Children break the rules because there are too many of them. That is what I have always thought, and I worked very hard to limit myself to five rules that M was absolutely not allowed to break. I would change the rules as M grew older, but I never had more than five at one time, and while living in New York, I had three unbreakable rules.
One of them was no eating or drinking except on the dining table. This rule applied not only to M, but to my husband and myself as well. I must confess though that when they were not home, I allowed myself a cup of tea while reading the papers in the living room.
I liked living in a clean home, and to ensure that it was really clean, I vacuumed the floors everyday. To vacuum daily in Japan was no big deal. The apartments we lived in were what the rest of the world called rabbit hutches, and even with the little furniture that we had, there was not much room for hopping around, and there was not much floor to vacuum either. I was done in minutes.
Manhattan apartments were notorious not only for being overpriced but also for being cramped, but to vacuum an apartment that was several times bigger than a rabbit hutch everyday would no doubt take more than a few minutes, and I had better things to do. The only areas that I vacuumed once a day were the kitchen, and the dining room, and to keep the rest of the apartment clean, the no-eating-and-no-drinking-except-on-the-dining-table rule was very stritcly enforced.
Not only did we eat all three meals of the day on the dining table, M also had her daily afternoon snack sitting on the dining chair, her legs dangling above the floor. When her friends came over to play, they also ate their brownies, and drank their milk on the dining table. The rule applied to them as well. I was glad to have them join M color the huge Lillian Vernon cardboard house that sat in the middle of her room, but I was not prepared to deal with brownie crumbs and spilt milk. By the way, M and I could both sit very comfortably inside this cardboard house. I suspected that Lillian Vernon made good money exporting rabbit hutches to Japan.
Another unbreakable rule was no doing homework except on the desk in your room. This rule was inspired by M’s kindergarten teacher, the Scottish Ms. Whitelaw. She welcomed parent volunteers in her class, and I was there almost everyday. I brought M to school every morning, and at UNIS, parents were allowed to walk their children to their classrooms.
After kissing their children good-bye, moms and dads would stay for a few minutes to talk to the teachers until the school bell rang to announce the start of the school day. Together with a couple of other volunteer moms, I usually remained in M’s classroom for a few minutes longer to see if Ms. Whitelaw needed help with any special project on that day.
Assisting Ms. Whitelaw with tasks as simple as cleaning up after a particularly messy art project provided me with the opportunity to see an experienced teacher in action. I immediately noticed that each corner of the room was designated for a particular activity.
There was the corner with stuffed animals and toy cups and saucers. The girls liked to play house in this corner. The far end of the room had shelves with books, and cushions on the floor. The children who liked to look at picture books were in this corner a lot. M always seemed to have a difficult time deciding where to spend the precious minutes she had before the morning bell rang.
The children were allowed to be anywhere in the classroom, but when work had to be done, they sat at their desks. It did not matter if they were practicing to write, or making necklaces with Fruit Loops, they sat at their desks when it was time to do something as a class. And I took a page from Ms. Whitelaw’s teaching book.
We shipped all of the furniture that we used in Lagos to New York, but I still had to go shopping for pieces that we did not have, and I bought a dining table with eight chairs, and a small blue and yellow table with two small blue and red chairs. That Fischer Price table became M’s very first desk at home
I am very fond of routines, and M and I had a routine when she came home from UNIS. After snack on the dining table, we went to her room, and sat at her small table. She took one of the two small chairs, and I took the other having been assured by the Toys R Us sales clerk that Fischer Price chairs are sturdy enough for adults.
M learned to read with Ms. Whitelaw, and it was very important that she practiced reading at home. I sat in the small chair watching and listening to M sound out the words Billy Blue Hat and Roger Red Hat. It was not long before I found myself sitting there listening to her read me stories she had written herself about Miffy, the rabbit, Dick Bruna’s picture book character. The library had several Miffy books, but I never checked out any of them. I liked the ones M wrote a whole lot better.
M was one of the three very lucky girls who had Ms. Whitelaw for two consecutive years, kindergarten and first grade, and it was during her second year with this lovely woman that M was given homework everyday, except on Fridays. By then, M was used to working on the small table in her room, and enforcing the no-doing-homework-except-on-the-desk-in-your-room rule was never a problem.
Small children living in Manhattan are never seen without an adult. Big cities can be very dangerous for small children, and there are two rules that all children were taught to strictly follow should they find themselves alone on the dangerous streets of New York. Do not talk to strangers (even if they do not look very strange), and do not cross the street without looking to your left and to your right (even if the street light says walk).
I did not give much thought to those two rules. M was never left alone. Not even in our apartment. We lived on the ninth floor, and I was afraid that should there be a fire while she was alone, I would not get to her in time to save her, or to perish with her.
A terrifying incident compelled me to make a rule that was not to be violated under whatever circumstances. No crossing the street without Mommy, or Daddy, or another adult that Mommy trusted. Period.
We lived in a building on the corner of 43rd and Second, and traffic was not heavy on our street because unlike the other streets between First and Second, 43rd did not lead to First Avenue. It ended in Tudor City, and the only way to and from First Avenue was through a flight of concrete steps.
I never worried about crossing our street. There were very few cars going across Second Avenue on 43rd, and I am guilty of often ignoring the pedestrian street lights on our street. As we criss-crossed the streets of Manhattan, I remember teaching M about stopping for the red “Don’t Walk” sign, and waiting for it to change to the white “Walk” sign before crossing a street, but when it came to the red light on our street, she must have seen me ignore it and continue walking. It did not matter that I always looked to check that it was safe to cross. She was only five years old, and although she was taller than most girls her age, she was not tall enough to see me turn my head to the left and to the right before crossing our street.
All streets in Manhattan are one-way streets, and on our street, the cars always came from the left if our building was behind me, and from the right, if it were before me. Unless there was an action movie being filmed. “Peacemaker,” starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman was filmed on our street while we lived there. Our street was closed off to traffic for several hours one weekend. Cars were jammed into the street, and a man jumped from one car roof to another. M and I were watching from our apartment window, and I could not tell if the man was George Clooney. I never saw anyone who looked like Nicole Kidman either.
On the day of the terrifying incident, M and I walked home from UNIS with Anais and her mother. UNIS was on 23rd and First, and although I walked to and from UNIS everyday after dropping M off, and before picking her up, the twenty-block walk was too much for small feet.
Anais lived in Queens, but she and her mother were going to Midtown for some reason that I can no longer recall. The weather was beautiful, and we decided to walk so that the girls can spend more time with each other. Anais and M walked ahead of us, and they talked and played little games while walking. Anais’ mother and I walked behind the two girls, chatting and at the same time, making sure that the girls stopped for red lights.
We had reached our street, and were walking on the sidewalk opposite our building, heading for the corner where we were going to say good-bye to each other. We were only a few meters away from the corner when M suddenly broke into a run with Anais chasing behind her.
M ran to the corner of 43rd and Second, the corner opposite our building, and because I never really taught her to stop, and to check if the light across was red or green, and to look to her right and left to make sure that there were no cars coming, she simply ran across the street. It all happened so quickly. I screamed out her name, and my scream brought Anais to a halt, but it was too late for M. She was already running across the street. I ran after her, and only stopped running when she got across safely. A few seconds later, a yellow cab zoomed by the street that separated us.
I barely said good-bye to Anais and her mother who were left standing frozen still on the sidewalk, and dragged the bewildered M into our building, up the elevator, and inside our apartment, violently screaming at her all the way, and at the same time, crying and shaking from the terrifyingly close call. I do not remember the doorman on duty at the time, but he must have felt very sorry for M who repeatedly cried out her excuse in a very small and frightened voice.
“But she was tickling me.”
On that day, the no-crossing-the-street-without-Mommy-or-Daddy-or-another-adult-that- Mommy-trusted was made, and even now, a very cold shiver runs down my spine whenever I think of what could have happened.