“I blinked my eyes
and in an instant,
decades had passed.” ― John Mark Green, Taste the Wild Wonder: Poems
Fifty years ago this month, my mom, my older half-sister Vicky (who had recently rejoined us after a brief but disastrous attempt to live with our maternal grandaunt Gabriela and stay in Bogota), and I were getting used to our new-to-us house in Coral Estates Park, a subdivision of Westchester, which is an unincorporated neighborhood in what was then called Dade County.
The house – which is adjacent to the busy SW 102nd Avenue and sits close to the middle of the block that begins at the corner of SW 8th Terrace and ends at the corner of SW 12th Street – was, in August of 1972, a bit over nine years old, which means it was built around the same time that my late father, Mom, Vicky (who was then 13 years old) and months-old me moved into a house at 911 SW 99th Place, which is within easy walking distance of our new home at 1001 SW 102nd Avenue.
For me, August of 1972 – at least, the bits that I can remember – was a strange transitional period in my life, and although I was unaware of it then, some of the family dynamics that led me to leave my hometown of Miami and move – enthusiastically and as quickly as possible – to the Tampa Bay area were already manifesting themselves, especially in the all-important mother-daughter relationship between Mom (or, as we called her, Mami) and Vicky.
I still don’t remember when, exactly, the 1972-73 school year began. Sometimes I am tempted to say that schools in the Dade County Public Schools system did not open until after Labor Day of ’72 (September 4), or if classes were in session a few days before Labor Day.
I do recall that it was around this date (August 18) half a century ago that Mom took a very reluctant me to various South Florida stores – including Burdines and Sears – to buy back-to-school clothes, not only because – unlike Bogota’s Colegio El Nogal – we did not have to wear school uniforms, but also to replace outfits that I’d either left behind in Colombia when Mom and I moved back to Miami in the spring, or no longer fit well because I was “nine-going-on-ten” and had grown a tad since 1971.
I also remember feeling, as I almost always did in those years when I had a love/hate relationship with school, homework, and arithmetic/mathematics, mixed emotions about starting a new school year, at a new (to me) elementary school, and in a country where I still did not speak the language, much less read or write it.
On the positive side, Mom told me that in Dade County Public Schools there were no mandatory religion classes. In Bogota, which is where I lived for nearly six years and had attended Colegio El Nogal from pre-K to third grade, most of the well-to-do families (such as my mom’s) send their children to private schools run exclusively by the Catholic Church. Accordingly, we students had to attend at least one class that was devoted to religious instruction.
When I was five and even six years old, I went along with religious indoctrination because I was young, and impressionable. If the rest of my family was devoutly Catholic, well, then I was, too.
But – and don’t ask me why or when because I don’t remember the “aha” moment that flipped the switch in my brain from Religious Believer to Skeptic – by the time I began third grade in Colegio El Nogal at the start of the 1971-72 academic year, I disliked Religion Instruction immensely. When the middle-aged nun – Miss Magdalena, I think her name was – started lecturing us about the Book of Genesis and Noah’s Ark, not only did my brain blank after trying to imagine a ship full of animals – including dangerous predators like lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) – co-habiting with Noah and his family, but either I’d draw doodles on my schoolboy’s notebook or gaze surreptitiously at Diana, the cute girl in my class that I had a crush on.
My memories of Colegio El Nogal are hazy and fragmented, but I am reasonably sure that I got a lecture – or two, or three – about proper behavior in class and respect for the Holy Scriptures from Miss Magdalena before my unexpected separation from that school – and Bogota – in March of 1972.
Mom also tried to assuage my fears about not doing well in school or being unable to make friends at Coral Park Elementary. She knew that I was trying my best to learn English by following her “No Canal 23” edict and watching only English-language shows on TV and by reading – helped by both that huge “doorstop of a book” English-Spanish/Spanish-English dictionary and my half-sister’s occasional efforts to tutor me when she had time – the Miami Herald, issues of Scholastic Magazine that she somehow acquired, and a couple of books from her collection of English-language books. Thus, Mom wasn’t too worried about my ability to learn in school.
As for the “making friends” part, she reminded me that most of the kids on our block attended Coral Park. Some, like my “friend-by-circumstance-not-by-choice” Patrick Blanchard, were younger than me and therefore not in third grade. Others, like Armando, Luis, and even Patrick’s older brother Robert, were either in the same grade – but not necessarily the same classroom – as I, so I at least would know a few of the other kids at school.
I listened to my mom’s reassuring words. I wanted to believe them, too. But deep down, as the “Back to School” commercials on TV became more frequent and August of 1972 left the Dog Days of Summer in its wake, a sense of unease and self-doubt crept into my nine-going-on-ten boy’s feverish mind.
What if Mami is wrong? What if I don’t make any new friends? What if I meet a girl that I like but she doesn’t like me back? What if the teachers are mean, or I don’t learn English or math?
I may no longer remember the names of the books I read that long-ago summer, and I certainly do not recall the exact dates when certain events – such as the start of the 1972-73 school year – took place.
But I remember the first pangs of anxiety, even fear, connected to starting classes after a long, idyllic summer vacation.