Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I was a terrible student. I flunked every grade through fifth. The whole premise of going to school seemed so unfair: having to spend sunny days on a tropical island indoors. Then, after seven hours of this torture, I was released to go home and do my homework. Homework?! In my first and only recorded piece of writing before our departure to America, I handed my teacher a note. Querida Profesora, I love you very much (start with the positive) but why should I work when I can have fun?
My grandmother stood up for me. Girls didn’t need all that schooling. She hadn’t gone past fourth grade, and look at her: She had married well, had four smart-enough, good-looking kids, her house and garden the envy of her neighbors. Meanwhile, her daughter, my aunt Titi, was a jamona in her twenties. What man would want to marry a girl who was always reading?
In Nueva York, I ended up at a Catholic school in Queens. Bullies chased me in the schoolyard. When Mami complained, the nuns kept me inside during recess. This was not the American land of the free I’d been promised.
Again, Mami came to the rescue. Back when she and Titi were teenagers, their father, who unlike my grandmother believed in education for girls, had sent them to a boarding school in Massachusetts, a word that sounded to me like a noisy sneeze. Mami had loved every minute of it.
Mami wrote to the headmistress, explaining our predicament: We were exiles, unable to afford the tuition. Was there a possibility of a scholarship for my older sister and me? On the strength of her petition and the application essays she wrote for us—Yes, Miss Sweeney, you taught her well—my older sister and I were admitted to Abbot Academy for that fall.
But when we received the summer reading list, Mami began to worry. Pride and Prejudice! The Mill on the Floss! Great Expectations! The Scarlet Letter!— these were difficult books for girls whose English was only five American years old. How would we ever keep up at Abbot? Mami didn’t want us to disgrace her with bad grades or lose this wonderful opportunity. A neighbor suggested a summer-school camp where she had sent her daughter. It was way up in Maine right on a lake, not fancy or expensive, started by a former school superintendent and his wife. Mornings were for classes, afternoons for sports, nights for homework. My older sister and I were less than pleased, but it was better than staying home in Queens and working at Papi’s oficina day in and day out.
Camp Wassookeag turned out to be a lot more interesting than the brochure. There was a boys’ camp across the lake, weekly dances, occasional “panty raids” by the boys at night. This was more freedom than my sister and I had ever experienced in our strict all-girl Hispanic familia. Even so, the campers complained about the Wassookeag nunnery. At a signal during campfires, they belted out:
I go to Wassookeag so pity me,
There ain’t a boy in this vicinity.
And every night at nine they lock the doors,
I don’t know what the heck I ever came here for. . .
Our teacher-counselors shook their heads in mock disapproval. They were young and indulgent starter teachers. Wassookeag was a chance to earn a little money, gain more experience, and enjoy a summer vacation to boot. Besides their academic classes, they also taught sports (tennis, water-skiing, canoeing, swimming). They walked around in shorts and halter tops, wore two-piece bathing suits, and showed more skin than I’d ever seen on any of my teachers, who, heretofore, had been mostly nuns, cloaked in long black habits, distant, otherworldly. These teacher-counselors talked about boyfriends, diets, periods; they smoked and drank, and no matter what the camp song said, there were no locks on the cabin doors to keep them from slipping out at night…
Mr. Barstow, my English teacher, was the coolest of them all: tanned, dark-haired, brown-eyed, dressed in his Bermuda shorts and in the polo shirts he took off when he drove the motorboat for water-skiing, the spitting image of the Ken doll, the classic all-American guy to this new arrival. Whenever he called on me in class, I stammered in my singsong accented English. Okay, it wasn’t just the new language. I was falling in love.
How to distinguish myself so Mr. Barstow would love me back? As a mediocre English student, I wasn’t going to catch his academic eye. But I was lively and energetic, so maybe I’d be good at one of the sports he taught. I signed up for water-skiing. But I couldn’t manage to stand up on skis without instantly falling flat on my belly, having to be pulled out of the water. As for softball, I swung with great gusto but repeatedly missed the ball.
“Nice try,” Mr. Barstow would say. A verbal equivalent of the C+ on my English papers.
I ended up in activities taught by other counselor- teachers: horseback riding and something called “houseboat,” which meant tooling around the lake on a houseboat, the other campers calling out to the boys on shore. Not me. How could I be interested in such squirts? I had set my sights high on Mr. Barstow.
I needed more exposure than our one hour of English class together. And so I began stalking him. Back then, I don’t think that verb was used except by deer hunters. But that’s what I was doing. Like the song my campmates had learned in grade school about Mary and her little lamb, everywhere Mr. Barstow went, I wasn’t far behind.
During rest period, Mr. Barstow often did one-on- one tutoring with students preparing for their college exams. I’d slip out of my cabin, pretending to go to the bathroom, and sneak into the deserted classroom cabin before Mr. Barstow and his student arrived. There was a small adjoining room with shelves for supplies and a window where I could hide and spy on him. Thank goodness, I’m thinking now, that he behaved himself. But what am I thinking? Of course Mr. Barstow would be the perfect gentleman!
One afternoon, it happened. I had a lot of allergies back then, everyone in my family did, exposed to the new pollens and plants we were not accustomed to. I sneezed, a big explosive MASSACHUSETTS!!! Mr. Barstow jerked around. “Who’s there?” he called out, pushing his chair back and heading for the supply room. I panicked. The only way to escape was through the window. I leaped out to what I thought would be solid ground. But the cabin was set on wood pilings—I dropped six feet down to the rock ledge and landed on my right foot and I felt a sharp pain shoot up my leg. I struggled to my feet, desperate to get away before he recognized me. As I was taking my first painful step, I heard Mr. Barstow call out, “Julia, no!” Oh, the shame! I felt like Hester Prynne with a big red A for Alvarez blazoned on my chest.
Mr. Holsapple, the camp director, drove me to the hospital. What on earth did I think I was doing? “Does the young lady have a little crush on her teacher?” he asked me.
A little crush? I didn’t understand.
“You know, puppy love.”
Love sounded like what I felt for my teacher. But I wasn’t sure about the puppy part.
My ankle was not broken, just sprained. For the rest of the summer, I hobbled around on crutches. I suppose one good thing was that Mr. Barstow had to carry me up the steps of the classroom cabin. But I was too mortified to enjoy my idol’s proximity. Mr. Barstow seemed unfazed by what had happened. As if there was nothing untoward in a girl stalker jumping out of a window. Maybe he’d read enough novels to know people did the darndest things, and those things made for the best stories.
Afternoons, while everyone was at sports, I rested in my cabin. There was nothing to do and no one to talk to, a lot of extra time for reading. I found that even if at first I was struggling, if I persisted I soon began to be carried away by the rhythms of English, the nuances of words, their little weights and valences. The way people learning a foreign language suddenly find themselves coming out with flowing phrases, arms waving. The writers were casting their spell. Jane Austen, most of all. She wrote about girls like Elizabeth Bennett, who were smart and lively and bet you anything would have been terrible at water-skiing. And yet Mr. Barstow seemed to really like her, shaking his head and smiling at the amusing things she said.
Some day, if I ever married, I was going to name my little girl Elizabeth—If I ever married? What had got into me? What else was I supposed to do with my life? And recently, it was always Mr. Barstow I would marry.
Our final grades arrived in the mail as we were packing up the car to go to Abbot. Beside my A in English, Mr. Barstow had written, Great job!
Sometimes we begin by falling in love with a teacher and land on what we love.
JULIA ALVAREZ is a Dominican-American writer of international renown. She has published in many genres, including novels, poetry, and books for young people. Her books include How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, Homecoming, The Woman I Kept to Myself, The Secret Footprints, How Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay, and Before We Were Free.