“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
I will never forget my first day of nursery school in New York City. My mother and I engaged in a weeks-long prelude of excited preparation, coordinating an outfit (a red dress with a peter pan collar, paired with patent mary janes–though as the diva I always was, I really wanted RED stride rite mary janes), and memorizing important phrases (“Where is the bathroom?”); there was enough anxiety and anticipation and focused effort to know that this was a Big Deal.
I was born in the U.S., but I didn’t speak a word of English. My mother and father carried me as a toddler years previous to the preschool and asked the principal for advice on how to spare me the handicap of accented English. “Leave her to me,” the principal had said, “I’ll teach her English. Don’t teach her a word yourself.”
That this is a testament to the suffering of my mom and dad in the still-blatantly-racist-1970s makes my chest and teeth clench.
And so it was that I learned to speak English with a southern twang, inherited by not my family legacy, and not my cultural history, but someone’s name I no longer know and a face I do not remember: GEED-tar, for guitar…PRAW-doos, for produce…IN-sur-ance for inSURance…
It was an English that drew lots of teasing once I moved to California.
On my first day of school, I held the bus driver’s hand. I had never left home on my own before. And here I was, leaving home for the first time in an unfamiliar bus with an old white dude wearing oversized sunglasses that looked like cataract sunglasses who looked nothing like my parents. Pictures in which I was not smiling were taken as I stood next to the bus driver who held my hand in his strange big bumpy warm hairy hand before I walked onto the bus. I was the only child on the bus.
And after he pulled away, I panicked and I began to scream, because I felt like I’d never get back home again, because I thought I was getting fucking kidnapped by a man who had conned my parents into believing he was a bus driver, because I didn’t know who this man was, because I was going into the unknown. I began to slam the windows, demanding egress with my body and voice, because I didn’t know the words.
He stopped the bus. I quieted. And he buckled me in. Tight. He said harsh words to me, ones I understood as anger, ones after which I sat trembling and sobbing hiccups.
I’d never used a seatbelt before–when my father took us on drives, I stood upright in the footwells of the backseats, my hands wrapped around the headrests of the front seats (I still have a fond nostalgia for this dangerous memory). Seatbelted as I was, I felt pinned down. Tied down. Trapped. And I wept. I was going to die. And I had given up.
That was the first time I remember being broken.
You have to break to get stronger. Like stallions, we must be broken.
I got to school. These were the pre-ESL instruction days of 1977. The teachers had no idea what to do with a small child who spoke only a few survival words of English. They didn’t even have the wherewithal to at least point to crayon colors and announce the word for the color. They waved their hands in exasperation. And therefore, I became exasperated. I couldn’t tell them what I wanted and they couldn’t tell me what they wanted.
And so I screamed, “Bullow me!! Bullow me!” Which I’m sure sounded like, “Blow me! Blow me!”
But what I was trying to assemble, as I recall, was a way to tell them to pay attention to me. “Bul-low” is a semblance of the Korean word “call,” and “me” was one of the only English words I knew. I didn’t let up.
And so they picked my body up, carried me across the nursery school room, and threw me in the bathroom stall, like a horse. When I recount this story, people are horrified. But it’s true. I was locked in a bathroom stall all day of my first day of school. Periodically, they would come by and say words that I surmised to mean, “Are you ready to come out now and behave?”
If you know me, then you know my response was a resounding wail. And a kick to the door.
They let me out at the end of the day for the bus ride home. I never told my parents what was happening at school. I am not sure why I never told them. Perhaps I thought it was my personal battle of wills. My desire to never be broken.
The next day, I must have been uncooperative yet again, because I ended up in the bathroom stall. I stayed there all day. I ate my lunch in there.
And then the next.
But eventually, and I do not know after how many days, I got out of that stall like any stallion brought into training. I had been broken. I behaved.
I learned the language in bits, and I’m going to say that I learned it on my fucking own, because no one knew how to really teach me until I reached a minimal level of competence. When they sang “This Land is My Land,” I hummed along, catching words here and there until I could assemble a lyric.
I have been broken many times in my life. I have been brought close to death. I have been brought to wanting death more times than I can now count. Junior high and high school were torture and nearly killed me. I loved college, even though it nearly killed me too. I learned to grow a thicker skin, to experience new things broken and healed, like my heart. Each time, I was brought to my knees, emotions choked to within an inch of my life, stabbed so that the blood has flowed from my back and brought me to close to exsanguination, voice smothered so that the world has gone gray, my heart broken so that it could barely beat, but I survived. With scars. But stronger for the weakness.
Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.