In writing my recent book, Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity (Kindle) or Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity, I tell the story of growing up within a culture and a race that was different to my own. Here’s an excerpt:
Established in 1858 and perched on a wide hilly expanse, the school was a dominating U-shaped two-story construction. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the minute I saw it, I hated it. Several smaller houses dotted the grounds. I later learned they were science labs, and music houses for lessons and practice. On a small hill facing the main building stood a limestone chapel next to a solitary poplar.
A blond, blue eyed, freckle-faced girl came bounding up to us. “Hi, my name is Sally,” she said with exuberant energy. She handed Mutti a note that invited us to the headmistress’s office once I was settled in the dorm. “I’m your prefect. Welcome to Hampton,” and she handed me a green enameled pin explaining it was for my uniform. It was the color of the house to which I was assigned: Saint Hilda’s. Henceforth, I’d eat and sleep among Saint Hilda’s girls; for all competitive events, those in the other three houses (red, blue and yellow) would be my rivals.
Sally helped me carry my suitcases to the dorm, a long room with six beds. Curtains separating the cubicles were only to be drawn for privacy when washing or dressing. On one side of the bed stood a night table with a lamp and a decanter with drinking water, on the other, a stand with a large white pitcher in a basin. I had a dresser and a closet. On the bed reserved for me lay the ordered eight cobalt blue pinafores and bloomers, and white blouses. Sally’s cubicle, with walls and a door, was at the end. Prefects were seniors, and a perk for that was being allowed to study into the night. Sally, who was Scottish and lived in Kingston, introduced me to the other girls. Peggy Chin was Chinese and lived in Mandeville, which was in Jamaica. Shirley Johns was English and flew in from Trinidad; Janette LeFoire was French from Martinique, Hatti Haaring, Dutch, came from Curacao; Antoinette Marsoobian, of Armenian origin, was Jamaican and lived in Montego Bay. I was the only new one and, I noticed, the darkest. (Years later I learned Mutti had made such a request.) I unpacked, and Mutti put my clothes away to make sure everything was neatly stacked. Then the dinner bell rang.
Mutti was escorted to the headmistress’ private quarters; I joined the Saint Hilda’s line in front of the dining room. My place was in the middle of a long table, at the head of which throned Sally. At the other end sat Denise, a sub-prefect – she was from Haiti. There were two tables per house, which meant that each house had two prefects and two sub-prefects.
A procession of slender, ebony-colored women balancing wooden trays on their heads entered the hall. They fanned out and placed steaming platters of food on stands. Someone said grace, and boiled beef was passed around. Then followed a bowl of vegetables and one of rice and peas. I helped myself sparingly to the funny- smelling wilted things. I knew I wouldn’t bring myself to swallow them. Sally admonished me, as Joyce removed my untouched plate, that in future I would eat all the food I’d served myself. She had been friendly before; now her words carried the iciness of authority. I was not accustomed to someone so close to me in age telling me, in such uncertain terms, what I could and couldn’t do.
After dinner, all I could think of was finding Mutti. The minute I saw her, I ran over and began my bombardment: “I hate this place! For heaven’s sake, don’t leave me here!”
Mutti looked sad, preoccupied, but I didn’t care.
“Dinner was ugly grey meat! The carrots and string beans were cooked so long they were mushy,” I gagged with disgust, “and the rice had peas in it and tasted like coconut! Muuuutti, the food here is repugnant! Uagh,” I gagged again for good measure.
I knew she empathized with me but she only looked sad and, touching my cheek, said: “Food in boarding schools is not high cuisine, Mohrle. And the English are not known for their kitchen.” She hooked her hand into my arm as we walked to a bench. “I understand it’s going to be difficult,” she said sitting down, “because you have to get accustomed to the ways of another country. Dear, dear child,” she sighed, and sighing again, kissed me on the cheek.
A letter Mutti composed in Kingston arrived three days later. She had to leave suddenly, she wrote, and had no time to write me a message. “I love you, my darling child,” she said at the end, and signed, “Be brave. Your Mother.”
By the time I read the words she was already in Guatemala. There were no telephonic communications between Jamaica and home, and it took six to ten days for letters to arrive at their destination. News was always old by the time it reached me. In the remote Jamaican hills of St. Elizabeth, nothing could be rushed and62 Catana Tully
I learned why patience is a virtue. There were a hundred girls attending the school, ranging in
age from ten to nineteen. More than a third came from overseas. There were Dutch from the ABC islands, Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao; French from Guadeloupe and Martinique; Italians who lived in Venezuela; Spanish from Colombia; Lebanese Trinidadians; Chinese Jamaicans; British Belizeans. Add to that the local island mélange, and Hampton was the ultimate international microcosm with British faculty, chaperones of mixed ancestry, and Black servants.
First and foremost, Hampton was a place of learning where order and honor ruled supreme. There was no monkeying around as there had been in the American School. Fifteen minutes into the first study hour, the supervising prefect stood at the desk and declared, “All right girls, you are on your honor.” Then she headed out the door. I, of course, thought it time to chat and let loose a little and looked around for someone with similar intentions. Everyone’s nose was in their books except Nieves Sotelo’s in the back row. She also had an expectant roving eye. We gawked at each other and grasped immediately what “on your honor” had meant. Believe me, it was a major cultural shock.
With little else to do, I had to adjust, buckle down and begin to study.
I soon learned that not only Whites had the inalienable sense of entitlement of those who inherit, for all the dark people I was associating with had been born with silver spoons in their mouths.
By mid-term, which was after six weeks, I had made friends with the ten girls in my class. My first Jamaican friend was Milva, in spite of, or maybe because I found her a little freaky with her blue-green eyes peering out of a brown face. Blue eyes in a brown face were out of place as far as I was concerned. Antoinette pulled her jet-black hair into a tight bun in the back of her neck. She claimed the fiery spark in her eyes was proof of her ancient Romany ancestry. I learned about gypsies from her. Lorna, who was as dark as a moonless night, fascinated me most. Once at night in a dark room, all I saw was the white of her eyes. She was soft spoken and words cuddled in her mouth like creamy candy. A gifted storyteller, Lorna filled my head with stories of the Land of Look Behind, that mountainous limestone country in Jamaica where ganja smoking Rastafarians practiced esoteric rituals in the black of night. Uninvited witnesses to the powerful mysteries, she assured me, were struck dead on the spot, or disappeared in a sinkhole while fleeing on the jagged porous land. There were times when I lay in bed at night with thoughts and ears pinned to an imagined tom-tom-tom of distant drums.
Read more: Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity (Kindle) or Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity.