The earliest memory I have of tracing words on a page was before I entered kindergarten. I was on mami’s lap as she slowly moved her calloused finger across the page that faced another page with a picture of a thin woman of long yellow hair in a blue dress. As she silenced consonants, prefixed words with vowels (estep for step) and turned short “i’s” into long “e’s” (sleeper for slipper) mami detailed the life of a girl that was rescued by a prince she had only met two evenings before. Her carriage had not turned into a pumpkin after accepting her new love, and she went from being a girl, living in a household in constant need of cleaning, full of wicked women, to becoming a woman in a classy carriage, glassy slippers (or sleepers), and a respected prince. This is how I remember the story, though in the true tale, Cinderella doesn’t keep the carriage.
Cinderella, Snow White, and the Bible were the only books we had in English at home before I entered school. The only other book I could find at home was in Spanish, my grandmother’s Bible.
Mami kept a small red copy of New Testament in a console with mirrored doors that were a few inches below my height at age 5. I dug through the papers to find the small book, opened to the middle to smell the almost translucent pages. The words looked strange as I tried to distinguish the differences between them. They were upside down. I turned the book around, frustrated that I still couldn’t make out what they meant.
When I asked mami to teach me how to read she told me, “You have to wait until you start school.”
“Why mami? I wanna know now! Show me how!” I demanded, something I watch papi do all the time.
“No mami,” her endearing term for me, “you have to wait to learn with the other kids.”
Later, when she went back into the kitchen, I sat on the shiny, vinyl carpeted floor with the console’s door open, ripping the thin pages of the red book, one by one, tossing them into the dark wood of the console. The pages ripped easily, the tearing sound, delicious. When half the pages were gone, the bind looking like a half-chopped stomp of a small tree, I knew I was in trouble. I threw the rest of the book in the console, scared that papi would find it before mami.
As an adult, I asked mami about her choices. A child psychologist told mami that I’d be set apart from the rest of my peers if I had already known how to read before stepping foot in the classroom. I’d probably act up for being too smart. I remember the sad frown on mami’s face, as she quietly cleaned up the thin papers in the console and threw them in the trash with the rest of the little red book. She never confronted me, and I felt more guilty about the quiet heaviness that mami seemed carry, than the book itself.
I don’t remember anything I ever read in elementary school, but I remember winning a prize in first grade for writing a story about a group of kids escaping into some kind of Iceland. I remember the song, “I Am a Promise,” that our parish priest had the school sing at assemblies, and his old dog Mr. A. I remember Hail Marys and Our Fathers, recited along with the Pledge of Allegiance to a stale flag that never caught any wind in front of our classroom, and a dusty, half naked man sleeping on a cross that hung right next to it. I remember copying spelling words on dotted lines, and pictures of old paintings of men who had won battles in countries I was too tired to remember. I remember phone numbers being scribbled on folded up papers we’d pass around in class, and the kind of quizzes we would write for our admired,
Do you want to be my girlfriend? Check one:
None of the stories we found in our heavy textbooks had families like the ones we’d visit on weekends or afterschool. The mami that offers you Tropicana juice and cookies in Spanish, and the papi that comes home from work and sometimes says hi to you. None of the characters in our books behave well, only so they don’t get sent back to Dominican Republic, Guatemala, or Puerto Rico. Books were something, I learned, that were never written about us or to us. They were only there to make it harder for us to make it through high school, college, and find work. They were like needing to pick up your toys from the living room before papi gets home. Nobody ever remembers the next day how you picked up your toys the day before. Why would you remember what you read for homework the next day?
I don’t remember anything I’d ever written in high school, and I’m certain none of it ever amounted to anything you could call an essay. I don’t know how I ever passed three out of four English classes. Class was a grey woman in muted clothes, yapping from behind her desk, about conflicts and characters that strung out of her mouth and fell into an empty, carpeted room. I passed notes to entertain myself and whoever was next to me, but even those letters weren’t crafted well enough or had meaning enough for me to remember what was in them. English was reading’s and writing’s waste of time. Each day of my Junior year I showed up late to this class without being noticed, feeling more and more convinced that I should drop out, get my GED and get high school over with.
But one day this teacher, the only one that failed me, did something that saved my life. I showed up late, as usual, and I expected to quietly slip into the second to last seat by the wall. I couldn’t. That day she gave her class over to a ‘froed up woman who moved her limbs wildly in front of the classroom. Her voice colorfully splashed onto and shot through the bare walls in an unapologetically thick, Jamaican accent. It wasn’t rap, but she delivered verses. It wasn’t a play, the only prop was her thin, light, coffee toned frame. Not poetry, I thought. The words weren’t written on a page, they were written inside her. She looked right at me as I walked in, without pause in her… speech? Suddenly, it mattered that I’d shown up to class.
Maybe I stood by the door, found a seat up front, or sat on the floor. She delivered with her whole body, phrases about unabashedly loving women who dripped of sugarcane juice, about crossing boundaries and rewriting a history that erases dark bodies, about writing poems that are too honest, too radical for a page in the New York Times, about loving grandmothers and missing home. It mattered that I sit up front. I was caught in a strange way, and I was guilty and intrigued at the same time. Guilty, because I’d been lazy about investigating metaphors, hyperboles, rhythms and connotations of words. And I was late. And that day it mattered that I missed fifteen minutes of being found out, of being told on. I didn’t know until that day that I’d been hiding. I held on to stories about perpetually being denied love from papi, about imagining a world where it was possible for everyone to be seen and held, about wishing I had done more to love my little sister, about telling my teachers to stop wasting my damn time and teach me how to read and write, tell me why wars matter, and about wanting to escape the quiet and heavy sadness mami still carried around. Suddenly investigating metaphors, hyperboles, rhythms and the connotations of words mattered. I needed to find more stories, hear more poems about us.
I needed to write the tales that ended with a nappy woman in hoop earrings who spoke Spanglish and said things like,
“fuck este pendejo carriage, I’ll take the 1 train.”
“these glass sleepers won’t hold together en el handball court.”
And so what if she wanted to lick sugarcane off brown female bodies. No prince required. And maybe she’s wicked sometimes, too. I needed to write the tales I needed to read when my mama sat me down on her lap late at night, after she had washed the dishes and ironed our uniforms for the next early morning. That day in English class, despite needing to repeat it in summer school, I didn’t know yet that I’d been reborn a writer, in the same way a newborn cannot tell the difference between itself and whatever it is seeing, hearing, touching, or smelling.
After having written and performed my own poems, and later written and published personal essays and a short story, I realize that words and sentences convinced me that my life matters. My questions matter. My interpretation of pain, love, and history matters. How and why I was born in this country but am not regarded as fully American by white Americans or fully Dominican by native-born Dominicans, matters. How this country has erased me, and how I’ve learned to erase others matters.
That day in high school I walked in late to meet the real fairy godmother: a roaring spoken word poet whose magic shot out of her fleshy lips, and delivered a better confessional than any catholic school could ever imagine. I might have been late, but each day I am glad that I showed up for a lesson on how to rescue myself.