My pursuit of perfection became much easier once I started school. Not only did I have tangible proof of my worth in the form of grades, but I also was able to spend time with Tata, since he was in charge of my educational support. I anticipated our studying sessions with a mixture of fear and happiness. Fear, because I knew that I would be slapped at least once or twice if I underperformed, and happiness because, even in this twisted kind of way, I had his full attention, no matter how brief our studying sessions were. My first encounter with Tata’s impossibly high standards was akin to hazing.
Mrs Erjavec, my first grade teacher, assigned for us to draw a rabbit from a book. Under Tata’s supervision I began to draw, only to find him erasing what I did and ordering me to do it again. For hours we went through this same scenario, me crying and drawing and Tata slapping my head and erasing, until that rabbit looked exactly as the one in the book. My tutoring session ended when Mama came home from work.
The next day, holding the drawing reverently in my hands, careful not to bend the corner, I approached the teacher, and short of bowing, offered her this most special drawing. Holding my breath, with tears in my eyes, I eagerly awaited her loud proclamations of my artistic genius. Mrs. Erjavec looked at the drawing, then at me, then at the drawing again and setting it down she motioned for me to approach her desk a bit closer. I gingerly came to her, confused why she wanted to speak to me privately. Her face, which always radiated warmth and a ready smile, was now redrawn in harsh lines of disapproval. As she spoke I could see traces of disappointment in her eyes.
“I understand that your parents want to help you in getting good grades,” she said, “but they should not be doing your work.”
It took a few excruciating seconds before I realized that the teacher considered my work a plagiarism. I felt my face becoming red as tears ran down my cheeks and my month became so dry that uttering words became an insurmountable task.
“No, honestly I worked on this almost an entire night,” I wanted to say as loud as my lungs would carry the sound. “ I was even beaten for half of that time” I wanted to add, but somehow all I did was mumble something unintelligent and go back to my seat, wanting to die and disappear at that exact moment.
At the end of the last period, I ran out of classroom as if it was on fire. I cut the sharp corner of the school building and from there I could see our apartment building and Mama sitting on the balcony. I ran down the small hill, crossed the street and continued at a run, feeling the weight of my backpack hitting my lower back in the rhythm of my steps. Mama would recall years later, I wailed as if I were being skinned alive, all the while not missing to look first right, then left then, right again for oncoming traffic.
I sprinted up four flights of stairs, taking three or four steps at the time as Mama came out into the stairwell to meet me. Gulping for air, with nose running as if it was the biggest faucet in the world, I began to explain Mrs. Erjavec’s perceived injustice. Mama sat me down, ordered me to drink a glass of water and waited for me to calm down. Gaining a clearer picture of the problem, ever patient and realistic, she explained the teacher’s thought process. Then, hiccupping twice or trice, I watched hopefully as she called Mrs. Erjavec to correct the misunderstanding.
This tableau of Mama anchoring me to reality, as I allow even the most insignificant of the emotions to gain the strength of soul-crushing proportions, illustrates our relationship. The comfort, validation, and emotional support along with realistic assessment and temperance were the necessary balance to Tata’s emotive and overbearing world. This was not a lesson that could be learned overnight. Our lives are processes with lessons we are all too often forced to come to terms with alone and anew. We may be given the choice on how to confront them, but how and when we are able to make that choice may be the biggest question of all.