Better off this way

Often, I recall a memory deep in the vault of my childhood history. Its a good memory.
Its probably the one and only time in my life when I have been praised and genuinely congratulated by people above me for doing a good job.
The year was 2002, and third grade and the war on Iraq were both in full swing when the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks was being remembered. I think back on third grade as being the time when kids do as they are told, especially back then. Nowadays, kids are the fucking worst. Any who, on the day of remembrance, we were given the assignment of drawing a huge american flag on a standard white sheet of copy paper. Many, if not all, of Mr. A’s class took this time as “free time.” And I mean, why not, right? The television that hung on the top corner of the class where the chalk board and the supply closet intersected was turned to CNN; that ribbon of information that runs at the bottom of the screen is undeniably a trademark. I can’t say I remember very clearly what was being said in the newscast. What I am certain of is that it was all about “new evidence” of Bin Laden’s incrimination and Al Qaeda’s motive and you know, all that good stuff that resurfaces after a year or so.

A year prior to that day, I remember arriving at school wearing this cool little jacket that resembled the Texas flag. I got off the bus and headed straight to homeroom with Mrs. T. I placed my jacket on the back of the red desk chairs and was excited to begin another great school day. After reciting the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance and Star Spangled Banner, we waited for Mrs. T to come back into the classroom to instruct us to get our vocabulary books so we could begin the lesson for the day. Mrs. T finally made her way back into the class, and immediately turned on the TV. I can speak for my ex-classmates when I say that we all thought we were going to have a free day. The TV was on, but we couldn’t quite understand what was going on; the cartoons were not on. Instead, the news were on and Mrs. T shifted quickly from the hallway to the classroom, to Ms. L’s class across the hallway, back to our class. Maybe it was my precociousness that noticed anxiety and anguish in my teacher as she made her way without letting us know what was going on. Maybe it was just that. She finally entered the classroom, for what seemed would be for good this time and shut the door behind her. She said to us, “Kids, listen. Do you see what’s going on right now? Its a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Its bad people hurting our country.” And then we saw the second tower get hit by the second plane.
It really is weird and is still so absurd to me how it is that I remember all this. That morning, her actions, her words and my reaction and how I felt.

So the year after all that, remembering everything from that day was easy and that assignment was nothing, really. But I decided I wanted to do something else and not follow what the typical activity was. I was aware that every single student in that class room was going to do the same: A drawing of an American Flag, with crooked stripes and an incomplete number of stars because their box was either too small to fit all fifty or simply because they were stupid or lazy enough to do it right. No. I was thinking outside the box when the the rush of sensory memory came over me. I was on a fucking roll, and I was going to do something that I thought really represented what I thought of that day and what it meant to me.
So on that standard white sheet of copy paper, I drew two men. One of these men was wearing a black robe and a turban, the other wore the uniform of a soldier. I still didn’t identify who these men were or what their actions towards each other might of been. It wasn’t until I drew hands on them, one centered in the middle, extended towards each other, the other at their side. The Soldier held the Iraqi flag and the Muslim held the American flag, as they shared a little flower as a symbol of peace¬†between them. I colored everything in, but then realized that wasn’t the assignment and because nervous at the thought of getting a bad grade. I took my drawing over to Mr. A hoping for the best, but really expecting the worst. He looked at me in surprise. He said to me, “Wait for me here.” He walked out of the class and didn’t come back for a while. In the mean time, the little shitheads working on their flags kept teasing me saying, “Ooh, he’s gonna go get the principal,” “You’re in trouble!” I have to admit, their words got to me and so did the urge to piss my undies.
Mr. A came back and with him were the rest of the teachers from down the hallway. “Who is she?!” They asked, as if I was being incriminated of a wrongdoing. “This is her. This is Gabriela.” My heart sank and a gulp of saliva made its way down my trachea…ever…so….slowly.
“CONGRATULATIONS!” “Its very good!” “Good job!” “How did you think of this?” “Who taught you this?”….the questions and compliments came from all of those adults standing above me like skyscrapers. All I could do was smile. But looking back, I think of how sad/cool it was that teachers didn’t think third grade students had it in them to think outside the box and deviate from a mundane assignment to make it their own and make it different.

Every time I think of this time in my life, I realize that this has been the only time since then that someone with authority has said to me, “Good job!” and really meant it. I don’t get that a lot nowadays. I’d hate to think that my third grade achievement in drawing a mirage of a nonexistent reality is as far as I’ll ever get. That drawing happened 13 years ago. That drawing has since then disappeared or was misplaced or something. Maybe its not in my life to look at anymore so I won’t be reminded that that is as far as I can go. Because, let’s face it, if I had the chance to draw that all over again, I’d totally make my 9 year old self’s drawing look like an inferior piece of shit.

I don't have a picture of my drawing, but this is the little girl who drew it.
I don’t have a picture of my drawing, but this is the little girl who drew it. Its easy to see why my parents didn’t bother buying the picture. Look at those pony stickers on ma shirt.


Tomorrow will be three years since I graduated from high school.

Older folks laugh at me saying that three years is nothing in the scheme of life. My life as a public school, 8 am to 3 pm, quiet, shy, introverted, student is far behind me as summer camp.

Moving away from my hometown, was both a feeling of both freedom and independence, but it was also a feeling of wanting to stay behind, and take the easy way out of the life that still lays ahead of me.

He looks at me blankly. There’s just me, him. Us.
The next morning I leave at 8:00 am. Driving through town, I see my memories plainly.  There I am in the cafeteria, not satisfied with the small, designated portions of food served on my Styrofoam plate, asking for seconds. There I am during gym class, afraid of being picked last because of my physical appearance, and those big, faded pink glasses that dominate my face. There I am falling in love by the bike rack. There I am slowly realizing that my bike has gone missing from that same rack, stolen while I stayed behind in class, helping the teacher put up the classroom chairs. There I am calling my father from the steps of the library. There I am, half listening to my speech teacher when she tells me I need to start attending class more regularly, and disregard the fear I have for public speaking.

If I had known how much I would miss these sensations I might have experienced them differently, recognized their shabby glamour, respected the ticking clock that defined the entire experience. I would have put aside my resentment, dropped my defenses. I might have a basic understanding of European history or economics. More abstractly, I might feel I had truly been somewhere, open and porous and hungry to learn regardless of everything. Because being a student is an enviable identity and one I can only reclaim by attending community college late in life for a bookmaking class or something.
I’ve always had a talent for recognizing when I am in a moment worth being nostalgic for. When I was little, my mother would come home from work, her hair cool from the wind, her perfume almost gone, her lips faded red, and she would coo at me: “You’re still awake! Hiii.” And I’d think how beautiful she was and how I always wanted to remember her stepping out of the elevator in her pea-green wool coat, 27 years old, just like that. Sixteen, lying on the dock at night with my camp boyfriend, taking tiny sips from the bottle of beer. But high school was so essentially repulsive to me, so characterized by a desire to be done.

I didn’t drink in the essence of the classroom. I didn’t take legible notes or dance all night. I thought I would marry my boyfriend and grow old and sick of him. I thought I would keep my friends, and we’d make different, new memories. None of that happened. Better things happened.