- Before Love, Memory
They come for me in the morning.
My mother has me dressed in a navy-blue plaid jumper and a white blouse. She has yanked my dark hair into pigtails and now makes the sign of the cross on my forehead before turning me over to a skinny lady who ushers me into the backseat of her station wagon. I join a small group of children, mostly Cuban, all of us dressed alike, our dark eyes bright and vaguely nervous.
The station-wagon lady drops us off at the steps of a gloomy castle in Union City, New Jersey: Holy Family Catholic School. The yard is hemmed in with black iron bars, and the front doors are made of steel. Women in dress pants roam the cement grounds like fat hens with their wings clipped, their beaks pointing and gesturing. I huddle with the other children in packs of three and five, like scared chicks.
Miss Reynolds is the kindergarten teacher. She has glasses that make her eyes look like oversized buttons on her face, and she speaks the funny language that comes out of the television set at home when we are not watching telenovelas or the noticias, which is to say that she talks like the cartoon character Mighty Mouse. It is English, a language that sounds like marbles in the mouth. It is fun to hear, but mostly because the mouse on the TV screen is flying.
Sitting in the classroom, I wait for Miss Reynolds to start talking like my mother: in Spanish. Surely it won’t be long now. An hour passes. Two hours. An entire day it feels, and still it is all Mighty Mouse.
I am familiar with the language. I even speak a few words of it. But I have [End Page 1] never heard so much of it all at once. It’s like being forced to watch the same cartoon all day long.
I don’t know if this is what actually happened on my first day of kindergarten, but it is what I remember of my first years in school.
A few memories can be confirmed by research and on-site inspection: Mighty Mouse on television, the school’s black iron bars. My mother verifies the bit about the station-wagon lady and the ethnicity of the other children, and school photographs offer details of the uniform and my teacher’s face.
There are, however, missteps in memory, places where emotion has distorted people, sights, even sounds. In a school photograph, for example, my teacher is a skinny, androgynous white woman with thick glasses. But I remember her as a fat hen, a flying mouse, and kindergarten as the beginning of the end.
It is true what they say. All I really need to know about life I learned in kindergarten. This is what I learned: Grab as many naked Barbies as you can before the other kids get them. Throw crayons at people when you’re angry. The first one to reach the front of the line wins. Raise your hand to go to the bathroom, because white people like it when you ask for permission.
I learned, too, that if white people do not get rid of you, it is because they intend to get all of you. They will only keep you if they can have your mouth, your dreams, your intentions. In the military, they call this a “winning hearts and minds” campaign. In kindergarten, they call it ESL. English as a Second Language.
A teacher comes for us one day. Just two of us. Me and my friend, a thin, pixie-faced girl.
I don’t know why we are being taken from class, but in the hallway, as we find ourselves farther from our classroom, my friend starts crying, and hers are not baby tears. They are full blast, llorona wailing. She roots herself to the ground and refuses to take one more step. The teacher begins dragging her by the arm, but the harder the woman pulls, the more my friend yells and [End Page 2] twists in the darkened hallway, and for a moment...