. St. Charles was only about five blocks away, but I rarely left the house to go to the playground two blocks away except with Mama and Marina McConnell and all the children. Today was like Independence Day!
Bobby was fair-skinned, with black hair and brown eyes, unlike his dad, who had light blue eyes. Bobby could speak Spanish and English, since his mama was from Nicaragua and his dad was an Anglo. I spoke a smattering of English—yes, no, numbers one through ten—stuff like that. We were the same age, except his birthday was in August and mine was in December. He was already six; I was five years and nine months. We were both extremely excited. Bobby’s dad was over six feet tall, so his stride was significantly longer than ours. Nonetheless, we easily kept up with him, bouncing and racing across the pavement.
As we neared the three-story building, my heart skipped a beat. Last Saturday, Mama and Papa had walked with my sisters and me past St. Charles School. Papa had said, “Aquí es adonde vas aprender de gatitos, caballos y estrellas.” I had smiled at him and thought that this mansion was the place where I would finally get answers to my questions about kittens and horses and stars. I could hardly wait.
Two days ago, the grounds had been empty; today, the schoolyard was a daunting sight—a flurry of gray pants and navy blue skirts. Everyone sharing the same excitement—running, laughing, shouting to one another: “How was your summer?” “I think there’s a new teacher, and not a nun.” “I hate these shoes, don’t you?” However, to me, it all sounded as understandable as “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” I could pick up a name or number here and there, but it was bedlam, suddenly punctuated by a shrill bell that converted the boys and girls into little soldiers marching into the building.
I stood stock still, my eyes blinking rapidly as I tried to understand what had just happened.
“Ay, Diosito mío, qué es esto? Nadie habla español!” Nobody is speaking Spanish, everyone is talking so quickly, and I have no idea what I should do!
All my enthusiasm evaporated in an instant, and I sidled closer to Bobby’s dad, who urged me forward with the admonition, “Go on, Juanita.” I had always considered him inferior to my Papa and Mama—I was sure of it now –he did not comprehend my problem and he couldn’t understand my pleas, “Señor McConnell, necesito regresar a casa.” I was rapidly sliding down the rabbit hole into Looking Glass Land, and the Red Queen, dressed like a penguin, was yelling, “Off with their heads” or something that made the children continue up the stairs in two single files. I looked for Bobby, but he had disappeared into the crowd, reacting, as the other children had, to the orders that were being shouted, “Please form two lines, boys on the left, girls on the right. At the head of the stairs, you will be directed to your classroom.”
I turned around to see if Señor McConnell was still behind me, but he, too, had abandoned tiny Alicia in Looking Glass Land. Wide-eyed, chewing the inside of my cheek, my fingernails, my shirt collar, I inched forward with everyone else. Lips compressed together in a tight line, brow furrowed, I cast my eyes right and left looking for a White Rabbit to follow, a table with an “Eat Me” tablet that would make everything intelligible. My stomach churned as I tightened my grip on my lunchbox. I was pretty sure that I could retrace my steps back home, but I was equally sure that I would not get a positive reception. I had no doubt that my mother would make me regret that solution. She would castigarme, or sit on me, which would not be good as she outweighed me by 200 pounds.
I swallowed the bile that crept into my throat and resisted an overwhelming urge to scream. The crowd was thinning and I had to make an instantaneous decision. Instinctively, I looked for the smallest girl and decided to follow her since I was fairly sure that we would be in the same classroom. As I neared the top of the steep flight of stairs, I imagined a dark cloud drifting over the mansion—a scary horrible place ruled by squawking penguins and populated by drone-like little troopers.
The Monjita addressed the little girl I had followed, and she replied “Linda Coverly.” Then the Monjita said “Classroom A.” I thought to myself, “Okay, whatever the Monjita says, I will reply with my name, and I will listen carefully for the letter A.
“What is your name child?”
“Hm, I don’t see W-A-N-I-T-A, but I see LaGarda. You are also in Classroom A.”
My head spun. I had no idea what the Monjita had said, but I had heard “A”. I crossed my fingers and followed Linda into Classroom A, only to be greeted by more jabberwocky.
“Please take a seat so that I can call roll and see if all of my pupils are here.”
I saw the children seat themselves at any available desk, and guessed that had been the teacher’s instruction. I looked towards the back of the room and sighed when I saw Bobby, but, unfortunately, he was having a great time with all the new friends he had made. Almost all the seats had been taken. Five rows, with eight desks each, made it hard to get close to the only person I could consider a possible savior.
“When your name is called, please raise your hand. Edward Bohnert.” A little boy near me raised his hand. “Linda Coverly.” The little girl I had followed shot her hand into the air. “Faye Dafoya.” Another little girl popped her hand into the air. I listened carefully for my name. “You-Anita LaGarda.” That wasn’t Juanita, but the last name sounded right, so I raised my hand and the Monjita nodded and smiled.
“Is that the correct way to pronounce your name?”
I just looked directly at her, smiled and wondered, “Hijo de puta, what did you just say to me?” As Mama used to tell me, “Lo cortes no quita lo valiente”—always be polite—so I just continued to smile like a Cheshire cat and nod my head.
“Bobby McConnell.” I looked back and saw Bobby shoot his hand up. I looked to my left, where I had noticed a wall clock, and saw that it was only 9 o’clock. I remembered that Mama had said that she would be here to pick me up at 3 o’clock. My heart dropped to my shoes.
When the Monjita finished calling our names, she turned to the blackboard, picked up a stick of chalk and wrote “Sister Clare.” Then, she turned back to us, pointed to herself, and said, “I am Sister Clare. Today is your first day at St. Charles. We will learn our ABCs and numbers and many other things, but first, I would like everyone to hang their jackets and put their lunchboxes in the coatroom. Linda, would you please lead the first row into the coatroom?”
I recognized five words: the Monjita’s name, St. Charles, ABCs, numbers and Linda. As the children in the first row stood up, walked into the coatroom with their lunchboxes and jackets, and came out the other door without either of those items, I determined that we should leave those articles in that room. I had been curious about that little room with two doors, and I was glad that Papa had scratched my name into the metal Roy Rogers box—at least, I would know which Roy Rogers box belonged to me.
“Second row, please take your things into the coatroom.” I saw the children in the second row repeat the actions of the ones in the first row, and I suddenly realized that I had better pay attention to Sister Clare since I sat in the first desk, third row. “Third row.” I started walking to the coatroom with my lunchbox, when I heard “You-anita, you forgot your jacket.” Oblivious to the unusual pronunciation of my name, and not understanding the sentence, I kept walking. Sister Clare tapped me on the shoulder, “You-anita.” I turned beet red as I realized that the Monjita was talking to me. Tears welled up, but thankfully, I noticed Linda pointing to my desk where my red jacket lay on the seat. I smiled and rushed back to pick it up. I entered the coatroom, hung my jacket on the first available hook, put my lunchbox on the shelf and scurried out the other door. I quietly went back to my desk and folded my hands on the desk.
A few minutes passed, and all the students finished depositing their personal items in the coatroom. Tick, tock. I looked up and saw the little hand on the nine and the big hand on the six. It was not even ten o’clock yet. Diosito mío, cúantas horas más de este calvario?
“Everyone, please stand and try to repeat after me as we say the Pledge of Allegiance. Please look at the flag as we say these words. We will do this every morning. You must place your right hand over your heart.”
I looked around and saw all the boys and girls stand up next to their desks. I jumped up immediately to copy their actions. Then everyone placed their right hand across their chest and turned to face the clock situated next to the flag and the entrance to the classroom. I slowly put my hand on my chest where Sister Clare had hers and looked at the clock. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the . . .” I looked around and noticed that everyone was trying to say the unfamiliar words. Linda was opening and closing her mouth, but she was stumbling over the words like she did not understand them. I opened and closed my mouth soundlessly, trying to memorize the cadence. I wondered if I was going to have to do this again tomorrow, and stored it in my memory bank, just in case.
Then Sister Clare passed out the funny paper that Mama had always given to Maria and me to practice writing el alfabeto.
“Children, I have just passed out some specially ruled paper for you to learn to write the alphabet. You will find pencils inside your desks. We will start with the letter A, and every day we will learn about another letter.”
As she made this statement, she wrote the upper and lower case A on the blackboard. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw that both of my neighbors had opened the tops of their desks and extracted a pencil. I followed suit, and also noticed that they were writing the letters of the alphabet. Aha, this was something that I knew how to do! I quickly started to write all the letters of the alphabet and covered both the front and back of the page. Sister Clare had started to walk around the class once she had given the directive. She seemed to be assessing the students’ capabilities. When she came to my desk, she came to a dead stop.
“I think you misunderstood You-anita. I said that we would start with the letter A. You have written the entire alphabet. This is very good, but you are not following directions.”
I saw a smile, then a frown flit across her face. I looked around and suddenly realized that everyone around me had only written two letters on their paper—upper and lower case A. I did not answer. What could I have said? I looked down at the sheet of paper, not looking up. Sister Clare continued walking up and down the aisles, but I felt like I was shrinking with every task I undertook. Maybe I didn’t need to eat any mushrooms to telescope my size increasingly smaller. At the rate that I was going, I might soon disappear off the face of the earth!
The bell rang again, and Sister Clare ordered us to “Line up for recess. Come on, You-anita, everyone has to go outside now.” As Sister Clare placed her hand on my shoulder and maneuvered me into the line exiting out the front door of Classroom A, all kinds of thoughts flew through my head: Why is everyone lining up? Where are we going? Why do the girls line up separately from the boys? We went down the stairwell, and I saw some girls going into the lavatories (there was a girl’s figure on the door) and other girls exiting the building into the schoolyard. Outside, the schoolyard had invisible boundaries by gender and grade, so I couldn’t ask Bobby for clarification. By the time I had gained a slight understanding of the logistics, the bell rang again and everyone lined up. Linda Coverly was my little beacon, and I ran to get behind her as we ascended the stairs back to class.
The best thing about first grade is that no one knew how to spell or read, so the teacher had picture cards with the names of objects. Using her pointer stick, she would tap on the card and say the name of the object. When we re-entered the classroom, Sister Clare was waiting for us with her pointer stick. She had a stiff cardboard sheet tacked up on a corkboard adjacent to the blackboard. On the sheet, there was an upper and lower case letter A as well as a picture of an apple with the word “apple” written out, and a picture of an angel with the word also printed. Most of the children used this “device” to learn to read. It helped me to learn the name of the object, how to spell it, how to pronounce the word, and how to read it on a sheet of paper.
Sister Clare pointed at the apple on the cardboard sheet.
“Edward, could you please say the name of this object?”
“Thank you, Edward.”
I filed the word in my memory bank, along with the little bit of English vocabulary that I currently had.
“Linda, could you tell the class what this word is?” She pointed to the angel and the word “angel”.
I loved the word “angel” because it was spelled the same in Spanish and English. The pronunciation was slightly different, but I could see the similarities immediately. I looked around the classroom and saw more cards with the remaining letters of the alphabet and related objects, and I smiled to myself—maybe I could make some sense out of this Jabberwocky!
The bell for lunch rang and we filed into the coatroom to pick up our lunchboxes. Some of the children took their jackets and left school, but the majority went back to their desks to eat lunch. I wondered what Mama had packed in the box--un taco? I flipped open the box and saw two slices of white bread wrapped in wax paper. I tore off the wrapping and saw some sticky meat in the middle. I took a small bite and tasted something sweet and salty and unfamiliar. I knew at once that I did not like it. I quickly refolded the wax paper and ate the spotted banana. I tried to open the Thermos but it was screwed on too tightly. The bell rang again and I just closed up my box and put it in the coatroom. I knew that I would receive a huge scolding when Mama saw that I had not eaten my lunch, but I feared that I would get sick if I forced myself to eat it.
Down the stairwell to the lavatory, out the door to the schoolyard, sit on the bench for 30 minutes watching the children play, listen for the bell, line up, then back into the classroom. I looked at the clock again—two more hours left. I had thought that I would love school, but, at the moment, the jury was out, and I felt like I was playing croquet with a flamingo and that the dormouse was in the teapot. There was nothing fun to learn, eat or drink.
I survived until the second week when Sister Clare decided to call upon me. We were on the letter F by then. I had not actually said anything in the classroom, but I had followed directions (by copying everyone around me). I had watched people’s reactions to whatever Sister Clare said, paid special attention when she said You-anita, responded to the bells appropriately, and upchucked whenever Mama used Miracle Whip and olive loaf to make my lunch. Somehow, the teacher still was not aware that I was not even remotely fluent in English. I had not made any new friends—although Linda had been very nice—and I had not been called upon to say anything in class.
We had just returned from “recess” (another 15 minutes on the schoolyard bench) when Sister Clare pointed at the letter F and a picture of a frog and the word frog.
“You-anita, what is this letter?”
I stood up and said, “F.”
“And what is this word?”
What could I say? Rana? I looked down at the floor and did not answer. Sister Clare pointed at the little frog again.
“You-anita, what is this little animal?”
I still did not look up.
“You-anita, could you please tell us what we call this little green reptile?”
I was angry now, and tears of frustration started to flow involuntarily as I responded, “Hijo de puta, es una rana, pero no sé cómo decir rana en ingles, y mi nombre es Juanita.”
To this day, I don’t know how I arrived in the principal’s office, but I do remember standing there. I can still see my father, dressed in a pin-stripe navy blue suit, with a white shirt and three-inch wide maroon/grey/blue striped tie, looking down at me. The squawking penguin could have been saying “Off with her head”; however, I later learned that she was berating my father for not having prepared me adequately for school and for not letting them know that I did not speak English.
“Mr. LaGarda, it has come to our attention that your daughter does not even have a passing knowledge of the English language. If we had been aware, we could have tried to make some accommodations for her lack thereof, and the child would not have responded inappropriately when asked a simple question.”
Papa bowed his head resignedly, and listened to her as she continued with her “should haves” and “could haves.” I looked up at Papa trying to determine how bad my punishment was going to be, and how he would stand up to this squawking penguin.
“Juanita’s mother does not speak English and we wanted her to be fluent in Spanish. We thought that she would pick up English quickly, but obviously it would have been far better if you had been aware of the circumstances. I will ensure that she acquires an adequate vocabulary in the next few weeks.”
Then he turned to me, “Jesus Christ, Mihijita, qúe le dijistes a la Monjita?"
“By the way, Mr. LaGarda, please ensure that she does not acquire any vulgarisms. It appears that she may have some in her primary language. Also, I just noticed that you took the Lord’s name in vain. No more of that either.”
My father frowned, swallowed like he would have liked to say something else, and responded, “Understood, and thank you for calling me. It’s better to address these kinds of problems quickly. Good afternoon, Sister.”
Papa took me by the hand and we walked quickly out the front door and down the stairs. I reminded him that I had my lunchbox in the classroom, but he waved it away as unimportant.
“Mihija, desde ahora para en delante, we will speak English. With me (and he pointed at himself), only English; with Mama, solo español.”
I looked at Papa, “Only English?”
“Pero, Papa . . . .”
“Sorry, I don’t understand.”
I dredged up some of the words I had learned this week.
“I still angel?”
Papa picked me up in his arms and hugged me. “Always--siempre Juanita.”
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