Generations When Your Immigrant Mother Fights For Your Education—And You Fail
With words, spelled correctly or not, I could say exactly how I felt: like my head was a ball of snakes, like something extraordinary for once.
Finally, they let us under the tables again. There was daylight coming into the classroom from where recess would be, where there was a tube slide, puffy and orange, with cigarette burns at its mouth. I was down on my stomach with a small yellow carton of crayons, the buttons of my overalls pinching into my kindergarten chest. At five, I still didn’t know how to zip up pants, and they were thinking about holding me back, maybe not letting me into afternoon K at all. I guess I didn’t know the drill. I wasn’t around other kids too much, and when I’d go outside, I’d just slide around on my knees in the grass for a while, hyper and lost.
From my backyard, I saw houses that all looked cloned —every one like mine. Our aluminum jungle gym, painted in slashes of red and white like confetti forever, swung on so hard it came up out of the earth. Our weeping willows, those big slurpers, trees that hid us as we climbed. It was a quiet, lawn-ed planet. Around sunset, a church downtown without any bells in it would play a little wind-up hymn out of a loudspeaker. When a building went up in flames, the fire department blew a low horn, a many-throated moan, to call the volunteers in.
My mom must’ve talked the school into me, I guess. She probably went in after work , some desk job at a light bulb plant , still smelling of Chanel No. 5. She ran away from home a lot when she was a kid, when she was not in the hospital. There’s a picture of her — standing at a third-story window in a white gown, her hand against the glass, weak as a ghost — taken from below at the curb, the photographer in the parking lot about to get in the family car and drive away. (She grew up in Germany in the 1960s. Ute, an architect’s daughter. Ute, she tells me, is a common as dirt name in Germany. She didn’t want her kid to have a common as dirt name.)
My mom didn’t know much about schooling here in the States, the small-town, bake-sale politics . She’d get called in by my teachers, neck-tied or beak-lipped goons with nicely-worded worries. I’m sure she leaned back a bit with her hands folded in her lap, letting them speak. She has an accent, and I never knew she had one until someone told me they could hear it — and I still can’t hear it.
I’ll bet she raised the sort of hell that isn’t even funny to talk about in the way moms-raising-hell-for-their-kids usually is. My mom’s hell is a sort of bureaucratic hell where after a while you feel you are not only losing the argument but losing some infinite thing, like watching someone demolish your home. She just talks and talks and talks until the poor teachers, whoevers, on the other side of the desk are writhing and slowly trying to work off their shoe and sock from one foot so they can stomp on it with the other — to distract themselves from the pain.
I cannot begin to count how many times my mom would have to do this for me — walking into a dark school with all the kids gone and finding the only lit up office in the building to defend the only son she got.
And here I was on the school floor where I truly wanted to be. I alternated between the army-crawl and the boppy legs of a-teenage-girl-on-the-phone styles of lying on my stomach. I wish I could feel that floor against my forehead now, remove myself from contention.
The K teacher with the topiary haircut told us to use up all the space on the floor and face away from each other. This was the day of the first test I ever remember taking and the first time I ever remember writing. We were getting to know our alphabet. The test was she’d say a word—“dog” for example—and you’d just have to write what letter “dog” started with. The correct answer is “d.”
I gripped my crayons. Along with the pants, I was not very good with letters, especially the dreaded p, d, b, g, q’s, where you have to get the flag going in the right whichever. I was more of a TV kid even then and would watch a block of Nick Jr. cartoons every morning before school later in the day. There was this one cartoon, Face, which was a face. It had a white belt of teeth, took up the whole screen, and had big, un-understandable eyes that slid around loose, not held by or holding anything. It talked to me and made trumpet noises: “brr, brr, brr.”
“Alligator,” says the teacher.
I was on my stomach arranging the crayons that I’d upended onto the floor. I liked the color green. The TV in our house was downstairs with the brown fold-out couch and the Nintendo, my own crayons melted under the radiators, a lumpy rainbow. When I try to see the room in my head now, there is so much light coming into it from the windows and from the open front door that everything — the wadded-down carpets, the play kitchen and play food — is a paste white. Every color runs and comes dribbling out. The door was open all morning so maybe somebody could make sure I didn’t miss the bus.
“Alligator,” says the teacher again in slow motion.
Here — this is the first time I ever remember trying to cheat, copying off my neighbor’s test. But at that age, everybody’s already doing the thing where they pile up over their work, make a cup with their hand, shoulders hunched so you can’t see. At that age, they already know what belongs to them. Sometimes I’d just get so confused about doing the “right thing.” I had this fear in the the parts of me that felt gummy and not good enough, that I’d write something down, something so wrong and gross that my teacher would never let me back in school. I still have this fear.
I tried to think harder: Eh-ah-ah-ah-alligator. A-a-a-alligator. Allig-a-a-a-tor.
When my mom put me on Hooked on Phonics, brightly colored cassette tapes, the summer I was nine, it was a Hail Mary move — just put it up there . I sat in my babysitter’s kitchen in front of the preheating oven watching the coils inside bloom from black to emergency orange and got ready to bake muffins out of the box. I’d be pulled up to the table, and she’d have me read out of a workbook whose spine had to be thoroughly broken to lie flat. There were lists of words, of sometimes the same word or the family of the word, that had to be sounded out over and over.
We found out that I would read words that weren’t there. I would just make them up if it got too hard. “They were saying something was wrong with you,” my mom tells me over the phone. I am less young, face craggy from zits, old wounds. “They said you ate your lunch too fast. What the hell does that have to do with it? There was nothing wrong with you, Liam.”
Now that I think about it, I never really “got” Face. I just liked looking at Face, my brain like spit rolling down a window. Face looking and then not looking back at me because it was doing something that was supposed to be funny. But Face, all the cartoons, weren’t saying anything at all. They were figures moving around a fire to me. Without me.
I wrote my mom a note when I was in first grade. I wanted to say how much I hated her —how else to put it, how it felt like living with a downed power line in every room, this hissing, about-to-pounce fear— but instead I wrote “I hat you,” and she just stomped around the house saying, “Look at this. He wrote ‘hat.’ What are you going to give me a hat for, Liam?” I tried to get it back, the letter. There was this other feeling then that made my chest feel like a paper bag full of birds. I wouldn’t try writing again for some time.
I killed the downstairs TV a year or so later by pouring water into it trying to make it clean. A mistake. My father always vacuumed the house on Saturday mornings, and I wanted to be a part of that ritual sometimes. (The smell of fan belt or Windex always reminds me of him and the good days when it was still his house to clean.) But the TV didn’t even die right away. It would just conk out every hour or so, and it was somebody’s job to go up and Fonz it. You’d smash the top with your fist as many times as it took to get the picture back on. Then you’d get to turn to the family, give the thumbs up and go “ayyyyyyy.”
“Alligator?” says the teacher, her voice cracking a bit.
There was one night, I was bent, listening to a Bob Dylan greatest hits CD, shirtless, barely thirteen, barely-there skinny. I had cried for a while but that was over now, and I blew my nose on the bed skirt. A real sensitive boy always, acne in the T-zone, I felt like a wild animal, only the desk lamp shining on me.
My mom had come home from her new job at a knife factory with news that it too was liquidating, that everybody was going to lose their jobs. Her stress and fear, nerves shot, then turned into anger — always more plural, her angers —and it lashed out at me and my older sister, Caroline.
Nights like these my mother could scream at us for hours, salt-scorched, running from room to room —to find us, coil back, and charge again, raving, like we were in court or both caught in some trap . She’d done this before, when I had not washed the dishes, forgotten something unmissable, a chore.
I need you to understand what it sounds like when someone runs through a house. When you are hiding or pretending to sleep, red-eared but following the sound, how you really get to know where the body comes down, into the heel, into the rake of the toes. Bringing down a continent. It’s a muted thud, a glugging like a pulse, like a drum or an oar, an emptiness being beaten against. It’s an unforgettable sound, unmovable, I’ve tried.
On my knees I could feel nails rising up below the carpet. Everyone else had gone to bed, and there was a safe, steadying quiet after all the yelling, a truce. But I still felt sick with what happened. I was crouched over some homework, just to hand in, get done, something that had to be true about me. Getting sweaty pits, I shook. I remember writing and writing, comparing my anger to a lion at a zoo, mangy against its cage.
There was an exactness to words, a use. When someone ever asked me if I felt sad —my babysitter, or later my Banana Splits therapist, my coaches — I would say “no.” But here was something new, bust open. With words, spelled correctly or not, I could say exactly how I felt: like my head was a ball of snakes, like something extraordinary for once.
Slow. I sounded out the word slow like I learned. Alligator, alligator.
Caroline, who was not named after the Kennedy but a queen, would sit with me on the back porch after these fights. The porch was all cracked paint and looked like it was made of white leaves and she absently picked at them with her fingers.
She was getting so tired, she confessed, of dealing with Ute, “her bullshit,” and was thinking of moving in with our dad, his apartment by the town’s minimum security prison.
“What if we just did everything she wanted us to do,” I said, “what would she be able to yell at us about then?”
My sister sighed. She said, “No, Liam. You just don’t understand.”
The K teacher stops and looks around the room. Our day-glo winter coats hung in cubbies with the paper signs we wore to make sure we got on the right buses home. Outside was woods. A year later, someone would call in a bomb threat, and we all, not much changed, would trudge out as far as we could away from the school. It’ll be drizzling and a few of us will share our teacher’s rain poncho and make light, make each other laugh, mouths open by the trees.
The other day, my mom tells me she quit her job at the electronics company. She reads romances, legs under her, sends me a quote from Carl Sagan about living on a dot suspended in a sunbeam. She says she wishes she could take back some of her big-shoulder years, and did I feel like a nine-to-five orphan? “I wasn’t paying enough attention, and you fell behind.” She switches the phone from one ear to the other.
We are thousands of miles apart. I put that distance there, but for a long time home was all I had. I remember, just then, breaking into my own house after school when I forgot the key, breaking potted plants in the windowsill on my hands and knees, doing everything I could to get inside.
There were moments between us of persistence and care that rang out clearly. When my mother sang to me growing up she sang slow any song she knew, songs from immigration offices. I’d quake, still scared of the dark, and chew on my blankets with hippo-y teeth, and she’d sing, “Bring back, bring back,” and she’d sing, “You’re the emblem of the land I love.” When she was sure I was asleep, she’d go down to the garage and smoke alone.
Under the table, face to the floor with the fossils of muddy Velcro sneakers, steps lit up with chirps of red light, I started to really pull sounds away from the word until I was left with the first sound. Think. The shape an alligator’s open jaws makes. A as in, a is for. When will this test be over, I wanted to know. When will we stop doing this to each other.