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.
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.
At home I'd been drilled in Sir and Ma'am, but Please and Thank You were still novel concepts, and I tended to forget them. Yet they seemed terribly important to the teacher.
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 the prayer books in Hebrew school. Shocking. And everyone seemed so Š cold, removed, 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 andŠ.
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. I followed her warily.
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 soft white bread - and a little carton of milk. I don't think I'd ever seen one that small, 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. These people weren't strangers after all, and I wasn't a stranger here, either. I belonged. Food is a bond, an assurance, an invitation to education.
Today schools all over the country face the challenge of educating a whole new wave of first-generation Americans, kids who, once they step outside the house and the warm embrace of family, find themselves among a people of strange speech and hard language.
It won't be the first time American education has faced this kind of challenge. How will our schools meet it? Just as they've done generation after generation: One student at a time. Because, as in all real education, in the end the outcome will depend not on abstract measurements or statistical tables or what the politicians and "experts" say, but on what happens between just one teacher and one child. Again and again. And the memories that each of those children will have in the future, like mine at this distance over the years, are being formed now.
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