Some years ago, I am in NYC for business. I decide to take the subway to Brooklyn for a walk. I want to visit the neighborhood where we spent seven years after arriving from Indonesia.
I board the 5 train at the Wall Street area. It trundles off and makes stop after stop. Passengers exit, others get on. Soon, nearly every face on the train is no longer white. We are a variety of yellow, black and brown shades. I feel self-conscious in my suit.
I get off at Nostrand Avenue, in East Flatbush, and check my phone to see where to go. I walk north, past many bodegas and narrow shops and turn left on Church Avenue. I then see this.
It is my old school, Holy Cross School. In my second-grade mind, that school appears huge, industrial and monolithic. Now, it looks a bit small and very shabby.
I do not have a plan. I decide to climb the steps. I pull at the front door, and it’s locked. Of course: security. I hit the buzzer.
“Who is it?”
“Hi, um, I used to go to school here and was hoping to come in.”
The door lock buzzes and unlatches, and I walk in.
It is dark and smells like an old, old gym. To the right is the reception area, which I suddenly remember. The walls are painted a sickly green color, which I now recall. Now, though, there is peeling paint everywhere. The lighting is industrial and low-wattage to save money. Soporific.
An older lady comes up to the counter. “Why, hello! When did you go to school here? When did you leave?”
I feel as though I am in a dream and fumble around for words. I try and rise up to her energy level. I don’t have many great memories of Brooklyn. In fact, it was a very tough time in our family’s life, full of change, disruption and sadness.
I’ll write about it one day.
I force a smile, look her in the eye and parry back with answers.
She continues to beam at me. “It is so exciting to meet a graduate. Hold on. Let me get Sister Patrice, the principal.”
The lady walks to the other side, knocks on a door. I hear some excited whispering. Another older lady comes out. She has many wrinkles, kind eyes and is very short. I instantly like her.
“My goodness! A graduate of our school. Welcome! How about a tour?”
Sister Patrice talks rapidly and asks me many questions. We roam the hallways together. I don’t recall the conversation, for, in my mind, I am a seven year-old walking from the bathroom back into the classroom with the hall pass in my hand.
A loud bell rings, and suddenly, doors open. It is recess. A flood of small brown and black kids identically dressed in Catholic school uniforms come out. Suddenly, there is noise everywhere. Children are yelling and chatting and smiling. They make me smile.
I remember that passage in The Catcher in the Rye. I want to be the one who makes sure the children are safe. As children play on a field next to a cliff, should any veer towards the edge, I want to be the one who catches him or her.
“Would you like to see a classroom?” Sister asks me.
We walk into one. More green paint peeling from the walls. The desks I remember so well, but, now, so very tiny. The dark, dark green chalkboards. Nothing has changed, it seems. It even smells the same.
I remember my First Communion and the many rehearsals we did at the Church next door. I remember walking to and from school with my sister in the deep snow. Back then, parents didn’t think much about letting their kids walk to school, even in a rough part of Brooklyn. I remember the Key Food grocery store that was in between the school and our apartment just a few blocks away.
I remember my mom’s sadness from being away from family and friends, my father’s fatigue from his long work hours. I remember how happy she was when she received a letter from one of her siblings.
I remember the small and fake Christmas tree we used to put up. The “Charlie Brown tree” my sister and I still joke about today. I remember the distinct feeling that we had very, very little money.
I remember a lot of things.
I hear a voice address me, and I snap back to the present.
“Yes,” I say, “it is just as a I remember.”
Sister Patrice kindly walks me to the front door. She is visibly moved when I tell her that I will send a check when I get back home. She shakes my hand warmly, and I exit the building, back out into the sun. I want to walk to our old apartment building.
A year later, the school closes. The Brooklyn Archdiocese is trying to cut costs and closes many parishes and schools. A Charter School is now at the building.
This morning, after listening to an amazing podcast about college and kids from the Bronx (here), I am thinking about Sister Patrice. I am thinking how my life would have been different if we had stayed in Indonesia or never made it out of Brooklyn.
Like the kids in the podcast, I remember again how I lived in two worlds: the apartment and the “white and American world” outside of it. The cultural norms, languages, and food were very different. I remember how social and confident my parents behaved when we got together with other Chinese-Indonesian families. I remember how suddenly quiet, meek and tentative my parents became when we were in the American world.
But, I’ll write more about all that one day.