|My school hygiene committee card, issued in 1966, stated on the reverse that I would promise to be a good example of physical, mental, and moral health, and would strive to promote the same for the betterment of Mexico.
It was inherent in a student’s life that he or she wear their uniforms proudly. At Ezequiel A. Chávez Elementary School, we had two uniforms. There was a Monday uniform consisting of a starched white cotton blouse with a sailor collar that trimmed with a double border of red ribbon, tucked neatly into a matching white pleated skirt. With a red cardigan and a broad red satin bow at the neck topping the ensemble, we looked pretty snappy.
We wore a different uniform for the rest of the week. Along with the same red sweater, we wore a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, again tied at the neck with a red grosgrain bow, over a grey herringbone pleated flannel skirt. I remember my mother hand washed (few people had washing machines in those days) and ironed our uniforms on Saturdays. For three children with all those different pieces, it was a lengthy process.
After a short talk on good citizenship, our principal invited outstanding students to perform a declamación. Technically, this would translate as a declamation, the recitation of an historic speech or a poem; but so much more is involved in it, including dramatic oratory and movement, emotion. It took a lot of practice to do this, and the more talented students participated in local, state, and national competitions.
Before the close of assembly, we did some basic exercises, touching our toes and jumping jacks, all in unison. Then we practiced following instructions, with Mrs. Rangel calling out, “hands in front, hands behind your back, turn right, turn left, ” and so on, until we were dismissed to follow our teachers to class in single file.
Our classrooms were rather simple. We received only one or two textbooks in the fourth grade and copied the rest of our lessons from the blackboard into our small 6″ x 9″ loose-leaf black binders. When we learned our multiplication tables, our teacher, Miss Ofelia Ortega, tossed a ball around the room. Whoever caught the ball had to recite each table. I was not good at catching balls, but that never excused me from the exercise.
Maybe this active participation is the reason I recall some of those lessons so clearly today. In fact, after we returned to the United States in 1967, I saw my very first overhead projector in junior high. I remember shaking my head at how much “stuff” American students seemed to need to learn a subject when we did so much with so little in Mexico.
We took several field trips to learn about Mexican art and history. It was exciting to see the Aztec calendar up close. We also got to visit landmarks such as Chapultepec Castle. The castle had been home to the Austrian Hapsburgs who were sent to rule Mexico under Napoleon before the emperor’s eventual capture and executed by Benito Juarez, Mexico’s version of his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln. Experiencing these icons of Mexico brought its history alive and gave meaning to its culture for me.
Learning about the US/Mexican War in Mexico and then again (later) in the United States was enlightening in that I learned countries can have very different perspectives on the same thing, yet all of their citizens are proud of their heritage. Among other things, we learned that Mexico could have been one of the largest countries in the world if the U.S. had not “taken” much of the territory above the Rio Grande that today makes up much of the Western United States. The sting of that war remains in the country, which will never forget the great power it could have become. It was a bit surprising to learn about this war in a very different way when we moved to California a few years later.
We also learned that “Americans” were referred to as norteamericanos, or “North Americans,” a reminder that America is not just the United States but comprises all of the countries of the continent.
In the fifth grade, I was chosen to represent my class on the school hygiene committee. Our duties, as shown on the reverse of our member cards, stated our promise to be good examples for our classmates of cleanliness and sound physical, mental, and moral health; and to strive in the future to better Mexico by promoting the same.
There were frequent hygiene checks, one of which was the occasional lice check. The bane of every student is to be sent home because of lice. A lot of the mothers dealt with this by shaving their children’s heads so they were sure to get rid of the pests completely.
When my sisters and I were sent home one day with the dreaded lice, my mother refused to shave our heads as so many other mothers did. Instead, she and one of my aunts found another remedy that at the time was said to be foolproof. We took turns going into the bathroom to have them scrub our heads thoroughly with a thick brown bar of soap that did the trick. It worked. I still remember the large letters engraved on the bar: DDT.
There were always a few girls coming to school bald. The first couple of times I saw this, I thought it was kind of odd, but after a while, it seemed less shocking, especially as you knew their hair would grow back eventually.
Not all girls had their heads shaved because of lice, though. Another reason that mothers shaved their daughters’ heads (usually the younger children) was the belief that it would help their fine hair to grow back in thicker. This was an old wives’ tale, but there were enough people who believed it, and at the time, I wasn’t really sure whether it was true or not.
One of my little sisters had very fine hair. Some of the other mothers tried to talk my mother into shaving her head, but she adamantly refused. To this day, my sister has always had a beautiful head of hair.
“Why aren’t there any boys in our school?” I once asked my teacher. “Oh, they come later in the day,” she replied, explaining that due to a lack of space, not all the children in the neighborhood could attend school at the same time. There were, in fact, two sessions: the morning session for the girls, and the afternoon session for the boys. Coming from a family of all girls and being rather shy around boys at my age anyway, that was just fine with me.
Copyright © 2013 Linda Huesca Tully