Old School

young isa on a horse

Mom pregnant with me in San Antonio.

In the early seventies, my father accepted a post in the Nixon administration to represent the United States as its ambassador to El Salvador, and my siblings and I moved to a new country and a bilingual school. Half the day was in Spanish, the other in English. My father insisted that I would be fluent in Spanish in no time. Instead, I got a crash course in bullying. For reasons probably having to do with American policies in Latin America, my first grade teacher Mrs. Garcia scorned anything, and anyone, “Americano,” and it took adulthood to understand that the daughter of the American ambassador made a convenient target for her rancor.

I was easy prey for a sadistic adult. I wept easily, dressed in buttoned up dresses even on the hottest of days and looked like some sort of quaint Victorian child, the kind that you see as flashbacks in a horror film. I always had a heat rash, thanks to my fair skin, and had a cropped, not particularly flattering pageboy haircut that showcased razor straight white blonde hair. I did not smile much, and it took very little effort to reduce me to tears. When this happened Mrs. Garcia would march around the room and chant: “lloron, lloron, lloron” or crybaby until I dissolved again. One day, unaware that Mrs. Garcia was eavesdropping, I confided to my only friend (the teacher’s antagonism did not make me magnetic to my peers) that I had snuck a candy into my bed the previous evening and devoured it. She pounced.

“Listen, Nina, if you are a cochon(pig) and eat dulces (sweets) in your bed then you know what happens right? The roaches come. They will crawl all over you. And they will eat the lobes of your ears and the tip of your nose until you wake up screaming.” Then she pinched my cheek hard to emphasize her point. I scoured my room each night for carnivorous bugs and struggled with nightmares about cockroaches and edible flesh, which utterly bewildered my parents who slept right next door. In the classroom I became mute in hopes that I would disappear from the sight-lines of this impossible woman, but that strategy didn’t work either. I was branded as hopelessly stupido. Naturally I feared she was right about my shortcomings and kept my torment a secret. Instead, I schemed about how to stay home.

One cardinal rule about living in El Salvador was drilled into us: we were not to drink the tap water. So I gulped faucet water. And I kept getting sick. It didn’t take long for my mother to catch on. I finally had to tell her I hated school but was vague about the truth and mumbled something about struggling with half-day Spanish. Instead of forcing me to attend school, she pulled me out for the remainder of the year, and I stayed by her side. I have no idea how she justified my truancy to the school, but it was the seventies, we were abroad and she was the American ambassador’s wife. We went to the different commitments she kept during the day. As an ambassador’s wife, she had to attend long ladies’ luncheons, and I would tag along and wander around whatever venue or house we were in. I was rarely bored and often hung out with the resident cook or in the hostess’s garden, drawing with crayons or painting. I was perfectly content to hang out, and neither of us worried that I was missing anything. My mother, on the other hand, would be bored out of her mind.

Riding horses.

“Why are these things restricted to conversations about our children or housekeeping? Everyone is soooo careful, like they are reading from a script,” she would say as we slid into the back seat of our car at the end of each engagement. Or she would quip in Spanish: “Cuantos ninos tienen Senora?”while crossing her eyes. She endured thousands of these affairs over her lifetime, and I well remember her deer in headlights look, flagging the wine tray down to get through them. I certainly inherited her anxiety in crowds.

I hadn’t a clue how to do any math and was barely literate. My high school aged sister Heather began to express her concerns. She was an academic star and had skipped a grade so was an authority on education.

“Mom, I started reading books at age 3 and Isa is already 7 and can barely read a picture book.”

“Maybe she’s a late bloomer,” my mother would reply. “Not everyone shares your talents.” That was a common refrain-- Heather’s talents. I, on the other hand, was told I was good with animals, which I already knew at a tender age was a bit of a dodge.

My sister persisted: “ I don’t think Isa can afford to lose a year of school. She has no friends, save the dog and the cook, both of whom are hard of hearing.” All of this was true but our mother still ignored her. So Heather took my education into her own hands and began to teach me how to read. I remember sitting side by side on the staircase, plucking out words with her and conquering a book about a socially awkward yellow hippo (of course) and I took off from there.

Years later, I was surrounded by by a manic approach to parenthood: the music classes, mommy and me classes, moms who obsessed over Baby Einstein, or those who were flipping flashcards with a demonic intensity. I knew it was absurd, but secretly fretted that I was not fierce enough about our daughter’s enrichment. When I asked my mother why she was so cavalier about my education, she laughed. “Thank God this kind of parenting hysteria did not yet exist. Besides, you are my daughter aren’t you?”

Isa's mother vintage photo
Hats run in the family.

The best part of skipping school was traveling into the campo, or country, with my mother. We saw a very different culture and its distinct daily rhythms and my mother took up photography to capture some of this color. My mother loved local craft and the sanctuary of churches. I was riveted by the twisted and battered Christs, the serene Virgins and other dramatic displays of devotion. My mother’s sensational looks drew in the village, along with the children, who also never seemed to be in school, and they always trailed us. There was a prevailing superstitious custom that touching blonde hair brought good luck, but they did not dare reach for my mother and incur the wrath of a bodyguard. Besides, she was too tall. But they certainly patted mine, and I’d try to squirm out of the way, but to no avail. Our plump, sweaty bodyguards were constantly trotting behind us shooing away kids, goats and chickens, along with a bedazzled ancient man or two muttering something like “ay caramba.” We had our own singular entourage. On one of these tours I was mesmerized by a potter who was making a menagerie of animals for a crèche, including the tiniest baby Jesus, which materialized between his thumb and forefinger. He manually pumped a potter’s wheel cobbled together with odd bits of wire and what looked like an auto part hammered into a smooth and flattened disc. He taught me to push the flat pedal, which rested on a rusted spring-like contraption, and I awkwardly turned the wheel as the village children laughed. My mother bought the crèche for our family, but it vanished in a move long ago. For years I held onto that unfired tiny baby Jesus until it returned to clay dust. I am grateful that my mother nurtured a very different sort of education—and laid the groundwork for my evolution as an artist. Happy Mother’s Day. And thank you.


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