Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Member Week: Camille E. Gaskin-Reyes

Today's member is Camille E. Gaskin-Reyes. Currently an adjunct professor at George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs, she spends most of her free time reading and writing. Her favorite poets are Pablo Neruda and Rumi.

Spooning Out Childhood Memories

Reaching back into my South American childhood is like stirring a huge pot of memories with a ladle and dishing out experiences, some wonderful, some painful. One vivid flashback takes me to the tender age of three. Every morning as my older siblings left for school, I, the youngest of nine children, would tearfully wave at them. While they went off into a mysterious world, I puttered around the house by myself, until they reappeared.

After my daily crying fits, my mother took pity on me and asked my brother’s kindergarten teacher to allow me to accompany him to school for one day. When the big day arrived, my mother wrote my name on a satchel, and placed a bottle of milk (I still drank from a bottle), a small slate, white chalk, a pacifier, and a handkerchief inside. That morning I proudly entered my brother’s class. The teacher made me sit in a small chair at the back. She told me to be very quiet.

By mid-morning I was completely worn out, slumped in my chair like a senior citizen napping in the sun. I missed my mother and home. When I wasn’t dozing off, I got out my slate and chalk and tried to write what I could see on the blackboard. Everything was strange, confusing, and noisy. I decided right there and then that home was a better deal.

At the ripe age of five I formally started kindergarten. Most of my siblings were in the same school, but in higher classes. Every Monday was Inspection Day. It was a Catholic school and nuns would inspect students for cleanliness and appearance: uniforms (for girls length below the knee), nails, hair, socks, and shoes. The latter had to be immaculate. And there were penalties for lack of compliance. Due to this Monday morning ritual, Sunday night in our house was always a mad rush, as children had to wash or iron school uniforms, blouses, shirts, trousers, and socks, as well as find and polish the decreed school shoes.

I soon figured out that there was a business opportunity in shoe-shining. Since some of my siblings were already pre-teens or teens with numerous social or sports activities at weekend, they had little time to polish their shoes, come Sunday. I offered my services for the princely sum of one cent per shoe or two cents per pair, with advance notice. For last minute requests, say Sunday night late, I doubled the price. I put all my earnings in a piggy bank. Like Scrooge, I would take them out now and again, lovingly count them and carefully put them back. I kept my piggy bank hidden in a drawer, quite a feat, since there was so little privacy at our house.

At the end of the year as the holidays rolled around, I often lent my siblings some of my earnings to buy gifts. At times I charged them interest. I knew what interest was at a relatively early age. Being the youngest child, I often accompanied my mother to her savings cooperative. She and neighborhood women pooled their savings every month and deposited the entire sum into a bank account, which they withdrew at Christmas, thus earning more interest for all. My mother and these women were raising their children on their own. Every penny counted. I still marvel at their creativity and the power of collective action. At eighteen my first job was at a commercial bank. I think I know why.

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