I have some young friends who, unsure about my first name, dubbed me "Ariage," a name which has stuck. I don't mind it at all, in fact I like it that they have their own word for me. When it first came up, it gave me the opportunity to tell a story from my childhood that had remained stored in my memory, a little burning coal.
At the French American Bilingual School where I was a student from kindergarten through the 7th grade, with the notable absence of the 6th grade year when we were in France, I had a classmate named Ariège. Of course, only in French school would you have such names, an Ariane and an Ariège in the same room. I don’t remember being friends. But I don’t actually remember being friends with many people actually, particularly not in my grade. I was the youngest and the smallest by far, having skipped low kindergarten and entered high kindergarten a full year younger than everyone else. No naptime or midafternoon snack for me, as I already spoke the language. Instead I was put with kids at least a full year older, which now of course seems like nothing, but then might as well have been a decade.
I was always aware of being on the outside at FABS. My first memory there, indeed, age 4, day 1, is of other kids criticizing the way I drew birds, the way I pronounced the word "Fido," since I pronounced it as you would in French or Spanish. Funny that even in a French school, right, you could be picked on for pronouncing things in French. Yes, I got a great education, but mostly I spent a lot of years feeling pretty much like a cretin.
My friend Frances writes in her memoir “To Have Not” about the profound dislocation of being placed in gifted programs in about the 7th grade. I, in contrast, felt profoundly dislocated at the French school and only felt located once I was in Cluster V, the gifted program at Everett Junior High School. I spent all of those years at FABS distinctly feeling the outsider, the one who didn’t get it, wandering around feeling poor amongst the wealthy, a have-not amongst the haves. [Frances’s memoir is fantastic, by the way. I loved reading about her childhood in San Francisco in the 70s and marveling at how we could inhabit the same location, sometimes even wander the same blocks, and have such different parents, hence different lives. Most look back on high school as a terrible time – but for me was a time of tremendous unfolding and learning, largely because I had amazing teachers in the form of incredible, creative, intelligent friends like Frances to whom I am grateful to this day.]
I think of Ariège every single time my young friends call me Ariage, which seems the perfect funny blending of our names. And in particular, as I told them, I am reminded of the time I was unexpectedly invited to Jamie’s birthday party, 3rd or 4th grade. Unexpectedly, as I said above, because I wasn’t friends with Jamie in the same way I wasn’t friends with any of the kids in my class, really. Unexpectedly because the party was at Hungry Hippo, to which I’d never been and which I hungered for, gazing at it longingly through the windows of my parents’ VW as we motored up Van Ness Avenue. It was a step up from Zim’s, I knew that much. Jamie lived in St. Francis Wood, which was more alien to me than another country, much more alien because I’d been, by then, to other countries and never felt as I did in the houses of some of my classmates, deeply, culturally, an outsider.
But here I was, mysteriously, invited to the party. I don’t remember what I wore that day, but have a memory of a velvet party dress and my hair combed with a ribbon in it. My parents dropped me off, and there I was, inside the place I’d longed for. I had a gift and card in my hand. Perhaps Jamie’s parent met me at the door and took my coat. Next: Jamie’s sharp hot whisper in my ear, “You’re not supposed to be here. My mother made a mistake. She was supposed to invite Ariège, not you.”
And immediately, the veil lifted and everything was back as it should be, the blurry Hippo burger in front of me on the table, the happy noise of the party somehow distant. Familiar territory.
Naturally, I never held this Hippo fiasco against Ariège herself. I knew it was just the natural order of things re-asserting itself. I drifted along, doing my best in school for years, screamed at by insane teachers who should have been locked up, bullied by the endless ranking, until I woke up, in junior high, and felt like a person finally, like someone not-stupid, not-resourceless, someone who could actually, after all that, think.
I’m only prompted to tell this story now by Facebook. In recent years, I’ve reconnected with French school classmates who weren’t my friends then but are my Friends now, all of us benefiting from the great passage of time. Forty years definitely softens the corners.
So I was shocked to read this morning, grace à Facebook, that Ariège passed away last Sunday, of breast cancer after a long illness. She had a beautiful life, a husband, two children. She was only, maybe, one year older than me.
How shockingly quickly life passes by. We were schoolmates, in our blue jumpers and white blouses, eating lunch in the lovely Mme Rouget’s class, and now she’s gone. Although we weren’t friends then or now, we shared a beginning in that beautiful Victorian on Grove & Steiner, perfect penmanship (or else!) in our cahiers. And now Ariège herself, the center of my old Hippo story, a fixture in my childhood repertoire, has truly become just that: a memory. Shocking how quickly it passes.
Going by Ariage, now, has a different poignancy, as I think of Ariège inevitably each time, our names so close together and yet so very different.
Blessings to her family. Love all around.
February 22, 1962 - June 5, 2011