No.61, 2008 Blank Page, New Crayons by Renate Ford (BC)
“Class, say hello to our new student, Renate.” Those may have been the teacher’s words. I can’t be sure because I didn’t understand her - except for my name, which she mispronounced - but I didn’t have the courage, or the words, to correct her. Now, years later, I realize how quickly the English words came; the courage took much longer.
So there I sat, in my small desk at the back of Row 2, as twenty-five curious faces turned in my direction. I froze. Gone was the memory of my first-grade class in Germany, and the little mementos and notes my classmates had given me. Gone was the memory of the little pink candy teddy bear, a child’s ring clasped in its paws - a goodbye gift from my teacher, as she wished me a safe journey and a wonderful new life in Canada.
Now here I was in Canada, and it wasn’t so wonderful. I was wearing that ring, my beloved teacher’s encouragement, but now I was unconsciously twisting it around on my finger as I became the centre of an attention I neither wanted nor understood. Prior to this moment, I had been excited and happy to go back to school. It had been two months since we left Germany, crossed the Atlantic by ship and Canada by train, and now I was anxious to start new lessons in a new language. I looked forward to writing in the unusual new exercise book that lay on my desk. My name was neatly printed on the cover in block letters and I wondered, fleetingly, why the teacher had written my name and not let me do it. Did she think I couldn’t write? I had peeked inside the book, but it was empty, and very strange. I had never seen an exercise book like this before. There were lines only on the bottom half of each page. The top half was blank. I wondered why.
The other children were still staring at me. I managed a weak smile, the grimace holding back tears. The teacher asked me something, at least I think she did, but in my terror I only saw her lips moving. Even if I had heard her, I wouldn’t have understood her. I only knew five English words: yes, no, please, thank you and letters.
I had learned what letters meant the day before when I watched the postman come up the walk to my aunt’s house, where we were living until my parents had earned enough money to rent our own house. I was standing by the front window, peeking through the filmy curtains, as the postman opened a metal flap beside the door and dropped in a handful of letters. Earlier that day, I had seen the word engraved on the outside of that flap: letters. I ran over, picked up the letters and carried them into the kitchen, where my mother and my aunt were preparing breakfast. Proudly, I announced that I had learned a new word all by myself!
But that happy moment was forgotten as the teacher approached. She had a smile on her face, but it belied her voice, which was getting louder and more anxious as she came closer. Children who had stretched their feet in the aisle as they turned around to look - I was afraid they were going to get out of their seats and crowd around me - quickly pulled their feet back under their desks as the teacher marched between the rows toward me.
When I finally unfroze enough to hear the teacher’s voice, the upward lilt at the end of the sentence told me she had asked a question. But what? To this day, I don’t know, and I’ve always wondered about it. I learned later that she was a student teacher, alone with the class for the first time. As a teacher myself, who in later years supervised newcomers to the profession, I can now feel empathy for her; she was probably as scared as I was. But that long-ago seven-year-old saw her as a “monster”, intruding into the only space I had left - the little bubble around my desk. She leaned forward, her hand resting on the edge of the desk, in MY space, as she repeated her question. Behind her, one or two of my classmates stood up - to get a better view of the action, perhaps? Others followed suit and crowded around.
I had no space left and my resistance crumbed. The tears flowed. My reaction must have surprised them. I remember particularly the shocked expression on the teacher’s face - or was it dismay? She retreated quickly, back to the front of the class, her arms waving at the students, most of whom were now on their feet. This I understood: She was shooing them back to their seats.
I realize now that the teacher must have been non-plussed by my emotional reaction, and probably being uncertain herself, decided to do what she’d been trained to do: Teach the lesson. So she did. Without further ado, she pointed to the blackboard, which was covered with neatly printed rows of words and letters. I recognized question marks at the end of each line. What should I do? I cast a quick, surreptitious look at my neighbour. She was printing away ferociously, pencil clutched tightly in her hand, the exercise book page crinkling audibly where her thick pencil made contact with it. She looked up at me and smiled, but I wasn’t ready to return the smile yet. I looked away quickly, having seen what I needed to see. She was writing on the lines at the bottom of the page, so I did the same. I only recognized the letters on the board, not the words, so I began to copy everything, letter by letter, question mark by question mark, onto the first page of my own exercise book. I still wondered what the blank top half of the page was for.
And then another sidelong glance at my neighbour and...aha! She was opening a box of crayons. Was she going to draw in her exercise book? Wow! We had never been allowed to draw in our exercise books in my German classroom. We drew on large sheets of loose paper - artwork I always carried home proudly to my parents. Yes, she began to draw in the space at the top of the page. I watched her outline a house, a tree. This I could understand. Out came my brand-new box of crayons - I wondered if anyone was envious of me for having new, unused crayons, when theirs were worn and broken. No matter. This I could understand. I looked up to see my neighbour smiling at me. I smiled back.