My mother learned to speak English when she was in the first grade. Unlike my father’s parents, who learned enough English to run a grocery store and filling station, my maternal grandparents lived and labored in Italian enclaves where the old language could be the only language they needed to get by.
My mother liked learning but hated school. Rather, she hated her experiences there. The nuns in her Catholic school were harsh — whether by natural inclination, training or animus toward the southern and Eastern European immigrant children flooding their classrooms. Suffering a ruler smacked across her hands, my mother never acquired decent penmanship. She was marched to the principal’s office for refusing to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, and she made few friends. But she learned English.
Her English language skills proved critical back home. As the oldest child, my mother was sent to the apartment door when white people knocked. (White people. That was the term my Mom used just a few years ago when explaining how she mediated life for her parents with native-born Americans.) Her parents had arrived in the United States before the harsh quotas of 1924 and did not fear deportation. Nevertheless, anxiety and suspicion provided the percussion line whenever her parents had dealings with those people. The nuns were those people too, white people.
Still, my mother learned English, math, history and everything the school could teach. Her promise as a student was evident, and her teachers recommended that she attend Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.
Washington Irving H.S., 40 Irving Place, New York
Only much later did I learn that Washington Irving was the academically elite girls counterpart to New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School for boys. My mother arrived around the age of twelve and found an immensely stimulating environment.
Washington Irving High School offered classes in home economics, art and design. In addition to excelling at the more conventional subjects, my mother displayed extraordinary promise with a sewing machine and sketch pencil. She quickly became popular with the teachers, if not the students. (Her American-style Birthday Party, 1939 broke her heart.) That said, my mother gladly commuted to school each day from Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway, and began to envision the possibilities for herself she could read in her teachers’ eyes.
Until one day.
American was still deep, deep in the Great Depression, before World War II’s mighty engine could yank people like her from terrifying urban poverty. The Great Depression crushed souls even stronger than my mother’s.
So at last, the day came when my mother presented herself to her favorite teacher at the end of class.
“Today is my last day at school,” my mother reported. “I can’t come back tomorrow. My family can’t afford the nickel subway fare here and back each day.”
I imagine my mother straight-backed, dry-eyed and direct.
Her teacher stared at her. And, in a way my mother remembers as harsh, took her by the elbow and said, “You’re coming with me.”
To the principal’s office they went, a place my mother knew meted out shame and punishment to people like her. But this principal, this white person, was different.
“Emilia,” she said with pleasure, “What brings you to me?”
My mother, her head uncharacteristically bowed, was silent and waited for her teacher to report the shameful news. My mother could already hear the words before they left the teacher’s lips: Quitting. Poverty. Short-sighted immigrant choices.
My mother, ever defiant, grindingly poor, was not defiant now.
But today the words were not as she expected. “Emilia can’t afford to come to school tomorrow. The subway fare is too much for her family. Do we have a bit of money somewhere to help her?”
The principal looked at my mother, head still bowed but listening.Yes, the principal said. We have a bit of money.
She reached into a drawer behind her and handed the teacher a twenty dollar bill. At this point, my mother looked up and gasped.
The teacher pressed the bill into my mother’s trembling hands.
“Take this, Emilia. Use it for the subway. And ask your parents to use it for whatever they need. We want you here with us. You are too precious — and have too much promise — to lose.”
The principal added, “And next month, we’ll give you more.”
My mother expressed her thanks and turned away, stunned. That evening, she gave her parents the money and told her parents the story.
Twenty dollars was more money than her parents could earn in a month, in their sweatshops and at the docks. It meant subway fare for herself and her brother. It meant a bit of meat each week. It meant a few dollars for their kind landlady who accepted her mother’s sweeping in lieu of rent. It meant repaying morsels of debt at the grocery store.
Her brothers would still bring home day-old bread from the bakery and wilted greens from the grocery store. And her mother still swept and scrubbed the apartment steps inside and out. But hunger and fear — for the moment — were at bay.
And my mother could return to the school she loved. Periodically, she’d come home with a five or ten dollar bills and an armload of groceries donated by her teachers. American foods like canned tuna, peanut butter, jelly and sliced white bread in a plastic bag.
My mother also continued to bring home A’s — and a new belief that, actually, anything was possible. Even for a girl like her from a family like hers in desperate times like theirs.
As kids, my Dad and I — in a not-very-nice tease — would caterwaul the school song: “Mine, mine, Washington Irving, the high school for me. You — are — always deserving — my loy-al-ty.” We’d sing the way Mom would: screechy and flat.
I wish I could apologize to my Mom now — and make my Dad apologize too — for joking about her really bad singing voice and her loyalty to Washington Irving High School.
All we saw was the powerful woman she had become; the school was just a stop along the way. For my Mom, though, Washington Irving High School shimmered with opportunities that, until then, she had never imagined for herself.
It was also a place of generosity and trust. And that was utterly unexpected for a skinny talented immigrant girl, clutching a bag of Wonder Bread.
I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community blogging site at https://fiveminutefriday.com/2019/05/16/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-promise/ Scroll all the way down and check out the other short essays on the topic of “Promise.”