Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Perfect attendance is a scam (2)

One day I decide it'd be weird if I suddenly spoke, so I resolve to wait out the year in silence. Then comes my mid-year report card: “Promotion in Doubt.” I understand what it means, even before my father opens the big dictionary.

Afraid, now, to get left behind in kindergarten, I must prove myself. So I write stories about the chicks that hatch in our class, how they try to get out of the enclosure we've built for them, with blocks.

And I get out.

In first grade, I score a part in the school play. I am one of many narrators, so I have just one line, about how the crocodile swallowed a clock so the lost boys could hear him coming.

I have a crush on Captain Hook and Smee, but I don't have the word “crush.”

For the rest of my life, teachers will seat various rowdy boys, including Hook and Smee, near me in hopes that my quiet will infect them.

I am the first foreigner in the school; my sister Anna is the second. Soon thereafter Yugoslavia splinters and we see a wave of southern Slavs. Bosnian, Serbian, Albanian – whenever there's a new arrival, the secretaries summon me to the main office to explain lunchtime and bathrooms. Because all foreigners understand each other, and these are the two most important topics.

Secretly, I enjoy my ambassador role. I tactfully don't mention Mr. Seiderman's threat that if we lose the bathroom pass, no one will be allowed to go the rest of the year. (It keeps me up at night. I go to the bathroom a dozen times before I fall asleep.)

Mornings, our mother inspects us at the door to make sure we're wearing undershirts so the wind doesn't blow up our backs. I catch sick, anyway. I am often sick, but I don't want to relinquish my tonsils.

I find it cruel that I have to walk thirty minutes to the doctor, with a blazing fever and sore throat. But the doctor near our house, does not take our insurance.

The kids in school don't believe when I say I nearly had to go to the hospital because my temperature was forty degrees. They claim fevers of one hundred and three, no problem. No one has explained Celsius and Fahrenheit to me.

I lay on the sofa and announce I'm consumptive. “Don't poison me,” says our mother. She knows we take our hats off as soon as we round the corner.

My mother puts a spoonful of vodka in my tea and bundles me in quilts and blanket so I can sweat it out. I grow addicted to the feeling of fever breaking in the stillness of our block between 9 a.m and 3 p.m., as if someone had sown poppies. (“Jak by makiam posialo.”)

In June I get a perfect attendance award, so I know perfect attendance is a scam.

Kids, give each other cooties. I tell them that I am immune to cooties because my hair is always braided, and therefore crossed. They look at me funny.

My hair is always braided, my mother won't have it any other way. The kids are always trying to let it out, because it's quite long, and that's what you do when you have long hair, you let it out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Animal facts (1)

The lunch ladies are pear-shaped and tyrannical.

“Heads down,” they bellow, to hush us for the reading of the menu.

If you bring lunch from home, that's “cold lunch,” and you can't eat it till your classmates have been served “hot lunch.”

I listen to the roar of the cafeteria, and gaze at my unopened lunchbox.

The lunch ladies decide the order in which the tables are called to get hot lunch.

“Tell you what,” they say. “We'll make it up to you: since you were the last to get lunch, you can be the first to throw out your garbage.”

Other kids seem unfazed by the injustice. They throw out their Wondercrusts. I bring my crusts home; our father eats them as an appetizer. My sandwich is Polish rye because Wonderbread is cotton. Other kids have fruit roll-up and gushers; I have raisins in a little red box. All our fingers are sticky.

I bring my juice box home because there is an animal fact on the back. My mother washes the juice box and cuts out the animal fact for me. I collect the animal facts in rubber-banded bundles (like baseball cards) until one day we discover ants in my room. I know the ants came from the remnants of sweet juice, so I throw away the facts.

Anna and I believe that bugs will come to a picture, or any other representation of a bug. Even imagining one will summon it.

I tell our father that the lunch ladies make us hold up two fingers in a V for quiet.

“Don't do it,” he says. “Two fingers mean victory. We're not free here.”

After dinner he puts on his jacket. We ask where he's going. “Into the world.” But he comes back.

Every day at lunch I walk over to Marianna and tap her shoulder. “Bathroom?” she asks. I nod. She asks the pear lady for permission, and we go. We hold the stall doors closed for each other because the locks are broken.

“Just say it,” Marianna begs one day, “just say, 'bathroom!'”

But I don't speak. Every morning, the class sits in a circle on the floor to talk about the weather, and I want to say something, but nothing comes.

Every afternoon, as I change from school clothes to home clothes, our mother asks, “Did you say anything today?”


“Even Nadia talks,” says Mrs. Matia, Nadia's para. Nadia is in Mainstream, which means mostly Special Ed but some Regular. Nadia's voice throws me into a panic.

During nap time kids try to trick me into speaking.

Monday, November 23, 2015


Today: a little girl named Billy (what a good name!), a college kid on a unicycle (moved here from LA), and a Scottish engineer (charmed by the Phantom jacket, whose sleeves zip off). And the overwhelming theme: gloves. Gloves gloves gloves.

"These are so expensive."

"Compared to what?" You say it softly, genuinely surprised.

"Well, I don't know."