Wednesday, July 1, 2009

First Day Of School

I'm going to be offline for a couple of weeks, away to a wedding among our extended family in Minnesota. So I thought I would tell some stories from my childhood. This is the first of a two part story concerning the first school I went to in America.


My father and I had agreed to leave Italy behind us. We would start fresh, no looking back. The past was no more.

There was much to forget. We talked about that on the way home in the airplane. No more speaking in Italian to each other, English was our language, we would be full Americans. As I gazed out the window I thought about weeping willows for some reason. Each leaf was a tear, many tears, softly suspended, gently falling, always falling and the wind fluttering the tears through the sky. There are clouds in the sky when you look out the window of an airplane, but no angels.

My father prepared me early in the morning. As he put mayonnaise on the bread ( Wonderbread), and pulled one slice of bologna from the package (Oscar Myer), he said, “Today we will look at a school for you.” I watched as he reached for the apple (Red Delicious) and put the sandwich and the apple into my lunch box. “You can decide if you would like to be in first grade, or second grade, or third grade.” I could decide. I wanted to be in third grade. I could read and write, and do arithmetic, but all in Italian. My English might not be strong enough. Perhaps I would be in first grade.

We arrived at the school, and my heart pounded. There would be strange people here, people I did not know. There would be much I had to forget to fit into this new school. I would be starting all over again. How big would the children be in third grade? I held onto my father’s hand as we walked from the bright sunlight into the darkness of the entry hall.

Inside the classroom an American flag stood in the front left corner, on a tall golden pole. A white flag with a golden cord stood in the right corner (I discovered later it was to represent the church). In between was a large black board, powdery with chalk, with the teacher’s desk in front of it. The children sat at their desks, facing the teacher, and as we looked at the backs of their heads my father bent down to whisper to me that the first grade was on the left side of the room, and the second grade was on the right. Third grade was in a room all by itself.

I held onto his hand as he explained to the teacher about me. “I would like for her to decide for herself,” he said, as the teacher looked down at me. Grownups did that when my father would explain about us. They would look down at me and nod their heads, and make small sounds like “oh” and “I see.”

I listened to the children talk to each other. I studied the books the teacher showed me. “Does she know how to do math?” she said to my father. Only in Italian. “Can she read?” Not very well in English. I thought about my beautiful books, filled with writing I had done myself. I thought about how the nuns had praised my addition and subtraction, and my new skill of multiplication. I thought about the taxi drive to the airport, with only my father, and my sisters.

I decided on second grade. My father smiled, and the teacher nodded, but I listened, in my heart, to the wind rustling the weeping willow.

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