The Map of France
Do you vividly remember your early days of reading in elementary school, how you transitioned from non-reader to reader, how abstract signs on a page one day made sense? I do. Learning to read should have been a triumph, a joy even, but for me it is the first painful memory tied to my mother.
Until my first year of elementary school she had made my life as cozy as a bird’s nest. My father was a tiler. He left home early in the morning and worked late. Occasionally he would work for weeks away from home, and for the first six years of my life it was mostly me and my mother. The day began with her gently cleaning my face, neck, and arms with big cotton balls dipped in a bottle of Vichy lotion she would buy at the drugstore. She thought it was better for my young skin than just plain soap. “Close your eyes,” she would say. I still can smell the fresh, clean scent and feel my mother’s love through each stroke. She made a point of taking me out every day since we lived in an apartment the size of a walk-in-closet, right outside of Paris, on the top floor of a registered historical building. I was still an only child then, and she would bring me to the park so I could see other children and try to socialize with them.
That safe nest would not last long. My mother began to shake my world so hard I fell from it, and it would be many years before I started to comprehend her choices. I managed to climb back into my family, back into my life with them. It’s what people call resilience in children. I developed a lot of resilience in my early years, but there came a time when climbing back into the nest became pointless.
When I turned five years old, my mother decided I had enjoyed enough idleness and it was time to be serious. We would not go to the local play ground as often; instead, I had to start Kindergarten. The first day of school I had one foot in the classroom and one in the hallway because I would not let my mother go. It took three attempts until the teacher tried distracting me so my mother could finally leave. I found Kindergarten rather tedious and physically restricting, so to entertain myself, I took the liberty to visit my docile classmates (who were quietly seated at their tables), and I would ask them what they were doing. This was not a popular choice with my teacher. Dismayed, she warned my mother I needed to stop being so undisciplined by the time I entered “the Big School.”
A week before first grade started, I slept late and woke up to discover that my mother was not home. Hardly had I sat up in bed, I noticed one of the kitchen chairs standing next to me with a navy blue school satchel. I grabbed it, excited. It felt soft and supple. I put it on my lap and then close to my nose. It smelled of brand new vinyl and I squeezed it against my skinny chest. I opened the square latch and looked inside. To my surprise, I found a box of colored pencils, my favorite item by far, a plastic ruler, a sharpener, a triangle for geometry, which looked incomprehensible, and a hard plastic map of France, about 6 x 4 inches, azure blue, delineating each department with its capital written in white. Decades later I still have that map, pinned to a bulletin board in my office. It has travelled with me through space and time, and serves as a tangible reminder of my childhood in France.
That day, my mother came back home soon after I woke up and found me still holding the satchel which I found so pretty and grown up. She was as happy as I was because she had loved school herself.
“In a week, you will be going to the Big School. No more Kindergarten.” This was fine by me since I was tired of looking at Mademoiselle Bonaire’s face, shiny from too much foundation, at her long neck and short tight curls.
“You’re going to learn so much! How to read and to count!” My mother was excited for me, but also for herself. In hindsight, I was carrying an impossible burden it would take me years to understand. My mother needed things from me, things she never had, things she felt denied. I had no idea about that, but I would soon see that something was not right. I was simply enthusiastic about entering a new world, making new friends, and above all meeting my new teacher.
Her name was Mademoiselle Zachary. She was fresh out of college and looked like a fairy, with long blond hair, a round face and big blue eyes. She smiled all the time and spoke softly. I noticed people’s smile more than anything else, maybe because when my mother did, it was polite and in company, but she rarely smiled at me. I had decided that anything looked pretty on my teacher, especially the silk colorful scarves she tied around her neck. She could have walked straight out of the pages of Matilda by Roald Dahl. She was Ms. Honey incarnate.
As I reached school age, my mother made a point of being involved in my education every step of the way. In Kindergarten she had me recite poems and taught me how to softly color trees, clouds, and houses with blotting paper. “You see, that way you cannot see the pencil lines. It has to look seamless.” It has to.
First grade was not so much about drawing anymore and soon enough Mademoiselle Zachary sent us home with pages to read. I was not comfortable with that. After school, my mother began to sit down with me at our brown Formica kitchen table and had me open my reading book. I liked looking at the pictures but my eyes would glaze over when looking at the words. We had lists of vowels, consonants, and soon groups of letters and later on, phrases and sentences to decipher. I became lost. My mother would have me sound them out, but things would get blurry and I was easily confused. She would raise her voice and underline each letter and word with an impatient finger as if this would magically help me recognize them. I would curl up on my chair like a retreating turtle because I did not know the answer.
The first time my mother slapped me in the face, it felt like she had abandoned me in deep, dark woods. I was calling her but she was moving on without me. For each mistake a slap, and with each slap, a betrayal. In between each sob, I would try to utter an answer. If it was the right one, my mother would give me a few words of encouragement, and I trusted she would not slap me anymore. But for every wrong answer, my mother was disappointed and I fell behind.
Slap. Pleading. Mouth falling open. Answers clashing with sobs. My mother would wipe my face with a cool wet washcloth and waited for me to calm down.
“You won’t leave this table until you’ve read the whole page. Do you understand?” I did not, but that was beside the point.
“How can you be so thick and stupid? Are you doing it on purpose?” She would yell, looking at me with ice blue eyes that burned like fire. Her words burned, too.
I would shrivel up at the end of the kitchen table. She would pull my chair toward her to bring me closer to my reading hell when all I wanted was to escape. I would beg her to stop, but her determination to make me a good student was stronger than anything else.
She worshipped education because although she had been a bright student, her parents denied her all opportunities. Her misfortune had been to be born in a blue-collar household at the end of WWII. Social mobility in Europe was non-existent and survival was key. There was no room for outlandish notions of personal fulfillment and happiness in a family of eleven children. French families like my grandparents’ had to rebuild the country and individual sacrifice was expected. Even though my mother was a fast learner and skipped a grade, my grandparents did not value her accomplishments. By the time she was fourteen, her teacher tried to convince my grandparents that their daughter should continue on to baccalaureate. They refused and argued that education was for rich people. They needed her to start earning money to help the family. She was their first born, and it fell to her.
My mother resented her parents all her life, and promised herself that her children would go to school for as long as possible. So as the first child, before my brother, I bore the burden of performing well in school to compensate for my mother’s lost dreams.
My reading ordeal left me branded, and every time I touch my map of France, I am transported to the days when I discovered my mother loved me with an unpredictable callous heart. First grade taught me that my well-being was contingent on how I did in school. Fortunately I had Mademoiselle Zachary and because I loved her, I mustered enough courage to wrap my brain around the mysteries of reading. I wanted to read for her but also for my mother because I understood that if I continued to excel, my mother would remain happy, and the happier she was, the safer the nest was. I survived first grade and finished second in my class.
My mother remained involved in my education until sixth grade. By then, I had become independent and learned to coach myself, riddled with anxiety and an unhealthy quest for perfection. My mother’s slaps became a leitmotif through my teenage years, but I always picked myself up and moved on.
I wonder what would have happened if my mother had not taught me to read.
What would have happened had she talked to me with understanding and did not burden me with her anxiety and fears.
Where would I be now.
We would have become close friends. I would have stayed in France and she would have been there when I needed her. But since the days of the map of France, my life’s trajectory was set; I moved away from my mother and we have lost each other in the space that has separated us.
Nadia Greasley was born and raised in France. She lived in Switzerland for almost 7 years and has lived in Upstate New York since 1994. She earned a master’s degree in English from La Sorbonne University, Paris and worked as a technical writer and translator for many years. For the past ten years, she has been as a college writing guide at Hamilton College, New York. Writing is a major part of her second career. She tries to spend as much time as she can reading and writing. She is finishing a memoir. Follow her on Twitter at @BraveChickadee.