"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Thought Process

Memorial School was named in honor of  the 200 or so men from Luna County, who were called up with the New Mexico National Guard, to serve in the Philippines at the onset of World War II. They would pay a heavy price, suffering through The Bataan Death March and then enduring the subsequent brutal imprisonment, less than half would return.

Once back home many were unable to cope with the guilt of having survived while so many others didn't. One veteran talked about the pall of sadness that engulfed the small town of Deming, of having to constantly answer questions from the families about where and how their loved ones had died. The emotional wounds were slow to heal, closure was hard to find, most of the veterans simply packed up and left.

The school was built during a period of intense paranoia centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This bunker down mentality no doubt played a part in the design of Memorial School.  The cinder block big box would have a dual purpose, to educate our young and to serve as shelter, if and when Nikita finally lost his mind and dropped the big one.  For that reason, it had no windows, a single story monolith, a glaring testament to the cold war, the pride and joy of Deming Public Schools.
We lived on a farm west of town, almost within the shadow of Red Mountain, the most prominent landmark in that area. The setting was pastoral, it was a another time, a different way of life, one that has almost disappeared from the landscape. 

We spoke Spanish, my first exposure to the English language would be the day I first set foot at Memorial School.  This put me at quite a disadvantage, I was forced to cling to the bi-lingual kids and beg them to translate for me.  As a result the first half of that school year was like being deaf and mute, I sat in class and took visual clues from others kids as to what we were expected to do.  I wasn't alone, half of the class was in the same boat,  we stuck together and spoke Spanish, which of course didn't help with the process of learning English.

One of my most vivid memories of that first school year was a day in November. For some reason recess never ended, we just kept galloping and tussling...until, slowly we started to realize that something was not right.  One of our teachers who was wearing a black jacket and sunglasses, had tears streaming down her face.  Other teachers gathered, they were all crying, we were dumbfounded, finally one teacher explained to us, "President Kennedy is dead, he was shot" we looked at each other, "Que dijo?" another kid translated for us "They killed the President" I heard a kid ask in Spanish "Who, the President of Mexico?" the kid replied "No stupid! our President"  

After that I would sit in the classroom, with no clue as to what the teacher was saying, and my mind would start to wander. I would think of my father driving a tractor back on the farm, of my mother cooking or washing at home, and I would miss them. I didn't like school, all I could think about was the precious time with my parents that was being taken from me.  Sadness would come over me, once it was so intense that I just started bawling, right in the classroom, all the kids looked at me with their mouths open, but the teacher understood and she held me in her arms until I stopped.

I honestly didn't think about it again, until years later, when I was in high school, a kid who had been in that class brought it up. "Do you still cry in class" he taunted, I looked at him wondering why he even remembered that moment. (Seriously, it had been 10 years, what the hell was that kid's problem?)  I rushed him, landing a punch to his temple that caused him to fall backwards against the bleachers, I stood over him "I'm not crying now" I sneered. I took no pleasure in his humiliation, but now he had the memory of that beating to keep his other memories company.

Something else was starting to happen, English was starting to make sense, I now knew some important words: lunch, recess, school, fight, popcorn, principal, teacher etc. I was no longer dependent on other kids translating for me. I started playing with English speaking kids, I soon struck up a friendship with a kid named Tommy, in an age when most kids were underfed and scrawny, Tommy was big.

The playgrounds at Memorial were divided into two sections, one for the little kids and one for the big kids.  Little kids did not dare wander to the other side, it meant a quick trip to the principal's office or a punch to the nose from some bully.  The dividing line was a strip of playground between the west fence and the cafeteria wall, you could stand on one end and watch the big kids play basketball. However, nobody was ever foolhardy enough to enter this no man's land...except for Tommy. 

That day as we stood there, Tommy suddenly said "I'm going over there to play basketball" I was trying to comprehend what he had just said "Are you coming?" he added as he grabbed my arm and starting pulling me with him, but I broke away, I stood there in a near panic, I searched for words, he kept walking towards the other side.  Finally it came to me and I yelled, in English  "Tommy, come back you'll get in trouble"  

At that moment it struck me, I had spoken English!, it was like a fog had lifted, I now understood, so I ran to the nearest teacher and told her "Tommy went to the big kids side" She chased Tommy down  and dragged him back, I felt bad about it, she took him straight to the principal's office. Since that moment on the playground, my thought process has been in English. Trying to keep my friend out  of trouble was the trigger, while ratting on him just seemed to seal the deal.

Today, I still think of J.F.K, of the hallowed days of time long past, when we could feint innocence and we still had faith in our leaders. I yearn for The New Frontier, Camelot and The Great Society, for the smiles and hugs of the ones we loved so dear.    Of days of youth, forever gone, of wonderment and awe, when everything was new,  I recall my first step off that bus, when I looked around and stared into the future.


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