The Year I Chose My Class

My mother is lying on the sofa, her eyes are closed, and she is listening to the old music from Puerto Rico. The men sing in high, trembling voices, sickly sweet, and the lyrics are sad and yearning. Guitars trill in the background. It is 1968. Sheer curtains filter the setting sun in the room. There is an amber glow falling fast into gray dusk.

My father, a printer, would be coming home in the early morning hours. Later, both of them will sit at the kitchen table and count out the money from his paycheck. All the 20s, 10s and 5s fanned out in neat rows. She’ll scoop up her share, and he’ll smirk. What are you doin’? he will say. But he is kidding. She takes care of all of us, even him. We are a family of five, in a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project on the far west side of Manhattan. She is quietly plotting our escape.

In the pictures from that time we look happy. We’re smiling at the kitchen table, in front of a narrow wall that is bare, save for a large crucifix. We’re gathered in front of a large Christmas tree that is dressed in tinsel and smothers a small corner of the living room. The walls are thin. We hear neighbors fighting, children crying, a man bellowing in a drunken rasp. We do not think they hear our fighting and weeping, too.

Sometimes my mother comes home from her job at a clothing factory with a newspaper that the Nation of Islam has thrust into her hands. The newspaper describes the white man as the devil. We are white-skinned, but the assumption is that we are on the same side. One day she comes home from a union rally with a newspaper folded into a funny hat on her head.

My mother tells me one day that she wants me to take a test for the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

I already go to a Catholic elementary school, but this one is different. A family friend who is a secretary there said I should give it a try. After taking a test I would spend a day at the school to see if I like it.

Sacred Heart is an all-girls school in a mansion. I write about my visit in my journal. It is January 17, 1969.

A girl named Maria is my guide. She lives in Scarsdale. I attend several classes including science, math, anthropology, English and French. Between classes, girls talk about their winter vacations. It seems that most of them had gone skiing. A girl sits in a little nook in the marble walls, chatting on a walkie-talkie. I write down in my diary all the names of the girls I like: Rosa, Charlene, Melanie and Alicia. Everyone is kind and welcoming.

During one class, we discuss the last election, and Nixon’s upcoming inauguration. I raise my hand. I don’t recognize my voice because I am nervous and I feel trembly. The Yippies are planning to inaugurate a pig, I say. This is an important part of the story for me. No one says anything.

In April, I hear from Sacred Heart’s Mother Harmon. I am very good in English, but extremely poor in Math. But they want to give me a chance, and if I study hard I could enter the school. I say no, and my mother does not mind.

I spend one year at a Catholic high school, not Sacred Heart. A science teacher one day puts aside the day’s lesson to berate the entire class after she spots a Vietnam moratorium button on my uniform vest. I feel bad that I had unleashed her fury on the class. I try to scratch out the offensive words on the button. An English teacher confiscates my copy of the Black Panther newspaper after I pass it to a friend.

At home, the summer night comes when a junkie goes crazy outside our window. “Patrick!” he screams over and over, writhing on the hood of a car parked below our window, calling the name of the drug dealer who lived on the second floor of our building. My sisters and I whimper like frightened kittens in our beds. On one bright morning, on my way to school, I see Patrick’s apartment. The door is propped open with his bicycle. I hear his radio playing“Good morning, starshine,” and I note that he listens to the same Top 40 station I listen to every morning.

I write about Patrick for a homework assignment. My English teacher takes it, but does not discuss it with me. He never returns the story.

We finally get out of the projects. My mother does most of the packing, and she simply hands my father the key to the house in Queens. He is still working nights. In the new house, my sisters and I have our own rooms for the first time. We are teenagers. The first night in the big new house we are afraid. We crowd into bed with my mother. There is a garden in the back. We can hear crickets at night.

I transfer to a public high school, a short bus ride away from our house. The classes are big. I blend in. My sisters and I get used to sleeping in our own bedrooms.

My mother has a long commute to work in the city. She doesn’t have time to listen to her radio program. Still, even now, I see her lying on the sofa in the living room in the projects, an arm over her eyes. She is listening to “Viernes Para Recordar.” Fridays to Remember. She is dreaming of something, far away.

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