From Primary Lessons
Sandra has found yet another weapon to use against me.
“Stop teasing your sister,” Mama says. “You’re too big for that kind of foolishness.”
“She started it,” Sandra answers. “Always acting like she’s better than us. I just said she can’t go to school ’cause she’s still a baby.”
“I’m not a baby. I went to school in Philadelphia and I can too go here. Can’t I, Mama? Can’t I?”
“The law says you can’t start school unless you’re already six or will be before the end of December,” Mama answers. “You won’t be six until February, so you can’t start this year. You’ll stay at Mother Primo’s. When I come home, we can have pretend school. I’ll teach you all the things I teach my class.”
“I don’t want pretend school. I want real school!” I hurl the words at Mama, then run out the back door and scurry to my favorite hiding place under the house behind the brick supports for the kitchen chimney. There, hidden in the cool darkness, I cry while muttering to myself. I hate it here. It’s not the law, it’s them. They won’t let me do anything. I have to go to school. Aunt Susie said that as soon as I learn to write, I can write her a letter and tell her how I’m doing. When I learn to write, I can tell her how much I hate it here. Once she knows, she’ll send for me to come home, to Philadelphia, where I belong.
The next week, when Mama sends me to buy a half pound of bologna from the store around the corner, I see something that makes me forget my errand. A nun, dressed in full black habit and white wimple, leads a line of children from a brick building into a small church next door. After the last child enters the church, the nun closes the big wooden doors. I climb the steps and peer into the church through a wide crack between the doors. Most Sundays, Aunt Susie and I used to go to the church around the corner from her house, but our church was nothing like this one.
A sweet, smoky smell makes its way through the crack and tickles my nose. A man in a long black robe with a red sash around his middle stands in the pulpit reciting in a language I can’t understand. Every now and then, the children answer in unison. Sunlight pours through a stained glass window and bathes a statue above the pulpit with a rose colored light. I watch, mesmerized. When the priest marches out of the pulpit and down the aisle toward the door where I stand, I run home.
“Mama, Mama, I saw a nun – just like the one that gave Loretta to Aunt Susie. She was leading some children into a church. There’s a school next door to the church. Can I go there? Can I please?”
“Hold your horses. You can’t go barging in there. It’s a school alright, but it’s a Catholic school. It costs money to go there. I can’t afford it. Wait until next year. Then you can go to Liberty Street with your sister.”
I stamp my foot. “But I want to go to school now!”
“Don’t you talk back to me! I said you’ll go to school next year when you’re old enough. Now go and get that bologna for lunch – and come straight back home.”
I do as I’m told, but several times during the next few days, I manage to sneak off from Mother Primo’s to watch the children. One little girl waves at me and I go over to her. “Hi. My name’s Sarah,” I say. “What’s yours?”