Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The School Chair

As I've noted before, for several years now I've been working on writing down my memories of my early childhood in Cuba, which is where I was born and lived my early years before my family escaped to the United States in the 60s. I hope to one day pitch it to some publisher. The below piece is a peek at a chapter draft somewhere in the beginning of the book. It is titled "The School Chair", and feedback, suggestions and criticism is welcome!

The School Chair

When I was about eight or so (I think), things began to change drastically in Cuba, and although most of it was invisible to me, some of the changes were apparent in the most obvious of places: school.

Like many middle class Cuban children, some years before actually attending formal schooling, my parents had placed me in some sort of private pre-school, run by a very nice lady who lived a couple of blocks from us. I remember her teaching me that the alphabet included an extra letter that represented Jesus.

At about that same time my grandmother had taken in a very young guajira (peasant girl) to help her around the house. Her name was Dora, and her father, who was a peasant somewhere in the mountains of Baracoa, where my grandmother's kin folks had settled when they first arrived from the Canary Islands, had sent her to my grandmother so that Dora could be taught how to sew and cook, etc. and thus prepare her for marriage in the old Cuban tradition.

As most guajiros of the time, Dora did not know how to read or write, and so my grandmother took it upon herself to teach Dora. Because I was always with them – Dora’s duties included being my nanny – I am told that as a very young tot I learned how to read and write and created quite a spectacle when I started kindergarten already not only being able to read and write, but also having already read many children's books from my grandfather’s small but well-stocked library.

My grandfather had some very nice, old illustrated copies of Milton’s Paradise Gained, Paradise Lost, and Don Quixote and also Dante’s Inferno. When I got a little older and was allowed to use them, I remember reading all of these at a very early age – mostly driven by the spectacular Dore illustrations in them. It was perhaps a seminal influence to my own artwork in years to come.

The discovery by my teachers that I could read and write at such an early age immediately stamped me as “muy inteligente” and I was always looked upon in a very positive light by all my teachers in the various schools that I went to in my childhood.

Unfortunately for my cousin Cesar, it was the exact opposite for him, and my poor cousin took the brunt of being the slow learner and was unfairly compared to me throughout his school years.

I seem to recall my first "real" school being called Rosendo Rossell, and it was two blocks down from our house and one block past where the paved streets in Calle Cuartel ended and the dirt streets and open sewers began.

I don’t recall much from the school itself, other than boys and girls were kept segregated in separate classrooms, except at recess time. The school had a huge open fenced field where we all played under the hot Cuban sun, and met kids from other neighborhoods, while jealously sticking together with our own little band of children from a two to three block area around our house.

Somewhere along that time the Revolution began to infiltrate the minds of children, and the “pioneers” were established.

The pioneers were school children who wore a special uniform and swore allegiance to the Revolution. This was peer pressure at its strongest and most evil – driven not only by your playmates, but also by your teachers and your government.

Why I wasn’t allowed to become a pioneer was a mystery to me at the time, and back then I didn’t truly understand that my father had decided to leave Cuba and thus we were marked as “gusanos” (worms) and as such not supporters of the Revolution. In retrospect I now realize that few, if any of my neighborhood friends were pioneers, and it is puzzling as to why they didn’t join or were coerced into joining.

I believe that during this time nearly every Cuban felt that Fidel Castro would not last much longer, and many families looked with distaste and disgust to such things as children being marched to and from school chanting revolutionary slogans. Also, because we lived in Guantanamo and the American base was nearby, we heard on an almost daily basis, about Cubans being killed trying to make a run or a swim from the Cuban side to the American side.

The only pioneer that I recall in our neighborhood was the daughter of a family who lived at the end of our block and whose family was the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) in our block. Because of the CDR association, and because she was a girl, she never really played with us or was part of our group and thus was really an outsider in her own neighborhood.

At some point I recall children who were not pioneers being humiliated and made fun of publicly in school. But strangely enough, this never happened to me, and to the end I was allowed to attend school dressed in civilian clothes rather than in an uniform, and I was always allowed to be in the various school academic teams that competed against each other.

The only time that I recall the issue being a problem was when I was selected, along with another child, to participate in some academic competition now forgotten. My parents objected to this project in some manner or form. I cannot recall why, but I remember having to tell the freckled faced boy who was to be my academic partner in the team, that I would not be able to do it. He denounced me in class the next day as a “gusano,” but nothing came of it.

Another time that sticks in my mind oddly, was when the teacher was asking the class about all the wonderful new things the Revolution would build with the several hundred thousand tons of cement that had just arrived from the Soviet Union. Answers included schools, houses, parks and for some reason I answered “Churches.”

I remember how sad the face of the teacher turned. She visibly sighed and said, “No, not churches... the Revolution will not build Churches.” This puzzled me; both her answer and her sadness.

I remember that my grandfather built school chairs for Cesar and for me, and that we’d take them to school at the beginning of the school year and dutifully brought them back to our house at the end of the school year. My grandfather was very good with his hands, and the chairs were the best in our classroom; he had also, with exquisite penmanship, painted my last name CAMPELLO on the back of the chair in capital white letters.

One day the boy who sat behind me in the row at school, scratched out the “P” in my name, so that it read CAM ELLO or “camel.” I can’t recall his name, but I remember him as a redheaded, very gentle boy, especially in the barbaric world of Cuban boyhood, and I was astounded that he had the audacity to defile my grandfather’s work.

That day at recess I confronted him and demanded an apology. Instead he ran away yelling "CAMELLO!". I chased him, easily caught him and then gave him a resounding beating in the schoolyard, to the glee of the crowd of children that always surrounded the daily battles that took place at recess, under the noses of the teachers who would not step in until blood was drawn.

I knocked him to the ground and pounded him, and he would not fight back with any skill, but covered his face and mouth and refused to apologize to my grandfather.

I picked up a rock and smashed his mouth with it. Blood spouted and covered both him and I, and the crowd went silent in muted horror and finally the teachers stepped in and took us both to the school offices.

While the nurse tended to his bruised lip, two messengers were dispatched to our respective families, and it being the middle of the day, my father was at home and came in. When he arrived I burst into tears and the fight was detailed to him. I was truly afraid that my father would get into serious trouble – after all, we were gusanos and the boy that I had beaten up was a pioneer.

To my surprise my father was very bellicose and demanded that the boy and the teacher apologize for allowing my grandfather’s chair to be vandalized.

I was so proud of my father that day, as he suddenly became a threatening force to the school dictators. My father, who always had a reputation as a fighter and drinker, was well-known (and feared) in Guantanamo, and had some many friends in the city that I suspect that in those early days of the Revolution, when Castro's brutal police was still establishing a choke hold on Cuban society, the school principal did not want to cross him too much, even though he was a gusano.

In the end, the chair was fixed and no one ever called me “CAMELLO” again.

Tonight: Walking Off the Artistic Cliff

Wednesday, June 1, 7:00 - 9:00pm

Panel Discussion - Walking Off the Artistic Cliff
Making good art requires taking risks. Join Jack Rasmussen, Director of the American University Museum at the Katzen Center, Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D., Professo of Art History at Montgomery College and art critic for the Gazette Newspapers and Welmoed Laanstra, Curator of Public Art for Arlington County, and moderator Ellyn Weiss, as they discuss what it means to commit to the new and unknown.

Free. Open to the Public.

Brentwood Arts Exchange @ Gateway Arts Center
3901 Rhode Island Avenue
Brentwood, MD 20722
301-277-2863/ tty. 301-446-6802