It was the summer of 1989. François Mitterrand was the President of the French Republic, neon colors were on the cover of every fashion magazine (neon colored hair bands, neon colored T-shirts, neon colored bracelets, neon colored hair clips…) and a queen named Paula Abdul was dominating the charts. I was ten… Between the nice weather that had taken over the Northern part of France, and the great programs that were playing daily on the music television channel, I could not have dreamed of a most perfect summer… Every day, I would train in front of my bathroom’s mirror to try to emulate Queen Paula’s dance routine.
- Straight up now tell me do you really wanna love me forever, oh, oh, oh.
And I could have easily spent the rest of the summer like that, dancing and singing, as carefree as the Grasshooper from La Fontaine’s Fable, if it had not been for the youths from my neighborhood, who would always try to tease me every time they would see me at the entrance of my building.
- Yo, Bina! Back to school is coming up, eh! No more games… You’re going into 6th grade this year!
Every day, it was the same story. They sounded like an old scratched vinyl. And it seemed as though all the adults from the neighborhood had decided to join forces with them too. When early in the morning, I would go out to buy some baguettes from the local bakery, the lady at the counter would be first to start with her comments.
- Good morning, young girl! Just a couple of more weeks and it’s the big day, eh… You’re about to enter middle school! You must be pretty excited…
And then she would wink at me, trying her best to establish a meaningful adult-youth connection, whereas all that I wanted from her at this point were my three well-cooked baguettes, sixty-five cents of gummy bears candy and my change. (Thank you!)
Then, the convenience store owner would pick up the baton. Each time I would go to his store to buy all the items that my mom had written on a list for me (one bottle of orange juice, one bag of semolina, one bag of granulated sugar, five hundred grams of margarine), he would look at me and joke:
- Miss Flashdance! What do we need today? The summer season is almost done, eh, it’s that time of the year again. Did you know that my daughter was going to start middle school this year too? Maybe you guys will be in class together…
Then he would nod at me with a cheerful face, oblivious to the fact that all that I really wanted from him at this point, were my two plastic bags, a scratch-and-win lottery ticket for Daddy and my printed receipt. (Thanks!)
Usually, it was also always at that moment that I would realize that I had forgotten to buy at least one of the articles from my list (the yogurts). But I would always give up on going back inside the store, because I knew that if he were to see me at his counter again, the owner would be tempted to start a long conversation about the municipal elections, the bicentennial of the French revolution, the current price of gas, or his last vacations in Algeria… It was better to just postpone the rest of the grocery shopping to another day. Then, when with all of my plastic bags, I would finally reach the entrance of my building — a seven-story building located right in the middle of a low-income neighborhood in the city of Orleans - the group of youths who were always sitting at the entrance, would enjoy teasing me some more. Most of them were going to high school already, and they had known me since the days where I was still breastfeeding.
- Bina! Someone who’s about to enter middle school… Look at you! Yesterday, you were still playing in the sand box, and today, you’re somebody! Are you ready for this? Are you happy?
I would nod my head yes, without exactly knowing what I was supposed to be “ready” for or “happy” about. But, satisfied with my answer, the youths would give me a handshake — “Gimme five! Yeah…” - before allowing me to enter the building. A couple of hours later, I would forget about the whole thing and rush down the stairs to go play double-dutch with the little girls from my neighborhood. And so the summer could have gone by quickly, without any other major event, if all these back-to-school-related discussions had not ended up reaching my mother’s ears… One day, as I was coming back from the convenience store, one bag of groceries in one hand, and a well-cooked baguette– whose golden and delicious end I had already started eating on my way home - in the other hand, Mom started looking closely at my disheveled clothes and at my scraped knees, and, slightly panicked, she suddenly asked:
- What day is it today?
I tried to act as if I had not fully understood her question and answered as innocently as I could.
- I don’t know... Tuesday, maybe?
But Mom already had her nose stuck into in her calendar, the one that the firemen would come and sell to us door-to-door every year during the month of December for five francs and fifty cents — four francs if one knew how to bargain — and that, by the end of March, would usually be covered in notes, numbers and complex hieroglyphs that only my mother, who was their anonymous author, knew how to decipher. After tapping her pen against the calendar for a few seconds, Mom said:
- Today is August 15th already? Mama na ngaï! Back to school is coming up!!!
My face grew suddenly concerned. Like all the kids from the neighborhood, I knew what those many exclamation marks at the end of a sentence meant. It was the end of the summer vacation… Because yes, on the School Board’s official calendar, the first day of school was the first Monday of September, but for the kids from La Source, the neighborhood where I had grown up, the unofficial first day of school would actually happen a bit earlier… Back to school would kick off the moment when all of our mothers, just like after a high ranking secret meeting, would start walking back and forth in our apartments and point their calendars to the sky while lamenting:
- August 15th! It’s already August 15th!
August 15th was a fateful date, a date from which all the mothers from our neighborhood would start reprogramming their brains after having allowed them to rest for a good month and a half. From this date, regardless of whatever country they were from (Congo, Mali, Senegal, Guadeloupe) or whatever professional field they were in, our mothers would start behaving in a very different manner towards us… Their tones of voice would become more inflexible, they would frequently roll their eyes when speaking to us and just the mere fact of seeing our disheveled t-shirts at the end of a day spent on the playground, could be enough to make their high blood pressure rise. They could not stand our dirty ears or our smelly underarms any more, and anything could trigger them to deliver their favorite line:
- What is all of that? Don’t you know that school is starting soon?
And in their minds, the word “soon” had many definitions. It could mean “tomorrow”, it could mean “after tomorrow”, “in ten days” or even “in a month”. But one thing was for sure, when that word would come out of our mothers’ mouths, it was the equivalent of a court’s sentence, a fatal blow that would inevitably mark the end of our summer freedom… Before that, during the month of July and even for the first couple of weeks of August, we would benefit from a peacetime of sort, a precarious armistice during which the worst behaviors were tolerated. We could run like crazy on the playground, fight inside the swimming pool, jump in the park… everything was minimized and easily forgotten; our only obligation was to be back home before night falls. But once we had reached the second part of August, the peace treaties were no longer in effect and it was back to parenting 101. At any time, on any day; our parents could harass us mercilessly again.
- Where are you going? Stay close to the building, there, where we can see you… Be back before 8pm!
And the worse thing was that we would not be allowed to watch our summer TV shows any more… “Intervilles”, “Club Dorothée vacances” and my favorite summer TV saga: “Return to Eden”. No, starting from August 15th, we had to go to bed early again, work on the holiday workbooks that we had neglected up until that point, and forget entirely about the TV. And if we dared to protest or complain, we would receive the classic parental sermon for at least one hour and a half; the sermon that started with “when we were your age, we didn’t even have a TV”, continued with “we would walk for at least two hours to go to school” and ended with “and we never had bad grades!” Depending on the days, and on what mood the parents were in, the versions of that sermon could vary. Sometimes, they would claim that they had had to walk for four hours instead of two to reach their school. Other times, they would swear to God that they had had to stop on their way to cut down a tree, sculpt it into the shape of a student desk and bring it all the way to their school to help them study. Long story short, all types of excuses could be used to forbid us to watch TV…
Last but not least, after August 15th, before sending me to bed, Mom would always gauge my head with a concerned look. Then, after a big sigh, she would say:
- Next week, I have to start doing your hair.
Every year, I would try to postpone that fateful moment — just thinking about the pain that would inevitably result from the cornrows that my mother was planning to do on my head, was enough to make me shake — but Mom would see right through my shenanigans and threaten:
- Bina! We’re not going to wait until the last minute to take care of your hair! Come here…
Then she would examine my head and draw imaginary lines on it, mentally counting the hours of work that were going to be required to create my back to school hairstyle.
- We’re gonna need at least two days, she would say as a conclusion, more for herself than for me.
And this year was no different… Mom started worrying about my hair, just as we were reaching the end of August. But this time around, I used the opportunity to talk to her about the new hairstyle that I was secretly longing for. I was dreaming about the long braids that my cousin Karin had talked to me about. Long synthetic hair that one needed to braid all the way through, just like the classic ones, except that, at the end, instead of burning the braids’ ends with a lighter — and half of the time, risking burning ourselves in the process — this new hair could be assembled in six or eight giant braids that then needed to be soaked in boiling water for two minutes to close the ends. After that unusual treatment, and once the six giant braids had been undone, the hair would retain a cute and curly shape, as if it had been its masterplan from the beginning. It was magic… I couldn’t wait to get these new braids and to style my hair just like Paula Abdul in her videos. And if, on top of that, I could manage to find an earring in the shape of a key to wear on my right ear like Janet Jackson — Michael Jackson’s little sister — I would have the perfect look!
However, Mom begged to differ… The infamous braids that would turn wavy and cute in the water, you had to go all the way to Paris to buy them, we couldn’t find them in Orleans. And Paris was two hours away from Orleans — one hour away by train. And there were many many other way more urgent things for us to do in order to get ready for school… Because, where I was only seeing things from a solo perspective, Mom was already multiplying everything by four. Two girls and two boys, we were four children in total. Two in middle school, one in elementary school and another one in kindergarten. So that meant four times more work. And four times more expenses. Mom would spend hours adding and subtracting numbers on the little red notebook that she was using to balance the family books. She’d have to do some Nobel Prize-level Mathematics to find out how we were going to pay for our school supplies.
Each year, the four of us would grow at least a couple of inches during the summer, and even if Mom would marvel at our growth spurts with our aunties when they would come and visit us during the summer — “eh, bana bakoli déjà comme ca! Look at how these kids have grown!”- when she would realize that none of our shoes, t-shirts, skirts, pants or even sports clothes would fit any more, Mom would shake her head and start worrying about money until late at night again. Luckily, she was always able to find a second or even a third job during the summer. One extra shift here, one replacement there… The situation would always miraculously work out in the end.
Because one thing that the older kids from the neighborhood hadn’t warned me about, but that I was becoming more and more aware of every day, was that middle school was expensive, way more expensive than elementary school. Just the list of supplies for instead…
In elementary school, things were simple. Most of the supplies were provided by the school itself (thanks to Mr Jules Ferry and his dream of a creating a free secular French school system). At the beginning of the year, the school teachers would provide us with composition books, exercise books, scratchpads, grammar books, maths books and so on and so forth. Our parents’ main task was to add to that list by buying us — in no particular order: a big schoolbag (which we would use to carry all of our school materials), a homework notebook (which we would use to write down our homework every night) ; and a pencil case, a precious and vital pencil case, where we would carry all of our war treasures (a pair of scissors, a wooden rule, a four-color ball pen, a bi-color eraser, and a UHU glue stick that smelled super good).
All the cool kids owned trendy versions of these school supplies; versions that had cartoons or comic books stars on them: Billy and Buddy, Candy or even Grendizer… But the most famous of these stars was of course Mickey Mouse. All the popular kids owned at least one Mickey Mouse schoolbag, one Mickey Mouse homework book, and one Mickey Mouse pencil case. And they would always show off with their Mickey Mouse this, Mickey Mouse that, to try to impress the less fortunate students. And by less fortunate students, I mean us, the kids who were coming from the low-income neighborhoods. Truth being told, our parents had neither the time nor the money to think about no Candy, Bobby and Buddy, Grendenzer or whomever; the store brands were the only brands that they would swear by, and most of the time, the only brands that they could afford anyway.
Going back to school shopping with Mom was far from a walk in the park… If one of us had the foolish idea to try and grab an item displayed at eye’s height while we were in the store, he or she would immediately be forced by Mom to put the infamous item back where it belonged, and to grab instead its store brand equivalent, which could usually be found in the store’s lower shelves. One had to get on their knees or to lay down almost, to reach those damn lower shelves; and, when the offender would stand up with the right item in its hand this time — an item that was lifeless and colorless, but whose price was always unbeatable — Mom would have a victory smile on her face, and, like a homemaker who knows she’s just found a good deal, she would comment:
- Ah mais voilà! That’s it! Tia cahier ango na chariot. Put that workbook in the trolley. Bon, tokende. Let’s go.
Then we would move to another section of the store, on our neverending quest for cheap school supplies.
And in 1989, our mother was looking for even more good deals than before. She was about to have two kids in middle school at the same time; which was a lot. In middle school, the students’ pencil cases had to be much bigger than in elementary school… A pair of compasses was now needed for Geometry lessons, a white correction fluid — also known as Tip-Ex — was a must-have to correct essays and homework, and, last but not least, a fountain pen was now mandatory. Our very first fountain pen! The one that was going to help us write and sign countless numbers of papers and that would need to be refilled on a regular basis with high quality Waterman blue cartridges.
Middle school was a different world… Over there, school bags were not even needed any more; instead, students were finally allowed to have backpacks. And in these backpacks, plenty of new school supplies could fit: binders, dividers, calculators, card stocks… Some of them even had an extra pocket where one could fit a flute for Music class or a long white coat for Science class.
In middle school, students were not bound to one single multidisciplinary school teacher any more. No. Over there, one had a roster of teachers, and each one of them had their own specialties: French, Maths, Biology, Sciences, plus many other ones… And no more single classrooms where one would sit for a fixed number of hours every day; in middle school, students were given a “schedule”, and they were asked to switch classrooms every hour. And that new schedule was not to be written on a basic homework notebook — it was not elementary school any more after all — but in a “student planner”. It was just like our moms’ calendars, but with more pages and more pictures. And even if our mothers could force us to buy the cheapest ones, the planners could always be customized with pictures, drawings and special messages from friends. That was dope!
But middle school’s biggest revolution, was the introduction of foreign languages into the curriculum: German, Spanish, Russian, English… After two years of being jealous of my older brother’s “Ja Aber” book - the exercise book that had been in use in every German class in France since at least the seventies — I was finally going to have my own. And I was already excited about the idea of being able to listen to scenes from the German every day life in Goethe’s mother tongue. I couldn’t wait to be able to answer to very important questions like “Wie heißt du?”, “Wo bist du?”, “Was is denn los?”
Lektion 1. Zu hause.
- Brigitte, Telefon!
- Ja ja, ich komme!
- Gestern hattest du versprochen, daß du den Tisch setzen würde.
- Aber allein kann ich noch nicht alles machen, Mutti. Ich habe nicht genug Zeit. Du weißt, daß ich meine Hausaufgaben also machen muss.
- Ja ja. Für deine Freunde hast du immer genug Zeit, Brigitte. Ach… Wo ist dein Brüder? Heute werde ich ihn fragen, ob er dir in der Küche helfen kann. Aber das ist nur für Heute, Brigitte. Morgen hoffe ich, daß ich auf dich zählen können werde.
Wow! That sounded awesome! Well, at least I was hoping that it would be awesome… But the truth is that I had no idea. And that I was scared… And why would I not be? As a fifth grader, I would hear terrible things about middle school… In 5th grade, we were the oldest ones, the kings of the world; it was up to us to make the rules on the playground. We had won our crowns after having won many a marbles game, after having snatched the victory in many a snow fight. But, once in middle school, our reign was over. We were about to be sent back to the bottom of the ladder… The 6th graders were the youngest ones in middle school, the punch bags of all the other kids. We had heard that the 7th graders were so happy not to be in 6th grade any more, that they were the ones who would actually be tormenting us the most. It was also rumored that the 8th graders were capable of kicking us in the shins under the tables of the school library. And finally, it was highly recommended to never ever look at a 9th grader directly in the eyes — they were way taller than us anyway — because they could, in just one sentence, one clever joke, turn us into the school’s new laughing stock…
In middle school, the breaks were very short, a few minutes only, and nobody would play marbles or pretend to be Knights of the Zodiac in the schoolyard. No, the students would just be standing there like that and talk…Talk? Talk about what? This, I didn’t know yet... But what could be more interesting than playing make-believe Knights of the Zodiac at recess?
And on top of all that talking, rumor had it that the middle schoolers were smoking cigarettes in the schoolyard. Yark… What for? The 6th graders, not that much, but the 7th, 8th and 9th graders were all professional smokers apparently. So, did that mean that I was going to have to become a smoker in order to be cool too? So many questions for which I didn’t have any answer yet…
But the worst rumor, the one that was really preventing us from sleeping on both ears at night, was the rumor that was concerning the middle school’s Vice-principal. The school’s Principal was said to be rarely, if ever seen. He was always busy doing only God knew what. But the Vice-principal was impossible to miss, and he was feared like no one else among all the students. His reputation would go even further than the limits of our own neighborhood. He was from Corsica, and only 5’2, but he was said to be as bad-tempered as Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas”.
All year long, he would be walking back and forth in the school’s hallways with a whistle around his neck, just like an army officer, and if a student was not behaving properly, he would blow his whistle and straightened the culprit out very quickly. The rumors were also saying that the Corsican, a true Napoleon fellow country-man, would not hesitate to slap the hell out of whomever was sent to his office by the teachers, girls and boys alike, it didn’t matter. He was scared of no one. The little hoodlums, the delinquents wannabe… He had subdued thousands of them already. He knew how to keep the rebellious teenagers in check, which had won him the respect of all the elders from our neighborhood. The parents would put all of their trust in him, and the students would fear him like the Godfather. Everybody would get the warning at the beginning of the year: “don’t get sent to the Vice-principal office, or…” OK, I understood that part; but how could one avoid to be sent to his office? What was the best way to avoid any punishment? Or how could one make sure to be in the Corsican’s good graces? It was a total mystery to me.
I turned to my older brother to try to get some answers. He was about to go into 8th grade, and had been swimming with the middle school’s sharks for about two years already, so surely, he had to be in the know about all the dos and dont’s of the administration… But his answer to me was quite disappointing. He shrugged and only gave me a vague:
- Ah, don’t worry. You’ll figure things out when you get there…
I then turned towards the older youths from my neighborhood, the ones who were always sitting in the building’s entrance. But I wasn’t able to extract any satisfying answer from them either. All they had to offer me was:
- Chile, you got this. You’ll be fine.
Fine? Easier said than done! My investigation was going nowhere…
Finally, it’s the convenience store owner who was able to give me the best answer. I was busy putting some groceries inside of my two plastic bags, when he suddenly asked:
- Bina, have you been to the middle school yet, to check what it looks like? My daughter went there yesterday, you know, just to get a rough idea of what to expect…
Now, that was a great idea! Maybe doing a tour of the school, even from the outside, would help me understand its mysteries a little better? OK. I made up my mind right there. I was going to go on an exploration trip to see up close and personal what the fuss about middle school was all about… So this is how, on the day before the first day of school, on Sunday, September 3rd, 1989, I bravely jumped on my bike with the intended goal to do everything in my power to become more familiar with that infamous building from the Ministry of Education.
The middle school was located not too far away from our house; it was a fifteen minutes walk, or an eight minutes bike ride. The way to get there was quite simple: you just needed to walk all the way straight, cross three roads, pass by the convenience store, walk straight for another five minutes, and then bam, there it was. But that day, for whatever strange reason, just before reaching the convenience store, I decided to make a last minute turn to the left, and to take a very different direction… I found myself pedaling on a long, but very familiar road. It was the road that was leading to my former school… Like a pilgrim going back to a sacred place, I had just felt the need to see my elementary school again. I wanted to feel the strong and reassuring presence of the walls that had been like a home for me during the past five years…
The elementary school was quite far from my house. It was located at a good forty minutes walk, or a twenty minutes bike ride, if one could pedal quickly. My siblings and I had never been to the elementary school that was located in the middle of our neighborhood. Our parents had preferred sending us to another school, because they somehow had gotten to know its teachers, and they liked and trusted the education that we were getting from them. They had had to make a special request to the City, for us to be allowed to study in a different area code than the one where we were living though. People from the neighborhood would call us “posh” and make fun of us for that — “but why can’t you guys just go to the school that’s closer?” the other kids would keep asking us — but the parents were happy, so we had to take the jokes and follow their wishes.
But for middle school, no more special requests, the City Councillors were inflexible; we had to go to the middle school that was serving our geographical area. However, our school teachers had advised the parents to sign us up for German classes. They had the reputation to attract all the bright students. Our middle school was one of the rare schools in the city to offer these German classes, so kids would come from all over the city just to get into them. But the problem with that radical change of area code, was that all of my former schoolmates, with the exception of one or two maybe, were going to go to other middle schools, ones that were closer to their own houses. I was the only one from my group of girlfriends who was about to enter the middle school adjacent to the convenience store. Which meant that I was gonna have to start everything from scratch again… Introducing myself. Finding new friends. Fighting to get accepted. That was really really not what I wanted. But, since that middle school was closer to our house, I was going to be able to come home for lunch every day; which meant no more bus fares and no more bills from the school canteen. And savings, no matter how small, were always welcomed by Mom. So, to encourage and reassure me, she would say all the time:
- Don’t worry, Bina. You’ll be fine, just like your brother. He made plenty of new friends as soon as he started middle school.
Yeah, right. But it was not the same! My brother was always making new friends wherever he was going. All the kids liked him, he was that popular. But for me, it was another story…
On my way to my former elementary school, I started thinking about my three best friends: Émiline, Angélique and Cécile. I was remembering all the tears that we had cried at the end of the school year, our sacred promises to keep writing to one another forever and ever, our determination to keep having play dates with each other throughout the year. The memories wouldn’t stop coming back to my mind; the more I was pedaling, the more things I would remember: our silly games at recess where we would play jumping ropes, double-dutch and hopscotch for hours, our winter school trips to the mountains and our summer school trips to the South of France. These five years that we had spent together were ones for the books!
I finally reached the school neighborhood, parked my bike in a rack, and decided that I would pick some chestnuts from the ground first, before doing anything else. For me, like for many families that were living in the area, it was a tradition. The school neighborhood was full of chestnut trees that would give plenty of fruits each year. So, when they were in season, usually at the beginning of the fall, people would come with their plastic bags or their wooden baskets and pick up all the chestnuts that they could find on the ground. Then, they would go home and either boil them in a pan or roast them in the oven, according to one’s preferences. I always found them delicious either way, except for the ones that had worms inside of them, and that we had to immediately throw away to make sure not to eat them.
It was a little early in the season, but I was able to fill a well-sized plastic bag with at least five kilos of chestnuts. Mom was going to be very happy! We would certainly have them for dinner, breakfast and even snack the next day. Then I put my bag on the ground next to my bike, and started walking closer towards the school. My intention was to look at my old classroom from a distance, through the wire fences. But, much to my surprise, when I got close enough, things were actually looking very different from what I remembered… Had the ground been painted in a different color during the holiday break? Had our drawings — which were usually hanging on the classroom’s walls — been removed already? And what about the schoolyard? Had the sandboxes been moved around? Had some of the bigger trees been cut? Everything seemed so different! And so small! Why was everything suddenly so small?
I felt like Alice in Wonderland in front of that ridiculous small entrance door. Or like Gulliver when he visited the Liliputians. It seemed like I was not welcomed in my own school any more; I felt so out of place… Small knots started forming in my throat and I could feel them wanting to move down towards my chest. Rather than giving them enough time to turn into tears, I picked up my bike in a hurry, and started pedaling as fast as I could towards my house. I didn’t look back, not even once. So it’s only when I reached home, that I realized that I had forgotten my plastic bag on the ground, with all the chestnuts in it.
When she saw me coming back home late, sweating and disheveled, Mom, furious, bombarded me with questions as soon as she opened the door:
- Bina! Where were you? Don’t you know that tomorrow is the first day of school?
I had neither the willingness nor the strength to give her a long explanation, so I just lowered my head down and replied:
- I just went for a bike ride.
Mom rushed me inside the house, took my bike away to go put it on our balcony, and sent me directly to the kitchen.
- Go get your food, brush your teeth and then you go to bed. Don’t even try to read until midnight today. If I see that the lights are still on when I pass by your bedroom…
She had the strict and inflexible tone of voice reserved for pre-back-to-school nights. The relaxed and jokes-telling Mom from the holiday season was gone. From September until June, Mom was on a tight schedule. She was more organized than the military. All of our meals for the upcoming week had been planned already, wrapped in foil paper, stored in the fridge in hermetically closed Tupperwares. Everybody’s school bag was ready, and our clothes had been carefully washed, ironed and folded for the next day.
For me, Mom had selected a pair of blue jeans, with a white shirt and a green sweater that we had found in a cheap clothes store the previous week. I also had new fake Wallabee Clark shoes, which I was totally in love with. But I didn’t really have the opportunity to get too excited about my new outfit, because it was already time to turn the lights off. Mom was not in the mood to make any exception tonight. She knew how much I loved to read, and how I could just spend hours with my books until late at night, especially when I would start a new novel by Agatha Christie. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot’s investigations could keep me awake for hours, to the point where Mom had to come and turn the lights off in my bedroom herself to force me to go to bed. Sometimes, I would still keep reading in the dark with a flashlight. I had trained myself to decipher any text on a page, even in extremely low light situations.
- You’re going to ruin your eyes if you keep reading without any light like that, Mom had warned me more than once.
But I just couldn’t help it. Miss Marple needed me! Some parents would always try to force their kids to read, but for me, it was the opposite. My mom was at war to try to separate me from my books, and to force me to go outside more often to play. She was always afraid that if I did not spend enough time outside to exercise, my body would not grow tall enough or not be healthy enough.
- You’re already not eating anything, she would say in a very upset tone, while trying to double the amount of food in my plate.
And then my dad would add:
- If you stay inside too much, you’re going to suffer from rickets!
“Rickets”? What was that? I would go dive into our family dictionary to find out what that strange disease was and, after reading that “rickets” was “a disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency, characterized by imperfect calcification, softening, and distortion of the bones typically resulting in bow legs”, I would get extremely scared and scream ‘noooo’ a couple of times, before grabbing my jumping rope and quickly run outside to go play. But, after a few hours, I would just be missing my books too much, so I would always return to the scene of the crime to help Mister Poirot solve the mystery of the day… But nope, not tonight. Tonight, Mom had decided that no book and no flashlight of mine would keep me company…
But without any stories to read to help my eyes get tired, I found myself totally unable to sleep. I was turning and turning on my bed again, begging the Sandman to come and help alleviate my pain, but to no avail. After hours and hours of this torture, I finally found a suitable sleeping position: lying on my right side, arms half-open, right leg folded towards me, and left leg almost out of the bed. OK. I was ready to go say hi to Morpheus… But this was just the moment that Mom chose to come and tap me on the shoulder.
- Bina! Bina, wake up! It’s almost seven o’clock!
I immediately realized that I had just spent a sleepless night…
I grumbled and slowly tried to stretch; my muscles were still aching from all the biking that I had done the day before. But Mom had no intention to let me move in slow motion.
- It’s almost seven o’clock, she repeated. Nobody is using the bathroom. Go, go, go.
And she kicked me out of the bed unceremoniously. On school days, everything had to be carefully timed and scheduled. Mom would wake up first at 5am to take her shower; then it would be my dad’s turn to use the bathroom. He would grab his breakfast quickly and then rush to go to work. Then, Mom would wake the two little ones up, wash them, clothes them and feed them, while my brother John would go jump in the shower. This year, he was the one in charge of taking the little ones to their first day of school, because, as an 8th grader, he still had two full days of vacation left. So I was the last one to wake up and go take my shower that morning. But Mom didn’t care if I was completely awake or not; she had an early bus to catch to make it on time to work, and was therefore trying to give me her instructions as quickly and efficiently as possible, while handing me a big pot of Nivea lotion.
- Bina, don’t fall asleep in the shower, eh? Make it quick quick! And don’t use all the hot water. I’ve left puff puffs on the kitchen table, and there’s jam and milk in the fridge. Eat properly before you leave the house. OK?
Mom was a hardcore believer in the benefits of having a good breakfast before going to school. It was supposed to help us get good grades. I nodded in agreement, my eyes still red and puffy.
Mom put a ten francs coin in my hand.
- There you go. Buy yourself some snack after school.
I felt the cold metal landing in the palm of my right hand, and thanked her with my still half-asleep voice.
- And don’t forget to lock the door when you leave the house, she added.
That was her last recommendation.
- See you tonight!
She grabbed her purse, rushed outside and slammed the entrance door behind her.
I put the ten francs coin on the bathroom sink, removed my pajama and entered the bathtub. It was true that I didn’t like to eat at lunch time and diner, but, for all things bakeries-related — croissants, chocolate croissants, pains aux raisins, pains aux amandes — I always had room in my stomach… Actually, I wanted it to be snack time already… I had heard that during the ten o’clock recess in middle school, students could buy chocolate croissants for one franc and fifty cents only… I was gonna be able to restock all day! But for now, my stomach was not rumbling; what I needed was a good shower.
I opened the bathroom taps and sprayed myself for a good ten minutes with the hottest water possible before remembering what Mom had told me. I was not supposed to waste the hot water… I hurried up and closed all the taps. When the water bill was going to arrive, I was certainly going to get a speech from Mom again… But it was worth it. I was feeling ten times much better already…
I dried my body with a very large bathroom towel, put some Nivea lotion on my arms and legs, and started getting dressed. Dark blue jeans, white shirt and a green sweater. My clothes were still smelling like brand new. Then I walked towards the kitchen. Our apartment was strangely quiet. It was one of the first times where I actually had it all for myself, without my parents or my siblings. I ate quite quickly, more out of stress than by lack of time, because I still had more than one hour left before going to school. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet, and school started at nine. I was about to be super early… Mom had planned the day as if I was still going to go to my former school. Well, it also meant that I had enough time to stop by the bakery to buy some croissants… One last little pleasure before the classes would officially start.
I went back to the bathroom to get my ten francs coin. But when I arrived close to the mirror, I immediately noticed that something was wrong. Was it my outfit? Or my shoes? No… It was my hair! The cornrows that my mom had done to me three days prior were framing my face in a very outdated manner, exaggerating my young features. It was a disaster! And that was not even the hairstyle that I had planned anyway… I thought about the Paula Abdul’s video, and the Janet Jackson’s earrings… Then the thought of the neverending sermon that Mom would give me if I only dared to touch at her cornrows paralyzed me for a few seconds. But only for a few seconds… Forget it, I had to do it! I looked at the bathroom’s clock. Five past eight, I still had enough time… So I took a deep breath, grabbed the afro comb from the top drawer of our bathroom’s cabinet, and without any other hesitation, spent the following twenty minutes undoing all of my mother’s hard work...
Then I looked at the result of my betrayal in the mirror. My hair was free, though some of it still had kept the shape of the cornrows… But now was not the time to stop what I had so boldly started. So I grabbed a jar of Dax pomade from our bathroom cabinet, put some of it in my hand and let it melt in my hair to soften it. Then I gathered my hair in a high bun and tied it with a neon blue elastic, while leaving a part of it unattached on my forehead to create a bangs-like effect. It looked fly!!! I closed the jar of pomade, washed my hands, and grabbed my backpack in a hurry. Half past eight, it was time to go. I carefully locked the door behind me. At least one of my mother’s instructions had to be respected…
I crossed the three streets that were separating my building from the middle school in no time. I was walking super fast, because I had the terrible feeling that everybody was able to see the hair crime that I had just committed. It was written all across my forehead! And so, every second, I was fearing that one of my aunts would come out of nowhere to yell at me:
- Bina! What did you do with your hair? Wait until we go and tell your mother!
But no aunty was in sight. The streets of Orleans were totally empty, except for the hundreds of kids who were all walking towards one direction: the middle school. Hundred of kids full of juvenile acne on their face and with their teeth covered with braces. Kids who somehow had made it back from summer vacation with their legs suddenly too long, and their backs stuck in a terrible posture — we would all walk with our heads lowered down and our eyes looking at the ground, almost afraid to look at one another.
As I walked past the convenience store, I was wondering if I would run into Farida, the owner’s daughter. But no. Nobody was in sight over there either.
Finally, I arrived in front of the middle school entrance at exactly quarter to nine. The main doors were still closed. We still had about ten more minutes to wait before the official start of the day. In the meantime, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. It seemed like we were all wondering what the hell we were doing there, clearly wishing we could be somewhere else.
I found an empty spot to wait on my own, not too far from the main entrance. With the last minute hairstyle change, I didn’t even have had the time to stop by the bakery for a croissant. Oh, well… I could always go later on during the day if needed. Standing next to me was a young boy who seemed to be having a heated discussion with his mother. (Approximately a third of the students were there accompanied by their parents) He was blond, short and looked extremely young, younger than everybody else. Maybe he had skipped a year? Also, he was still wearing a school bag, no backpack. He had missed the memo, apparently... His mother was trying to make eye contact with him, but he seemed extremely annoyed by her mere presence. She was wearing a stylish suit and kept looking at her watch every five minutes, visibly worried, as if she was torn between going to wherever she needed to go and leaving her child at school alone. Looking at her watch again, she complained out loud:
- Quarter to nine. It’s already quarter to nine… What are they waiting for? Didn’t they say quarter to nine?
She turned more frankly towards her son and asked.
- Jacques… Jacques? What does it say on your letter?
Jacques rolled his eyes, visibly still annoyed.
- Mom, I don’t know…
He was not willing to cooperate. And to make it crystal clear, he added.
- But if you need to go, you can go, okay? I can take care of myself.
The mother let out a big sigh.
- And leave you alone for the first day of school? No, no, no…
- But I’m not alone, Mom, look at all the people around us here!
- Jacques, watch your tone! Remember what your daddy and I told you this morning…
Jacques rolled his eyes again.
- Fine, fine, whatever…
Jacques’ mother looked at her watch for the third time, getting more and more impatient.
- I have a meeting with the board at 10am… I’m never gonna be able to make it.
Then she suddenly turned towards me.
- Miss... Excuse me, miss!
I jumped with surprise. Was she talking to me or to someone behind me? Then, as if she had the ability to read my thoughts she said.
- Yes, you!
I fixed my posture to better listen to her question.
- Do you know at what time they’re going to open the doors? What time does it say on your letter?
I tried to reply in the most mature possible manner.
- School opens at nine o’clock.
Now, it was her turn to be surprised.
- Nine o’clock? I thought doors would open at quarter to nine!
She turned back towards her son.
- Jacques, I’m so sorry, but I have to go; I can’t be waiting around like that all day…
I tried to look compassionate. Jacques seemed pretty unbothered by the whole situation, but for some reason, his mom felt it was important to add.
- Are you going to be ok, sweetheart?
Big sigh from Le Jacques…
- Of course, I will be ok, Mom! Why are you even worried about that?
But his mother insisted.
- If there’s anything, you’ll ask around, ok?
- What am I even supposed to ask? And to whom?
- Oh, come on now, Jacques. Look at all the people around you…
This is when Jacques’ mom and her overpriced suit turned towards me again.
- Excuse me… Miss?
This time, I knew right away she was talking to me.
- What foreign language did you pick this year? English?
- No, I’ve signed up for German class…
I was still trying to speak in my newly-found mature tone of voice.
- Oh, you’re taking German class? she asked, a little surprised. Well, then, it’s just like Jacques.
Turning towards her son again, she said with authority.
- Jacques, if you get lost inside the school, you can ask directions to this young lady over here. Jacques? Jacques… Do you hear me? She’s signed up for German, just like you. Maybe you guys will end up in the same class.
Then, speaking to me directly again, she asked.
- You don’t mind helping him, right?
I nodded my head yes, even though, I was not even sure if I actually minded it or not.
Jacques shrugged again. He had obviously zero intention to get lost inside the school or to keep the conversation going with his mom or with me. His mother offered me a smile nevertheless.
- Oh, thank you! That’s very kind of you… And what’s your first name? she asked, while taking her car keys out of her purse.
I answered, quick as a flash.
But I stopped in the middle of my sentence.
Bina was the nickname that my parents and my family had given me when I was a little child. It meant “dancing” in Lingala. It was cute. It sounded nice. But my intuition was telling me that it was not the name that I should be using at that moment.
I caught myself just on time and replied instead.
I had pronounced each syllable in a very distinct manner, rolling my middle R as if it were a business card.
Jacques’ mom looked quite impressed. “Sabrina” sounded like the name of a well-behaved middle school grader, someone capable of rescuing her son even in extreme conditions.
- Perfect! Have a great first day of school, she said to me in a smile.
Then she turned one last time towards her son:
- See you later, sweetheart.
She crossed the street in a hurry to get to her car, jumped inside it and then took off. Not even twenty seconds after she had left, Jacques left his spot to go stand as far away from me as he could. I didn’t even take it personally. Apparently, he was hating on everybody, even on his own mother. It was going to be so much fun if we were to find ourselves sitting next to one another in German class…
I started looking at the crowd of young kids on the sidewalk and asked myself who else was going to be our potential classmate. Maybe this young girl over there, wearing small glasses and a sweater that looked too big for her? Or this other guy over there, whose serious face looked like he intended to be first of his class…Or maybe that shy and short blond girl, standing behind him, with her puffy cheeks and her pink socks assorted to her pink loafers?
But I didn’t really have enough time to ask myself more questions, because the bell suddenly started ringing and the doors of the middle school instantly started opening. The sound of that bell was different from the one from the elementary school though. The one from elementary school sounded reassuring, this one was making a piercing sound, as unpleasant as the sound of an alarm o’clock at six in the morning.
It was five to nine…Hundred of students rushed inside the school together like one man. I let them pass by me, one after the other. I was suddenly experimenting a strange sense of calm and serenity. Feelings of excitement and joy were bit by bit replacing all of my worries… It felt as if the whole building was slowly but surely opening its huge doors to me. No more mysterious fortress… I was a guest of honor.
My intuition was already telling me that this building was about to become the center of a brand new world for me. A world full of first everything… First parties, first crush, first teenager’s foolishness. I could see all of that coming… And my intuition was also telling me that I was about to meet all of my future best friends in this brand new world, the types of friends that one would keep for twenty-five, thirty or even forty years. Lifelong friendships... And maybe lifelong rivalries too! So, I decided to stop right there, at the entrance door, and to embrace this unique moment so that I could print it in my memory. But actually, I stopped for so long, that I almost forgot to walk past the doors and enter the building. I was just about to find myself locked outside, when a piercing noise woke me up from my daydream. It was the sound of a whistle… And a short man started talking to me with a strong Corsican accent.
- Well, well, well... Someone has her head in the clouds already! As soon as the bell rings, you have to get inside, young lady, otherwise, we’ll close the door on you…And basta!
I couldn’t believe it. The infamous Vice-principal was standing right there, in front of me. He was a little smaller than I thought he would be, and he didn’t even seem as cruel as what was said about him in the stories… Still, the tone of his voice was very firm. And he was looking at me straight in the eyes. His intuition was certainly telling him that it would not be the last time that he would see me arriving like this at the last minute, long after the bell had finished ringing…
- Quick, quick, go and join the other kids, he shouted.
My voice had lost all of its newly found confidence as I replied:
- Yes, yes, I’m going right now…
But the Corsican had another question for me.
- And what’s your last name, miss? he asked, already memorizing my face’s features for future references.
My voice was shaking a little, but I replied:
His face instantly turned red.
- Like the older brother, the one who is starting 8th grade this year?
- Yes, I replied, trying to make myself as small as possible.
I was really not sure if the reference to my big brother was a good thing or not… But I feared that it was the second option.
- Oh, bonne mère! You better behave this year, young lady! I don’t want you to start any trouble! OK?
I nodded my head yes, now frankly traumatized…
The bell rang for a second time, which meant it was time for me to go and join all the other students inside of the middle school’s main hall. We were about to find out the composition of our 6th grade classes.
I only had a couple of seconds left to join the other kids, but I stopped again near the entrance to look at a plaque that was hanging on one of the building’s wall. It had those words carved on it:
Alain Fournier Middle School
1 Alain Fournier street
45100 Orléans La Source
My hands held the shoulder straps of my backpack a little tighter, and my whole walk started evolving to adapt to the circumstances. It was a new walk, a slow and very casual walk; a walk that no adult could have any hold over. My fake Wallabees Clark shoes were now leaving the ground in a cool and calculated manner that I didn’t even know they possessed. I had a big smile on my lips as I started pushing the hall’s main entrance door. Oh yes, that was it!!!! I had just started 6th grade…
© Sabrina Moella