Over this Thanksgiving weekend the theme has been, of course, thankfulness. Today I was thankful for memories. You think about different times in your life, and it’s like picking up a good book and reading it again. Reliving all the old stories. This weekend I’ve been remembering my 4th grade year.
When I was six we moved back to the States from Haiti. We settled in a little trailer on my grandparents’ farm in Morehead, Kentucky, and my mom enrolled at the Morehead State University. She was going back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant. She did two years at MSU and then was ready to start the PA program which was at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. We were established in Morehead, had a church, our home was comfortable and my Mom only needed to be in Lexington for one year. My parents made the decision that we would live in campus housing during the school week and then would drive the hour back home to Morehead every weekend.
We got to Lexington before classes started and moved into our new apartment. We didn’t bring much as the apartment was already furnished, and we didn’t plan on spending weekends there. For some reason we were put in the Foreign Student Housing. There was a long road with identical apartment buildings lining the road. The apartments set aside for Foreign Students were at the very end of the road. Each apartment building had 8 apartments with outside entrances at each corner of the building. I remember having a very real fear that I wouldn’t be able to figure out which apartment was ours since each building looked exactly alike. This was the beginning of one of the most multicultural years I have ever had.
Let me introduce you my neighbors. Downstairs, directly underneath us, was an Indian couple who had a little boy, maybe three or four, named Sanjeet. The mom wore saris and had a beautiful red dot on her forehead. The smells from her cooking would waft up into our apartment and my mom, who grew up in India, would long to just go downstairs and ask to eat with them. In the next building over from ours were two brothers, Harry and Franklin who were from Panama. Franklin was my age and Harry was my brother’s age. These were the two that we hung out with the most. There was Ronnie from the Philippines who was in my grade at school. He lived across the street. He was different. He liked to wear his mom’s makeup and sometimes one of her scarves or her shoes. He was unmercifully teased. I tried to be nice to him but he was not the nicest person and so I ended up keeping my distance. There was the kid from West Germany (this was before the Wall came down) who had stair step brothers and they all looked alike, same bowl haircuts, same worn out clothes. There was the Muslim family whose Mom we would see walking around, veiled, pushing a stroller with several other small children walking along. They were from somewhere in Eastern Europe. They stand out in my memory because the boy that was my age liked to pick fights and his five year old brother went down in history as the first person to totally cuss me out. Then there was my friend Katelynn. She was from Hungary. Even though she lived across the street from me, I didn’t meet her until we had been in school for a while. She was brought into my math class and the teacher sat her next to me. The teacher explained that she didn’t speak English and could I please try to help her figure out what we were doing in our math book. This was when I found out that math crosses over any language. I was amazed that she could look at the math book, understand it, do the problems, and do them a whole lot better than me, even though she couldn’t read the English words that explained the problems. This began our friendship and we soon discovered we lived close to each other. At that time Hungary was still a communist country. Katelynn’s father was a scientist who had gained permission to come do some kind of research work at UK. Katelynn wasn’t able to play a whole lot because she had to keep up with her Hungarian school, plus her Russian school, plus she was trying to learn English and keep up with American school. When she was able to play, she would come over to my apartment with her little sister Ignes, and we would play “Mickey Mouse Club”. I wanted a club and Katelynn and her sister loved Mickey Mouse and had all kinds of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, and so, it became a Mickey Mouse club. I have no idea what we did, but I do remember that we were happy doing it. Little girls, hiding in a corner, giggling. Some things are the same no matter where you are from.
I loved playing with Katelynn, but as I said before, she was usually busy with school work. Most of the time I played with Franklin and Harry. Franklin and Harry are responsible for exposing me to every imaginable swear word in the English language. Their English was actually great. I’m not sure how long they had been in the states. I only ever heard their parents and other siblings speak Spanish. It was quite a shock to come from my missionary kid background plus my small-town country-living, and come to a place where all the kids cussed like sailors and every other word out of there mouth was unrepeatable.
Franklin had black hair and twinkling eyes and he was the life of the party. Everything was more fun with Franklin. I had a pair of skates. Franklin didn’t have a pair of skates. So I gave him one skate and wore the other and we would link arms and team-skate up and down the sidewalk. He was the one that convinced me we could skate down a really steep hill. Come on! We can do it! (No, we couldn’t). It took quite a while for the bloody knees, elbows, and hands to heal from that escapade. Harry and Franklin had very little supervision and they would get on the University bus and ride all over campus. They would go down to the football stadium after a game and scour the bleachers, looking for money people had dropped and whatever treasures they could find. One time they brought back some little pom poms and gave me one. I was so excited. I had, for some reason, decided that having big bushy pom poms and giving cheers would be fun. So Franklin went back and gathered up a giant bag of mini pompoms for me. We divided them up into two bundles, taped the handles together, and created two giant pom poms. I played “cheerleader” to my heart’s content. I would cheer for the boy’s tag football games that they played in the median that was in the middle of our parking lot. I tried to play football with the boys, and they didn’t mind me playing, but after experiencing being tackled to the ground and then having everyone jump on top of me in a giant pile, I decided cheerleading was more my thing.
We all attended Glenwood Elementary School. The school was located in an upscale neighborhood and all of us kids from the UK campus were bused over. The school had a very dedicated music teacher, Miss Markle, who taught daily music classes (she introduced me to the wonders of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite), had an orchestra, the Swing Choir which was by audition only, and a Glee choir that was mandatory for all 5th and I think 6th graders. I was in the swing choir. That year Miss Markle decided that everyone was going to learn “O Come All Ye Faithful” in latin. Adestes Fideles. There is a part in the latin where it says, “venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus, Dominum” So, the “adoremus” is pronounced “ah-do-re-MOOS”. Harry and Franklin and a bunch of other kids on our bus learned this song. They all loved the “adoremus” part because it ended in “MOOSE”. This lead to the really interesting experience of riding a public school bus with a bunch of rowdy, rough-edged kids, all of us singing Adestes Fideles at the top of our lungs with a heavy emphasis on the “MOOSE”. A definite improvement from their normal habit of flipping off the cars that had the unfortunate luck of getting behind our bus.
During the school year I also got to know a girl named Emily who went to my school. She was Jewish. Her family lived in the neighborhood right next to the school. I think her parents weren’t quite sure what to do with our friendship. I was allowed to come to her house, but she wasn’t allowed to come to my house. I would make the very long walk over the fields behind our apartments, through the neighborhood to her house all by myself and we would play in her fenced-in backyard. Her mother was always dressed very fancy and she was always concerned that Emily not get dirty or mess up her clothes. One time her mom had to run errands and so we got in the car with her and we stopped by the synagogue, which was, to my eyes, surprisingly modern. Growing up learning all about the history of the Jews in the Bible, I found it fascinating to finally be interacting with some real modern-day Jews. Emily’s mom would also bake something called Beer Cookies. My parents were strict teetotalers and so I found this quite scandalous. I tried one, but didn’t think they tasted very good, even though Emily thought they were the best cookies ever.
All week long I was inundated with culture and amazing learning experiences. Then the weekend would come along. Friday night we would pile into our little car and make the trek back to the farm. It was only an hour’s drive, but to children, an hour feels like a lifetime. We would get home late at night to our cold trailer, nestled in among the pine trees on the hillside. I would go back to my tiny bedroom and jump under the covers, my patchwork quilt making my room feel cozy. All my toys and books had been waiting patiently for me and I would snuggle under the covers, just enjoying being in my bedroom again. I could hear my dad in the kitchen struggling with the wood-burning stove, trying to get a fire started so the trailer could start warming up. Tomorrow was Saturday, I could look forward to playing with my cousins, and the new girl that had moved next door. We would run around the woods, play in the creek, maybe ride my Aunt’s ponies. Sunday we would go to church and see our old friends, then Sunday night, back to the city for another week of adventures. I breathed in the rich smell of woodsmoke, dad had finally got the fire going. I turned off my lamp, snuggled down into my blankets, and fell asleep with a smile on my face.