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. Dates are jumbled, locations are switched, people misidentified. Emotions when recollected may be heightened or softened, rearranged and augmented.
Over time, memories are resolved into personal myth. Everybody has one, a kind of life script, and it keeps changing. It was one of the first things I noticed years ago as an interviewer for Columbia University's oral history project - the dates and places on record didn't always jibe with the subject's memory. Nothing is more malleable than the past. Years may pass without our thinking about some past event, but then it will be recalled newly vivid, re-issued, updated, newly relevant.
I was five years old when I started public school, so I will not take an 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. Or when I see a headline like this one in the Wall Street Journal: "Report Warns Influx/ of Hispanics in South/ Creates School Crisis." That's enough to bring back my own first day of public school:
In my own five-year-old's world, which centered about the kitchen in back of the store, people were divided into basically two classes: shopkeepers and customers. There were two languages, Yiddish and English. One for home, 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 to be got out for special occasions.
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. Then she gave me some advice: "You be nice to them," my mother told me, "and they'll be nice to you."
Even then I could sense she was just putting on a brave front. There was something fearful behind her assurances, and I caught it. I envied her. She cold stay at home; 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 might keep on riding foreverŠ.
Somehow I made it. The driver made sure I did. I stepped off the trolley a stranger in a strange land, following the other kids to the big red-brick building on the hill.