Memory is not the mere recollection of fact, as anyone who's tried to record his memories will know. As in a dream, the landscape alters. Times are jumbled, locations are switched, people misidentified. Emotions when recollected may be intensified or softened, recalled exactly or artfully rearranged, even invented.
I was five years old when I started public school, so I will not take a petrified oath that it happened just this way. But the memory of that day comes back whenever I have a particular kind of cheese sandwich, my equivalent of Proust's madeleine. The other day the memory was triggered by a story in the Wall Street Journal. ("Reports Warns Influx/of Hispanics in South/Creates School Crisis.")
In my five-year-old's world, which centered about the kitchen in back of the store on Texas Avenue in Shreveport, people were divided into basically two classes: shopkeepers and customers. There were two languages, Yiddish and English. One for home and one for the street. Hebrew was reserved for prayers and special occasions; no one actually spoke it. It was like the Passover dishes, stored upstairs in dusty boxes.
But I was about to enter a different world now. My mother took me to the trolley that day and told the driver where to let me off. "You be nice to them," my mother had told me, "and they'll be nice to you."
Even then I could sense when she was putting on a brave front. There was something fearful behind her assurances, and I caught it. I envied her. She didn't have to get on the scary-looking trolley with the mean-looking driver. Or wonder how to reach the cord if you wanted to get off. What would happen if you pulled it too soon? Would you have to get off anyway? What if you pulled it too late? Better not to do anything at all and call attention to yourself, but then you would keep riding forever. ...
At school, when the bell rang, I found my class and tried to follow what the teacher was saying. I didn't get every word or even most of them; her language, her clothes, her stiffness were all new to me, and I couldn't help staring.
She kept addressing someone named Y'all, and telling us to do things, but I had no idea what was expected of me. In the end I settled for watching the other kids and trying to copy whatever they did, though not very well.
I'd been drilled in Sir and Ma'am, but I hadn't yet mastered Please and Thank You, and they seemed terribly important to the teacher, and hard to remember.