First Day of School

In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them. For more background, read their first report.

Three days into our new life on the island of Rarotonga, Sarina, 5 and a half, announced that she was done with Rarotonga. “It’s fun here, but I miss my friends. I miss California. Can we go back home now, pleeeeease?” She seemed to have forgotten that we sold our house.

Now, a week later, we have come to dread the daily lamentations over Maddison, Lydia and Amanda, California Pizza Kitchen, her inflatable pink plastic chair, antique bed and roller skates; her plastic doll Ginger who was too big to bring, and the Gummi Bear vitamins that we forgot to pack.

“What are we going to do?” Mark whispers in our humid living room after Sarina goes to sleep. “She needs friends.”

“School,” I say, the idea hitting me as I speak. Since we’re south of the equator, it’s winter here, and the school year is only halfway through. “We need to get her into a school right away.”

Two days pass and we’re sitting in the office of St. Joseph’s, a rickety elementary school that’s part of the island’s Catholic church. Children wearing blue-and-white uniforms are clustered outside, some tending to the gardens with small tools and plastic watering cans, others sweeping the grounds with handmade brooms — bundles of long straw knotted into a knob at the ends, without stick handles.

A short, plump woman with a kinky black sphere of hair stands up from her desk and introduces herself as Sister Teresa, the school’s principal. Behind her hangs a poster that reads, “Smile. God loves you.”

After we introduce her to Sarina and ourselves, and explain that we’d like to enroll Sarina in grade one, she asks, “Are you Catholic?”

“Uh, no,” I say, then quickly add, “but I went to a Catholic high school.”

Sister Teresa smiles and says it doesn’t really matter. “Let me talk with the teacher to see if there is room.”

We’d looked over our list of slim pickings before coming to Saint Joseph’s. Two public schools are near our house, as well as one that is private but fully booked (even Rarotonga can’t escape the waiting-list game when it comes to private schools). When I had asked around about the public schools, one Rarotongan mother hooted with laughter, then warned me, “Your daughter better have some thick skin if you’re going to send her to a public school.” Another mother, from New Zealand, suggested the Catholic school, explaining that, after the private school, it offers the best education.

Sarina looks great in her hand-tailored uniform, but I fret over what kind of shoes she should wear. I try to remember the students’ feet out in the garden, but my mind draws a blank. Sarina suggests her white tennis shoes. “That way I’ll be able to run on the playground at recess.”

“Good idea,” I say. But I bring along her black shiny shoes, just in case.

The school’s dirt driveway is crowded with cars, scooters, students and dogs, most of which have no collar around their necks. I scan the feet of the kids who are entering the school. They’re all barefoot. Sarina notices it too, and asks if she can take off her shoes.

A three-legged dog gallops toward us, wagging its tail.

“Can I pet the dog, Mama?”

I think about her allergies, and realize I forgot to bring her Benadryl. “No. Don’t touch it.”

We walk along the outside corridor toward her class, and I notice how badly this school needs a fresh coat of paint. Some of the windows are broken, without screens, and it looks like the wood panes and doors are rotting away.

Three dogs, including the three-legged one, appear on the grassy playground. Sarina asks again if she can take off her shoes. I look at Mark but he’s taking a picture of posing students while holding the baby.

“Yes,” I gulp, trying to push out visions of centipedes lurking in the grass, “you can take off your shoes.”


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