I like to spend time alone, but I loathe boredom. I’m always in search of something to do, something to watch, to be amused, to remember and forget. This sunny Sunday morning, wanting to keep busy, I find myself studying a box of old photographs, lost and forgotten in the cluttered corners of my closet. I pretend that this is part of a larger project; the proposition that I will get rid of anything in my life that serves no purpose. But it’s a lie. I know in the end I will not throw anything out. I am not organizing my closet, I am simply wasting time, studying black and white photos from my past. Among these I find photos of my school years at Saint Andrew’s School of Scotts, also known as el San Andrés, in the town of Olivos, district of Vicente López, province of Buenos Aires, country of Argentina.
British boys in Buenos Aires, in the never-seemed-to-happen years that enveloped 1967 and thereabouts, congregated at St. Andrew’s School of Scots. They wore blue fitted jackets, tightly-knotted ties and gray-flannel shorts. Their British ancestors, like my own, emigrated to Argentina to herd sheep, establish estancias, and replicate in South America an English lifestyle mixed with Argentinian attitudes and gaucho pride. It was something unique in history.
Saint Andrew's, a private school for boys, was a miserable place where the Anglo-Argentines flocked. The majority of them were blond, with light eyes and fine small mouths. Every morning, before the school bell rang, the boys played fútbol (soccer) on the wooden floors of the school gymnasium. The walls in the gym were decorated with tattered prints of English nobles (palms placed above their laps) or stock Argentinian heroes, like Sarmiento, San Martín and Belgrano (arms crossed across their chests). There was also a picture of Queen Elizabeth, next to a picture of whoever happened to be the current Argentine dictator or president. Not all boys played fútbol. The less athletic, in other words kids like me, spent the time walking around the outdoor blacktop. I walked from one end of the paved yard to the other, back and forth back and forth, playing with my red yoyo. My shoes had holes on their soles from all the pavement I pounded
The morning classes were taught in English, the afternoon sessions were in Spanish. The morning headmistress was Mrs. Hanley, the afternoon headmaster was Señor Martínez. I knew both of them very well as I spent a lot of time in their office. For whatever reason, as shy and introspective as I was, I was a class trouble maker. I couldn’t sit still in my seat, and insisted in standing up next to my desk, regardless of what the teacher was doing or saying. Each teacher had their own special way of correcting my lack of discipline. La Señorita Smith favored sending me out into the hall, with strict instructions that I could not come back into the classroom until at least fifteen minutes had passed. To anyone else, this would have seemed like a simple task, but for a little dunce like me it was like asking to perform brain surgery. I suffer from slight dyslexia, and that bitch Smith knew it. She relished sending me out into the hall, knowing that when I looked up at that clock all the numbers seemed exactly the same. I had no idea how to tell time. However, I had my ways to find a solution. There was always someone strolling the halls of St. Andrew’s, who could be called upon to read the clock for me. Some little boy has to go to the nurse for his plugged-up nose or his scratched-up knee, some troublemaker is inevitably sent to the headmistress office to get a bit of what-not for acting-up, some brownnoser (un chupamedias) may pass by as he takes a note from Miss Legg (upper 1st grade teacher) to Mrs. Hallow (school librarian), unknowingly assisting an illicit affair or simple gossip. And even though I was a bit dumb and friendless, I knew everyone’s name by heart.
Here comes Rodríguez Thompson, a stutterer, strolling down the St. Andrew’s halls. “Thompson,” I ask him, “can you tell me what time it is? I don’t have my glasses.” I don’t wear glasses, but Thompson doesn’t need to know this. He is eager to answer. “Son las die-z-z-z en punto,” he says, meaning it’s ten-ten-ten sharp.
Poor Rodríguez Thompson. There was a special place in St. Andrew’s hell for mortifying this fellow, and there will be a special place for him in heaven for the torment he endured. The kids loved to mock his stuttering. But the poor slob was fairly jovial. He was always smiling, as if to hide the stuttering with his big teeth. Thompson put up with everything that the kids did to him, choosing to see the humor in all of it. One day however, the boy simply blew up. Flaco Jones (skinny Jones), a particularly loathsome bully feared by all, got Thompson into a headlock. Everyone laughed hysterically, like the hyenas they truly were. In that instant, Thompson found a strength in him that no one would have guessed was there. He started punching at Flaco Jones like a crazed animal. Jones was taken aback, fell over unto his knees and covered his face with his arms. Thompson wouldn’t stop. He kicked Jones in the stomach, on the nose, in the balls. Flaco Jones’s nose started bleeding and he wailed. Finally, a bored and reluctant teacher stepped in and broke up the fight. No one could understand why Thompson had gone crazy, until Eduardo Lecky explained, “Don’t you know that Thompson’s father died last week?”
After that incident, Thompson never came back to school. I don’t know what happened to him. Perhaps, but not unlikely, he is one of los desaparecidos. Flaco Jones, last I heard, is a castrato singing at a choir in a monastery in the mountains of Córdoba. This fantasy information was provided to me by Eduardo Lecky in the 5th grade.
Here comes Eduardo Lecky. “Eduardo, buddy, what time is it?” Eduardo informs me it’s 10:20. I can go back into the classroom as fifteen minutes have passed. Eduardo has jet black hair and the most beautiful grey eyes I have ever seen, even to this day. His small nose is freckled, his mouth is small. I had a bromance going with Eduardo Lecky. He befriended me, and I visited his house often. It was quite unlike my own. We lived in a neo-Tudor house in the heart of the barrio inglés in La Lucila Buenos Aires. It was furnished with Danish furniture, and the maids kept it clean. Eduardo lived in a traditional Spanish style house, with a patio in the center. Each room connected to the patio, with old wooden doors. The beds were always unmade; the house smelled of cooked onions and spilled spaghetti sauce. I don’t know if Eduardo’s father worked. He seemed to be hanging around the house all the time, in a tee shirt and drinking red wine. At least he was home. My father was in the office day and night, and I hardly ever saw him.
Eduardo had a pet dog who was blind in one eye and loved to yap and snarl. Whenever the mutt barked, Eduardo’s father promised to go out into the patio and shove a broom stick down the dog's throat. I don’t know if he ever did this, but Eduardo would cry each time his father said it, and went outside to keep the dog quiet.
At the Eduardo Lecky residence, there were no maids, no Danish furniture. His mother did all the cooking, whereas my mother never cooked. Mrs. Lecky once made lunch for Eduardo and me, green peppers stuffed with rice, which I had never had before. I thought it was delicious. I told Mom I would like to have it someday for lunch at our own house. She told me that it was food for “pordiozeros” (peasants). I don’t think it was peasant food, rather, Mom did not know how to make it. But after that I started to note that Eduardo’s school uniform was always too tight and should probably have been replaced last year. His shoes were even more worn out than mine, and his shirts were not crispy white like the other boys. But he had the most angelic face I have ever seen, and he was my closest and best friend.
Right now, I’m chewing on some chocolate covered peanuts, enjoying these memories. Here’s Eduardo Lecky in the class picture. He is standing next to me. He is taller than I am. I am the shortest kid in the class. Here’s my memories of the headmaster. As ever, he guards the halls that are humming with children’s voices crudely reciting bits and pieces of history, arts and math, punctuated by the admonishment of dissatisfied teachers. As ever, a penitent boy stands in a corner, under some clock or other, serving time for some perceived class impertinence or other. As ever, a boy accused of cheating, lying or stupidity is sent to the front office, the lair, to report his own crime and wonder if he really saw a spanking board on the headmaster’s desk.
I was not a great student at St. Andrew's. I was ranked twenty-ninth in my class of thirty. Shawn, a poor creature shier than a shadow, was dead last at thirty. But while I may have been academically challenged, at least I had the honor of perfect attendance. Most kids wanted to get sick and stay home. Not me. I wanted to go to school every day. I hated that miserable place, but I have always loved punctuality. At the end of one particularly fever-infested semester, I was the only kid in the entire school who had not missed a single day of class, and I received a prize for my perfect attendance. At an awards ceremony in the school gymnasium, the likes of the stutterer got a prize for best grades in Mathematics, and Eduardo Lecky was given a prize for History and English. The loathsome Flaco Jones got a prize for best handwriting, which no one could have guessed at. Their prizes were trophies, or ribbons, or framed certificates. The prize I received for perfect attendance was a children’s alphabet book, with pictures of animals (A is for Ass, B is for Boar, C is for Cheetah, D is for Darwin’s Leaf-Eared Mouse). The only thing I have left from that book is the hardcover with a picture of all the animals standing in a circle, some eyeing to eat the others, with the Saint Andrew’s coat of arms affixed to it, elegantly penned with “Congratulations Perfect Attendance.”
By happy coincidence, the month after I received my perfect attendance honors the school announced a special gift to be awarded to the child who exemplified best conduct in class. It was una alcancía, a plastic piggy bank in the shape of a reclining Greek goddess. The task was fairly simple. For the month of June, whoever was sent the least number of times to the headmaster’s office, the one who received no conduct notes to take home to his parents, the one who managed to not irritate the teachers for thirty days, would win that piggy bank. The prize was prominently displayed in a trophy case in the front hall, under lock and key, waiting to be awarded. Few of the kids paid any attention to the prize, but I thought the goddess piggy bank was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. I walked by the trophy case every day to look at the beautiful alcancía. I don’t know if it was the shape of the Greek goddess or the gold colored plastic, but I had never felt such a profound desire for a material thing. For one month, I resisted the urge to act up in class and behaved like a semi-normal child sitting at my desk each day. After nearly a month, the prize was almost mine. I could taste it.
However, on the last day of the contest, tragedy occurred which could have cost me my prize. Our teacher, la Señorita Smith, was absent from school, and we were sent a very young and inexperienced substitute teacher. The minute the kids in the class saw her, they noted the fear in her eyes and decided she was the perfect victim for teacher hazing. They made the wildest noises that had ever been heard at that school. They threw paper airplanes at her, pencils, erasers, chalk and books. The pathetic young teacher couldn’t do anything other than beg for mercy. “Children, please, take your seats!” Her supplications were useless, and served as an incentive for the boys to act even more like wild animals. They had waited their entire young lives for this moment, to execute the greatest teacher-hazing ever seen at Saint Andrew's. I was determined not to join in. While the other boys screamed and ranted, I stayed seated in my little wooden desk, thinking there was no way that I was going to lose the piggy bank prize. To keep my calm, I started twirling my thumbs, forming little circles like a mini-windmill. While the other kids made more noise, I made more twirling circles with my thumbs.
Loathsome Flaco Jones was the first to notice what I was doing. It made him laugh out loud. “Look at Steel Wool Hair,” he screamed. This was my nickname, due to my crisp and frizzy curly hair that was so different from the soft hair of the other Anglo-Argentines. “Look at that little fag twirling his thumbs!” One after the other, each little “gentleman” started looking at me, and stopped making noise. The entire class was in deep silence. “Fag Fingers!” yelled Flaco Jones. All the kids started to laugh. “Fag Fingers!”
That day, I won my alcancía. I have no idea where I put that thing. I remember that I brought it with me when we emigrated to the United States, but now it is gone and lost like so many things from those days.
Now here I am, on this Sunday morning, sorting through the photographs I kept. I found my class picture from 1967. I can see handsome boys with flaxen hair sitting tough in the front row; uniforms intact; legs stiff; arms crossed; palms tucked; lips slightly snarled. Here’s my memories of afternoon recess, the boys running amuck in the paved outdoors and the adjoining green gardens. Ernesto Beckford spins the earth with his wooden, red Coca-Cola yo-yo, whirling round in unbounded circles; Eduardo Lecky of the lovely locks, and Flaco Jones the bully, knock about, billy goat style; while simple Shawn the loner, scurries the fields, like a wounded animal, screaming wild nonsense into the wind, never ending.
I spot a picture of me standing in the last row of the class photograph, with my stiff and crunchy curly hair, unkempt. I have patches on my jacket, my tie is unknotted, my shirt is untucked, and my smile is wide and large, frozen in time and wonderment so long ago, in Buenos Aires, in the suburbs, in the long gone barrio inglés, in the never-seemed-to-happen years that enveloped 1967 and thereabouts.
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(c) 2022 Ernesto Beckford
Links to the Collages Used in this Blog:
Portrait of a Teenager