Coming Of Age

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Children of My Heart

Children of My Heart

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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A little later, with thirty-five children registered and more or less settled down, I began to breathe again, hoping for an end to the nightmare and thinking: The worst is over now. I saw little faces, to which I still was unable to put a name, sending me a first, furtive smile or, in passing, a caressing look. I said to myself: We’re going to be friends.

And then, from the corridor, came a fresh cry of anguish. My class, which I thought I had won over to confidence, was overtaken by a shudder. With trembling lips they stared toward the doorway. Then there appeared a young father and clinging to him a little boy, the living image of him, with the same dark, grieving eyes and such a stricken look that one might have been tempted to smile if those two had not expressed in equal degrees the very pain of separation.

The little boy, glued to his father’s side, turned up at him a face flooded by tears. In their Italian tongue he was begging him, it seemed to me, for the love of heaven not to leave him!

Almost as upset himself, the father tried to reassure his son. He ran his hand through the boy’s hair, dried his eyes, fondled him, soothed him with tender words repeated over and over, seeming to say: “It’ll be all right. . . . You’ll see. . . . It’s a nice school. . . . Benito, Benito. . . .” he insisted. But the child kept up his desperate appeal: “La casa! La casa!”

Now I recognized him: an immigrant from the Abruzzi who had recently come to our town. As yet unable to find work in his own trade of upholsterer, he was doing odd jobs here and there. This was why I had seen him one day in our neighbourhood, digging up a patch of ground. I remembered that his little son has been with him, trying to help, that the two never stopped talking as they worked, no doubt spurring each other on, and that this murmur in a foreign tongue, at our fields’ edge, had seemed to have a special charm.

I went over to them with the very best smile I could muster. As I came near, the child cried out in terror and clung even more desperately to his father, who trembled on contact. I could see that he wouldn’t be much help. On the contrary, with his caresses and soft words he did nothing but keep alive the hope that he might weaken. And in fact the father began to plead with me. Since the boy was so unhappy, wouldn’t it be better to take him home just this once, and try again this afternoon or tomorrow morning, when he’d have time to explain what a school was.

I saw them hanging on my decision, and took my courage in my two hands: “No, when you have to make the break, it doesn’t help to wait.”

The father lowered his eyes, obliged to admit I was right. Even between the two of us we had trouble detaching the child; as soon as we loosened the grip of one hand it slipped away to grasp another handful of the father’s clothing. The odd thing was that while he continued to cling to his father he was furious with him for taking my side, and through his tears and hiccups was calling him a heartless wretch, or words to that effect.

Finally the father was free for a moment, while I was holding on to the boy for dear life. I made a sign to the father to disappear as quickly as he could. He went out the door. I closed it behind him. He opened it again a crack to tell me, glancing at the child:

“That’s Vincento!”

I let him know the details could wait, for Vincento had almost escaped. I grabbed him in the nick of time and closed the door again. He rushed at it, straining to reach the knob. He wasn’t screaming or crying now: all his energy was bent to getting out of that place. The father was still there, trying to see through the glass top panel how Vincento was making out and whether I was able to cope. From his anxious face you’d have said he was unsure how he wanted these events to turn out. And again the child was on the point of making his getaway under my very eyes, having succeeded in grasping the doorknob. I turned the key in the lock and put it in my pocket.

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