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she emerged from the classroom door like an angel. an angel in a sleeveless green polyester pantsuit. underneath it, she wore a white blouse with flowing sleeves and puffed shoulders like wings. her head was crowned with big blonde curls flowing out of her face and resting on her thin shoulders. this was miss kaplow, kindergarten teacher.
it was the first day of school. american school. seeing miss kaplow descend the stairs, my mother hastily pressed down my hair with the tips of her fingers even though she didn't have to. (earlier she’d parted it neatly down the middle with a wet comb before she tied it tightly in two ponytails.) she then tried to quickly blot dry my flooded cheeks with her thumbs. it didn't work.
there was nothing i wanted more than to go back home with mama. if only i could camouflage myself in the folds of her skirt. why did we have to come here? i’d already had a First Day the year before. i’d already gotten dressed in a pressed red plaid uniform and carried a yellow lunchbox and had my photo taken in front of another doorstep in another country. that was before the war. and the bombings. and the whole world turning upside down.
miss kaplow's smile was as sweet and shiny as her strawberry lip gloss. she’d learned to soothe many similarly confused and frightened children these past few years. she knelt down in front of me and took my hand, her skin white and flawless:
didn’t i want to paint with my fingers?
i only knew two words in english so far: yes and no. at the moment only one mattered.
no? well, didn't i want to learn to tie my shoes all by myself? surely i'd want to play with the monkey puppet! there were lots of nice new friends inside. she would hold my hand for a long time, if that's what i wanted.
mama was watching me intently with her arms folded. i now know she was only 33 at the time--in a new country with four children and relearning how to live. she leaned down, put her hand on my chest, and spoke to me softly yet sternly in armenian: i was going to be a big girl now. she was going to be so proud of me. she would come back for me exactly when both hands of the clock pointed up. don’t be afraid, love. mi vakhnar, hokees.
i looked in her eyes. they were tired. kind. hopeful. sad? she pointed me away from her. be a good girl, she said into my ear, this time in english. “yes,” i replied, also in english. i took a breath, turned towards the steps, and flew away.