Memory

Paul Greenberg

9/20/2006 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

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.

This was definitely a different country. Here the kids, when they dropped a book, didn't kiss it when they picked it up, the way we did in Hebrew school. Shocking. And everyone seemed so cold and distant. Then the bell rang and I went off to wait for the bus. I knew just where to stand but it didn't come. I waited and waited and ...

Then another lady was talking to me. She, too, was dressed nicely, and she was saying school wasn't over after all, and it was time to go back. I hesitated. She said she'd spoken to my mother, and knew just what I was supposed to eat and what wasn't kosher. And when we got to the big empty, light-green room with the benches, one of the big ladies came out from the kitchen and set down a cheese sandwich - made with strange, soft white bread - and a little carton of milk. I don't think I'd ever seen one that small before, and everything tasted wrong. We never used mayonnaise on anything but salads at home.

But it was good after the first bite. Hunger is the best sauce. The taste of it remains in memory, strange and assuring at the same time. It was a different world, all right, but not a threatening one. I was being looked after.

American immigration legal and illegal may now be at its highest point since the early 1920s. Not just in the South but throughout the country, American schools will face much the same challenge my teachers did with me.

How will they meet it? One student at a time. Because, as in all education, the outcome will depend on what happens between one teacher and one child. The memories each of these children will have as adults are being formed now.