Sunday, April 19, 2015

Transforming Fear into Action



Tuesday morning came. I hadn’t slept much and my cousin, Izaak, never came to rescue me as I had secretly wished. I was a nervous wreck as I sat there thinking and knowing that there was no rescuing me from this. In order for me to move forward with my life, I had to go to school. I couldn’t even drink my usual instant coffee, let alone eat anything for breakfast.

While getting dressed, I decided to wear my jeans. I thought, “If I blend in a bit more, then people won’t be able to figure out that I am a Mexican Mennonite right away and I will have a better chance to make friends.”

I could hear my heart pounding as I walked through the door into the hallway. I just focused on the echoing sound of my foot steps as I walked down the stairs. As I walked out through the front door, the sun was shining so brightly that it almost blinded me.

I just stood there for a moment to absorb my surroundings, inhaling the air that smelled like freshly cut grass. An elderly woman working in her garden spotted me, smiled and said “good morning” as if I were just any person enjoying a morning walk. She couldn’t tell that, on the inside, I was freaking out.

I smiled back at her and said, “Good morning.” I thought, “Anna, just start walking.” I just focused on my feet as I put one foot in front of the other. When I approached the front door of the school there was a woman waiting for me. With a big smile on her face, she held the door open for me.

She had shoulder length medium blond hair and she was wearing grey pants with a matching blazer and a plum coloured top underneath. Her pink lipstick matched her fingernail polish and her toenails that peeked out of her open-toed, high heeled shoes.

She reached for my hand and said, “Anna?”

I shook her hand and said, “Yes.”

“It is really nice to meet you, Anna. I’m so glad you came today. My name is Julie and I am the principal here. Please come with me and I will show you where your class will be” she said.

I followed her to a long narrow room with a row of tables in the middle and chairs all the way around it. One side and end of the wall was clear see-through glass that faced a street. 

She said, “Please have a seat and the teacher will be right with you.”

I just smiled and secretly wished that the teacher would be a woman. I really wanted to ask her but I was too nervous.

She noticed I wasn’t sure where to sit and said, “Anywhere is fine.”

I picked the chair on the end of the table, farthest from the teacher’s desk. I sat down as the principal walked out of the classroom and wondered if the seating arrangements would be like they were back in the school in my colony in Mexico.

Old Colony Mennonite School in Durango Mexico

My Mennonite school in Mexico was a three room schoolhouse. It had a little room at the front on each side. The left side was for the girls and the right side was for the boys. These rooms were called the steefke. In this room we would hang our hats and sweaters on the walls. There was one door on each steefke that opened into the schoolhouse.

On each side of the schoolhouse were rows of benches that had a desk attached to them. They were the length of the whole side of the schoolhouse, leaving a wide walk space between the boys’ side and the girls’ side. The teacher’s desk was at the front in the middle facing all the benches.

Image by Miguel Bergasa
There were four levels and books we learned from that would go with the levels. The first one is the Fible. We started with this one at the age of six and we were seated according to our birthdates. The oldest would sit at the first spot starting from the right side and so on. The youngest would sit by the wall.

The Fiblea, the youngest kids, would take up the first few rows of the benches when coming into the school. Then the next couple of rows would be the Catechisma, then the Testamenta, and the Biblea would sit closest to the teacher.


In each of those groups we sat in order from the best learning student sitting at the first spot on the right side of the bench toward the middle of the schoolhouse. Then the second best learning student sat next to the best and so on. The one who was at the lowest level, the ‘hardest learner’, would sit at the end of the bench against the wall.

Whenever the teacher decided that a student was a ‘better learner’, the one sitting to their right was made to switch places. There was a term for it: “unja dreien”, meaning “turn under.”

My birthday is in September so I was somewhere in the middle when I started as a Fiblea. It didn’t take long for me to be at the bottom. About once a week I would get “unja je'dreit” until I was at the bottom.

The same thing would happen when we moved to the next level. The catechism we would be seated according to our age. In the first week I started getting “unja je'dreit” by all of my friends until I was at the bottom again.

Then, after the catechism we moved up to the testament. Again I got “unja je'dreit” until I was at the bottom and that was where I stayed when all my friends moved on to the Bible. That is when my mom decided that I could just stay home and help her with the chores around the house.

Seven years later, as I sat in a classroom in Ontario, Canada waiting for a teacher and wondering if I would have to sit at the bottom again, a Chinese man walked in. I silently wished he would go sit at the front of the classroom but instead he came and sat down beside me, smiled and said, “Good morning.”

Shortly after that, another man walked in. He had brown skin and dark brown hair and he sat down across the table from me. As my heart was pounding, all I could think was, “Why? Why couldn’t they go sit at the front?” Finally a woman walked in with an arm full of books.

She put the books down on the teacher’s desk and looked right at me and said, “You must be Anna. My name is Marian and I will be your teacher.”

I was so relieved. She looked like a nice person. She had really dark brown hair rolled up into a bun with side bangs.

She was wearing a navy blue shirt that complemented her big blue eyes and she had a beautiful calming smile. She was wearing the most gorgeous dangly turquoise earrings I had ever seen. I thought, “If only I could wear those.”

She asked if I could come to her desk so she could help me fill out some paperwork. I walked to her desk hugging the backpack George gave me tightly in my arms. Eight women and two more men came into the classroom. I sat down and Marian said, “Now that everyone is here, this is Anna. She will be joining us in this class.”

Everyone said hi and started writing in their books while she helped me fill out some more paperwork. She put a story in front of me and asked if I could read it to her. I thought, “Oh crap, here we go. Now everyone will hear me and know how bad I am at this.”

As my heart skipped a beat and struggled to keep beating, I told her that I couldn’t read and she said, “Just try a few words and see if you can do it.”

It took me a long time to work up the courage to actually do it. In a broken, shaken-up voice I read the first word out loud. I turned all red but I kept going. I just read the words that I could and when I got stuck she helped me. I read one paragraph and she told me that was good. Everybody got up and I thought, “It must be the end of the day now.”

It felt like it had taken me the whole day to read that paragraph.

“It’s break time now. You are welcome to stay in here with me or go outside if you like” she said.

I thought, “Wow, they just got up and walked out. The teacher didn’t even say, “sen min'üten posie.” (Ten-minute pause) I stayed in the classroom with her and went over the books while everyone else went outside.

“I think you are going to do great in my class. You won’t even need to start in ESL like most people for whom English isn’t their first language” she said.

That comment made me feel really good. I thought she was going to say, “There is no level low enough for you at this school so don’t bother coming back.”

She brought me a bunch of books to take home and work on, including a dictionary. I asked where I should sit and, with a confused look on her face, she said, “Anywhere you like, Anna.”

I sat down on the first chair, closest to the teacher, since no one was sitting there before.

As everyone came back in the class, she wrote down ten words on the board for us to copy and practice spelling. I took out one of the notebooks that George gave me and remembered to take a deep breath as I wrote my first word in it.

I was happy that no one was sitting on either side of me so I didn’t have to worry about someone watching me write. When lunch time came I stayed in the classroom again and my teacher asked if I had brought anything to eat. I told her that I couldn’t eat when I was nervous.

She came and sat down beside me and offered me some of her strawberries and potato chips. I ate a few and she got up and walked to her desk and picked up a bright green diary with purple flowers on it. She gave it to me and told me to write in it every day, about anything I wanted to. She said, “Don’t worry about the spelling. Just write it the way it sounds to you.”

When everyone got back from lunch she handed out newspaper stories to all of us and we had to pick one, cut it out, and find “the who, what, when, why and where” and write them down. I picked one based on the colours in the picture. After I cut it out I looked around and watched everyone and then the girl closest to me showed me what to do.

I worked on that for the rest of the day and by the time three o’clock came I had a massive headache. While walking home I began to feel the effects of not eating and began to feel sick. When I got home I forced a bit of food down and took a nap. Click here to continue reading my story.

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