Continued from New Life, new house in New Rochelle
Yry was eager to start school in America, but she was blindsided by what the public school system had in store for her in January of 1925. Given my own limited experience with foreign students enrolled in American schools I can anticipate problems. At a time when public schools embrace the notion of hosting foreign exchange students, rigid rules and provincialism confronted my 17-year-old cousin when he came to study in the States. The school district worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep up and would impede class progress. Ironically, even the AP Algebra classes were four years behind his own skill set. I’m not surprised that the principal of New Rochelle’s Roosevelt School proclaimed my mother’s handwriting illegible. “Why, she can’t even write a proper ‘w’!”, he harrumphed. What might this illustrious principal have said about the Queen Mum’s British handwriting?! So, at the age of 12, Yry entered the 3rd grade.
She matched the indignity of this insult with typically haughty behavior. Within weeks she did the unthinkable; she got into her first and only school fight. From her hospital bed so many years later she related the tale; there was a prissy little red-headed girl who wore a fur coat to school. (Was the fur coat alone, irritant enough to set my mother’s teeth to grinding?) One day, when the teacher had stepped out of the room, some inane disagreement ensued between “Miss Prissy” and Yry. Goaded by the other kids, a pushing and shoving match broke out between the two girls. When the teacher returned Miss Prissy launched into a whining, crying, and sniffling routine; whereas, Yry stood firm with a stony face. Yry had perfected the stoic mask of the British stiff upper lip to protect herself from hurtful rebuffs. Looking from one to the other of the girls, the teacher naturally assumed that the older and stony-faced girl was the aggressor. Yry took the blame without argument. From that day on though, she battled an automatic prejudice towards red heads.
I laughed when she told this story. First of all, in my very dim memory, Grandma Noni had rusty, red hair; and secondly, in the fourth grade, I got into a very similar school yard battle with Mariellen Miles, the only red-head in my grade school class. I, too, have since fought the urge to summarily dislike red-heads.
Four months later, Yry had mastered her w’s and proved to the school administrators that, lack of formal education aside, she knew a lot more than they thought she did. She was promoted to the 4th grade. For the remaining two months of that school year she was dumped into a new class with new, unfamiliar classmates. To her complete bewilderment, her former classmates from the 3rd grade now shunned her. Again, she was the newcomer, the odd one out. The social hierarchy puzzled a child who had spent so much time alone or with adults. Her previous experience with kids had been in a family setting or at the health sanitarium where children of all ages had no choice but to mingle. The following term she entered the 5th grade, where she persevered despite, or maybe because of, social ostracism. The school newspaper, The Roosevelt Bugle, showcased several of her poems and short stories.
For a while one of the neighborhood girls befriended her. This girl assumed that friendship entitled her to paw through Yry’s dresser drawers and “borrow” choice items. Yry, bewildered by such brazen behavior, put up with it for a while. Then one day the two girls came across George Bradford, another classmate, literally hanging out in an apple tree. To Yry’s horror the neighbor girl tried to convince George to play “show and tell”—with body parts. To his credit . . . or complete embarrassment, he refused. The girls drifted apart a short time later.