In my mother’s family album, there is a particular photograph that I can still, to this day, see clearly. For the longest time I only saw my father’s face in it, with his trucker hat and the gun slung across his back. Later, as I saw the bigger picture, I saw what he was holding in one hand. The near severed head of a deer, a beautiful doe held up in a final pose of the grimmest death. I loved the story of Bambi, so when I caught on to the true meaning of that photograph, there was hardly any consoling me.
I digress, however. This is not about a child’s harsh brush with reality, but more, the desire to read more. I always wanted more than the usual bedtime or playtime story.
I got pencil stubs and leftover ink pens, and any piece of blank paper I could find, tracing the shapes of letters. I defaced that Lippincott’s Basic Reader, tracing over the letters of the title, and then scribbling beneath, copying letter for letter. I loved using ink more than lead, and soon, I was practicing my name. I think my mother enjoyed being a teacher; it was a dream she had when she had been in school. She was a wonderful teacher too, holding my hands, teaching me to trace, to write, to read. By the time I was three, I could pick out words, sound them out, and soon, stringing sentences and writing my name. She taught me how and why my name (at the time Garcia) sounded like GAR-SEE-A. If I close my eyes hard enough, I can see the page where I would write out that form of spelling, I can hear myself repeating the sound. My handwriting is spidery and tremulous, the strokes of the pen were spidery and childlike, but they were my writings.
My mother often woke up before the sun was even out, preparing breakfast and lunch for my father. He would saddle his horse, pack his machete in its scabbard, put on a long sleeved shirt to ward off the cold dew, and with food in stomach and in hand, he would ride off. By the time mother was done with her morning work, it was too late to try to sleep again, and soon enough, I would get up and accompany her. As she made me some runny eggs, sweet coffee, and hot tortillas, with an habanero on the side, I would talk about school. I had no idea what school was like, but she had pointed out to me the everyday march of students who travelled miles into the village to go to school. So my morning talks to her involved the usual begging to please let me go. I think at one point I assumed my mother would be able to come by and visit me any time.
By the time my breakfast was over, and mother had convinced me yet again that I was too small to go, it was time to stand at the door and watch the lucky ones who got to attend this “school”. There were two older girls, one chubby, the other not; both were keeping their many, many siblings in line. They wore dark blue skirts and pants, with a lighter blue shirt on top. Their book bags looked huge and heavy, and the older, chubbier girl even held on to a few in her arms. Following behind them were more children from the many different families who lived in the outskirts as well. I didn’t know to count back then, but I am sure there had to have been at least 15 – 20 children who passed by every morning, driving me crazy.
One day, Mother was busier than usual, and she was short and impatient with me when I begged once again to go to school. It was unusual for her to be so impatient, so I was sufficiently cowed, and I stopped begging. She left me at the table to finish my runny eggs, and headed to the outhouse. I ate in angry silence, wishing Mother was nicer that morning. I don’t know how it happened; the details are fuzzy as to how it all truly came about. I simply remember standing by the front door to watch the daily march of the lucky students. The next thing I knew, I was following them. I stayed far behind, and sometimes, I had to run to keep them in my sight. The road to the village was not complicated, but I didn’t know where the school was, so I needed them to direct me.
I tried to stay so very quiet, feeling very sneaky, and just a little bit guilty. Mostly, however, I was thrilled! I was going to school! I guess I was not very silent though, because the older girl turned around and caught me following them. We had been walking for quite a while, so I knew that we were closer to school than to home. She grabbed my hand and I practically ran to keep up with her. She didn’t seem very happy, but she didn’t say much either. Finally, finally, we were at school!
The building was grand, very big to a 3-year-old’s small eyes. There were so many other children running around, in groups, in pairs, boys playing football, and, oh! Grownups! Teachers looked at me askance, wondering what I was doing there. But I will never forget the nicest woman came and took my hand, leading me away from the older girl into a room full of long chairs and benches. I was asked my name; I was asked why I was at school. I responded honestly, stating that I wanted to be in school. There was a loud ringing sound, and I jumped. The nice teacher walked to the door of the room we were in, and I followed.
Standing on the side of the building was a very short man ringing a bell enthusiastically. His bell-bottomed pants were ironed sharply, shining in the sunlight. His shiny greased hair was combed into a side part, with a high pouf that shook slightly as his arms pumped the bell. All around me children ran to form lines outside doors. Teachers stood at the doorways, waiting for the children to settle down. I stood with my mouth wide open, taking it all in, loving every moment of it. I had not thought of my mother once the entire time.
When the lines were straight and children had stood silently and in order for a good while, the bell was rung once more, and one by one, they filed into their rooms. The nice teacher showed me where to sit, at the bench where she took a seat. The children around me all had pencils and papers and books. I had nothing. I suddenly realized I had not planned everything properly, and for the first time, I felt foolish. I must have looked foolish too, for the little girl sitting in front of me smiled and handed me a pencil. The eraser had been bitten through and through, only the metal part that had held it in remained. Even that had been chewed thoroughly. No more than a stub of pencil, it was the best thing I had held. I smiled back at my new friend, and she stuck her tongue out at me. I loved her right then and there.
The teacher gave me something she called an exercise book. Now I know what I had gotten was a half of an exercise book. Poverty was everywhere, no more so than at our school. Teachers and students sometimes could only afford half of a notebook, so even the shop cut the books in half, sewing the half with the loose leaves. Armed with my half a book, I was ready for school.
The morning passed in a blur as Teacher showed the class how to write out their letters, and to learn to write their names. I was disappointed because I already knew how to do that. I tried not to show how I felt, however, and practiced just like everyone else. When the bell rang for recess, I was startled. I was equally surprised when the older girl I had followed came into the room. Apparently the teacher had called for her, and it was time to go back home. It was then that I wondered just what was happening at home. My poor mother.
I tried very hard to dawdle on the way back home, but my bigger companion held me firmly and walked with purpose. Soon, I was home. My mother ran out of the house, both happy and angry to see me. I think I got a sound smack on my bottom while she squeezed me with her other hand. I didn’t see the piece of paper that the older girl gave her. All I could think of was that Papa would be pulling out the belt that evening.
I always knew when Papa was coming home. He had such a loud laugh, and friends on the way home would call out to him, just to hear that loud boom. It was how I knew to sit prim and proper after putting away whatever I had been playing with. Mother would gather all her sewing things, cleaning up her station, and take out supper things. When he dismounted from the horse, I would restrain myself from running out for a hug. Instead, I sat at my little chair, waiting for him to come into the house. When he did, it was with a big whoop, shouting for his little baron (that’s ‘boy’ in Spanish). I would throw myself at him, sniffing in his sweaty, daddy smell. He always smelled of earth, and of leaves, sometimes of smoke, and always of horse. After I got down from my big hug, I would let him sit, and then I would plop on the floor and untie his shoelaces, pulling off his boots one by one. Socks would follow, and then I would unbutton his pants, tugging it down and off so he would cool off. I helped guide his feet into his slippers, and he would take off his shirt himself. I would take his dirty clothes away into the big pan where all his dirty clothes went, then I would come out and wash my hands.
When I got back from the room where his clothes were put away, he was talking to my mother. I knew that I would be in lots of trouble now. I waited for the yelling to start, I wondered if I had gotten Mother in trouble too. Imagine my surprise when he burst out laughing. I felt better instantly, and joined them at the kitchen. Papa patted me on the head with pride, and he said the magic words, “Maybe she should go, just to see if she likes it.” My poor mother looked at me with sadness on her face, but Papa had said the magic words.
The next morning, one of Mother’s old purses was packed with a full notebook, a pen and two pencils, sharpeners and an eraser. After eating my usual breakfast, I was ready for school. She handed over a shilling (25 cent piece) to me and said to save it for recess. At lunch time I was to come home. There were often children who would make the trek back home to eat lunch further up the hill, so I could follow them too. Armed with my supplies and some money, Mother stood at the side of the road with me, waiting for the group to pass by. When they drew near, she called out to one of the leaders, and this time, they smiled and let me walk with them.
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