I was sitting across the desk from Mr. Kolich, my High School’s Vice-Principal. He was doing my intake registration interview. I had just arrived in this small Northeastern city after a three day Greyhound bus trip from Los Angeles.
Before traveling east, we had lived a couple of months near cousins of ours in Inglewood. My sister and I had arrived from Spain, sometime in June and had reunited with our parents there. They had traveled a different route to the U. S. We had just started our pursuit of the American dream, when a minor earthquake — the precursor to the 1970 earthquake that killed a few Angelenos — hit in the middle of the night.
My mother’s nerves were shot. No one could convince her to stay in L. A. after that. We didn’t waste any time. By the next day at around three in the afternoon, we were sitting on the bus on our way to the home of a very generous cousin that lived in New Jersey and who had agreed to take us in.
You could say that mother nature and the nature of my mother had conspired to chase us from the Golden State.
Mr. Kolich and I were having some difficulty communicating. My English was as limited as his patience.
He was typing my name into the registration form and he asked me what my middle initial, the M, stood for. He had already typed in my first name in. He sort of smiled when I had spelled Jesus for him.
“What’s the M for?”
“Maria,” I said.
He turned around and stared at me over his glasses, sitting on the tip of his nose.
“Is that Maria or Mario?
I shifted in the chair. I swallowed before answering.
“Mario,” I answered, “Mario,” I repeated a little louder, to make sure he heard me.
He went back to typing.
I started attending classes the next day.
I didn’t use my real middle name, the one my Hispanic parents had given me, until I was in my forties.
I did fine in High School after all, as fine as anyone would be expected to do who was extremely shy and had a limited knowledge of the language. I remember the American girl, I think she was a Senior, who volunteered to teach English to a group of us every day after school. I remember the kindness of my Algebra teacher and of so many others. That more than made up for Mr. Kolich ignorance.
But I wanted to tell this story to illustrate a larger point. I experienced something else at this High School that made a more profound impact in my life than my encounter with an educator who lacked the sensitivity and the multi-cultural awareness to treat my name with the respect it deserved.
At this school I had my first taste of the American democratic process. This I remember more often than the registration interview.
Boys had to wear a jacket and tie to school. Girls could not wear slacks, but had to wear a pleaded skirt that was part of the uniform. Well, some student got tired of the imposed uniformity and started challenging the authority of the School Board. What started as whispers and anonymous notes on the blackboards, turned into a pretty well organized revolt, with placards and marches and class boycotts.
I was afraid to participate, I need to admit here. I had spent most of my life living under an oppressive regime where protest and free speech was not tolerated. I feared for my life. That may sound laughable to anyone who grew up in a democratic society, especially one who witnessed the sixties, but to me this was pretty daring stuff.
The students won the argument. The uniform was vanquished after about a week of picket lines. The rules didn’t change for the teachers and administrators, though. They still had to dress up to come to work and jacket and tie was still required for the men running the school.
I’ve never forgotten that persistence, organization and a fair cause justly advocated can transform things, be it at the local or national level.
I’ve never forgotten Mr. Kolich, either, standing by the main door, as we were coming to school during the last few days of that revolutionary session.
We were wearing our very comfortable t-shirts and jeans. He had his jacket and tie on.
I am almost sure I remember sweat on his forehead.