I was too bewildered to be daunted. I just accepted my fate. I was led from the ground floor downstairs, which was rather a surprise, but I wasn’t upset because there was nothing to object to. The class I went into was known as Pre-K: that is, pre-kindergarten, not that I knew that. Next year was Kindergarten and then came Junior 1. Pre-K and Kindergarten had their own playground and went first for lunch. Lunchtime was an ordeal, not that anyone made it so, it was all in little Z’s mind.
I’ve thought about this and I don’t suppose I’d ever eaten a meal outside my own family group. I was probably too young to have eaten in a restaurant and, if I had, I’d still have been at a table with my parents. I was completely out of my depth when taken into a big school dining hall and given unfamiliar food, with people I didn’t know and, shy child that I was, expected to eat in front of everyone.
The dining hall had long tables, each seating about 10 people. I can’t remember queueing but I suppose I did, certainly that was the system when I was older. I’d have just followed everyone else and I did what they did, until it came to actually eating and I baulked at that. I just sat there. My classmates left and older children came and I just sat there in front of my cold food. I remember that, but not what happened next, though my mother told me, years later. Apparently, I sat until the end of dinnertime and next day the same thing happened, except that kind nuns intervened.
It was a convent school and a kind one. There was no harshness and no intolerance. I have nothing bad to say about it at all and I wish I could actually remember the occurrence I was told about: I was taken into the convent itself and given milk and chocolate biscuits, so that I wouldn’t go hungry. How very kind they were. They could have brought my plate of food and left me alone and I’d probably have eaten it, but they cherished that frightened little girl and gave her treats. I do remember that the biscuits were chocolate fingers and that was a real bonus, we didn’t have them at home except for birthdays.
I’m not sure how many days this carried on, though I do remember stubbornly sitting there in front of my congealing plateful. Apparently, a nun spoke to my mother and told her that they were worried about me and Mummy totally killed my joy. Yeah, she was right, but all the same…she said that I shouldn’t be given milk and chocolate biscuits and I was quite able to eat the food. So a new tack was tried. An older girl was put in charge of me – how kind she was and how wise they were. I suppose, perhaps, she had younger siblings. Patiently, she persuaded me to eat. “Open wide, down the red lane,” I remember her saying and I did and I ate and swallowed. I don’t know if it took a couple of days or a week or a month, but it did the trick. One day, I just ate my dinner and went out to play with everyone else. I’ve wondered since, what that kind girl thought when she arrived and I wasn’t there. Was she disappointed or hurt, or perhaps relieved? I have no idea. I never spoke to her again.