The Coming of the Bees

On a lighter note…


It is the spring of 1990 in Huerta Grande (which, in Argentina, means it’s somewhere between August and December). I’m sitting in my 7th-grade classroom, wearing my guardapolvo, one be-smocked hooligan among many, awaiting the teacher’s return from the main office and, if that day was like any other, paying more attention to my friends across the room than to the book in front of me. Just another school day at Escuela Bernardino Rivadavia.


The sleepy little town of Huerta Grande, in Valle de Punilla. The school is indicated by the red arrow; my classroom was at the far end of the building, across from the Catholic church. (Sidenote: I got into my first fistfight ever in the little plaza across from the church,,,)

By way of introduction, it’s important that I let you in on a little secret about Argentine public school classrooms. For the most part, they’re human zoos waiting to happen. I know that classrooms here in the United States are also prone to outbreaks of jinks comprising various altitudes–high, low, and in between–but chaos tended to be the rule rather than the exception in our school, at least when I was there in the late ’80s. (If that tendency dropped after I left, I can only say it must have been a complete coincidence.)

An illustration: My aunt and uncle visited us in Argentina during my 6th-grade year, and in the course of their stay they decided to come and see what a day in the life of a public schooler was like. Our teacher had a way of disappearing to the principal’s office or elsewhere and leaving the room unattended for ten, maybe twenty minutes at a stretch, and–being the mature young adults that we were–her exit from the room generally signalled our exits from our seats. On the day my relatives stopped by, she had left, and in the interim we had spotted a spider on the ceiling of the room, some fifteen feet up. My poor aunt and uncle chose that exact moment to enter and encountered a scene more akin to a monkey habitat than a schoolroom: fifteen or so boys in white smocks jumping from chair to chair, leering like idiots, hurling their little pink erasers into the air in an attempt to dislodge the unfortunate arachnid, who was beginning to have a very bad day indeed. Meanwhile, the rest of the class clapped their hands and cheered us on. (Did I say “us”? Of course I meant “them.”) The look of sheer bewilderment on my aunt’s face was beyond comical–she, a special-ed teacher herself, had clearly never seen anything like it in her life.

Anyway, the parameters having been established, back to our story: a spring day in 1990, twenty-odd not-so-studious sardines stuffed into a less-than-scholastic, whitewashed can. Everything normal, everything as it should be. No reason to suspect that, just two or three miles away, the hammer was about to fall.

Two blocks from my house, the main highway between Huerta Grande and the neighboring town of La Falda forked, one branch remaining a highway (a very steep, wind-ey highway–great for bike-riding) while the other branch took off through the center of town. As we students went calmly about our business, a truck hauling a load of very vigorous honey bees missed the split, overturned, and dumped its cargo all over the pavement. Elated at their unexpected freedom, the bees (some of which ended–literally–by taking up residence in our storage shed) promptly converged upon an innocent passerby and stung him mercilessly. The poor man, who happened to be allergic, of course became deathly ill and collapsed. Ambulances were called, the cops stopped by, crowds thronged–all in all, it was a fairly decent commotion, perhaps even a hullabaloo.

News of the unfolding drama spread quickly, making its way toward the schoolhouse, inexorably, like a twisted game of Gossip. As it went, curiosity became concern, concern morphed into fear, and fear turned into outright hysteria. By the time the tidings reached us, the convergence of trepidation, speculation, and imagination had conjured up a story to chill the heart: A swarm of killer bees was on the loose, and they were headed straight for us.

As you may recall, it was the spring of the year, and the outside world quite pleasant. Cool breezes abounded, and the nascent aroma of flowers was in the air. And our classroom was lined with three pairs of six-foot double windows, every one of which stood opened wide, welcoming the mild weather.

Señorita Sarita, one of our two teachers and vice-principal of the school, who had stepped out momentarily, reappeared dramatically in the doorway of the classroom, her expression and bearing a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Cruella DeVille. In Shakespearian tones, she exclaimed: “Killer bees are coming! Shut the windows!” Or something to that effect. All we heard was “You are all going to DIE!!!”

As she rushed to swing to and seal the first pair, a lone bumblebee floated lazily through the opening and into our midst. And all hell broke loose.

Suddenly that 7th-grade classroom presented an unfavorable comparison to a crowd of metalheads at a Megadeth concert or a department store parking lot on Black Friday. Girls screamed, boys screamed at a slightly lower octave, and everyone headed for the opposite wall. Quickly. We must have looked like a stampede of newly-sentient windmills rampaging through the countryside. The din was deafening; the bumblebee must have been scared half to death; the teacher tried desperately to retake the reins and arrest our terror before we did ourselves an injury. And in the midst of weeping and wailing and smashing of classmates, the poor beast, black hairs now decidedly gray, fled quietly back out the way it had come. I suppose. No one really knows. Perhaps it cowers still in a dark corner of the classroom, now a distinctly antisocial insect, telling other wayward creatures in hushed tones of that dark day it took a wrong turn and wandered into pandemonium.

I’ve often been told in the years since that I’m an unfeeling wretch, because in the face of impending disaster I just don’t seem to care. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s that, every time someone screams about the sky falling, there’s this mental image that I cannot shake. Y2K, the bird flu, SARS, Valentine’s Day 2003 when the terrorism threat level went up and newscasters told me to Saran-Wrap my home and hold my breath–each time this happens, I find myself back in that 7th-grade classroom, and Señorita Sarita stands once again in the doorway, eyes wide, proclaiming our coming demise…

…and then I think of that poor bumblebee, shaking violently and mumbling to itself, oh so quietly, “What the hell was that?!?”

Ending at the Beginning

A gentle rain fell against my window, catching the leaves of the níspero tree outside like so many tiny acrobats falling into their safety nets, bearing them down ever so slightly and then releasing them with a faint thwap! Inside, I lay awake in my bed staring at the ceiling. Walls once overcrowded with postings—favorite quotes, pictures snipped from the pages of various children’s magazines, maps eagerly stolen from newly arrived issues of National Geographic—now featured an oppressive emptiness. My life stood around the room, reduced to stacks of cardboard boxes, ready to be shipped (myself along with them) back to the United States, my birthplace but not my home. Not anymore. Not for many years now.

I lay contemplating the injustices inherent in a minor’s life. How could people I had never met, and who had never met me, know what the best next step in my life might be? It was bad enough that they had pried me from my world once already and sent me off to a corner of someone else’s, but now, once I had managed to take that new world and make a corner of it my own, they insisted on doing it all over again. Back to the home country (their home, not mine). Wouldn’t want the young lad unknowingly to forsake his birthright. Well, they should have thought of that ten years ago, before I became self-aware enough to choose my own.

Raindrops traced a crazy pattern on the windowpane, and the neighbor’s porch light threw it into relief on the wall beside my pillow. A heaviness in my chest suggested that the rain might not be the only drops to fall this night. But I did not cry. In my life, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have broken down and cried from pure grief. Irritation, childishness, temper, often, but rarely out of grief. That I keep inside, precious and private, even when the public view might be only my own, even when the heaviness becomes such that I feel some dam must eventually break, and torrents must come. Even when I can hardly breathe from it. On the night my mother’s father died—my grandpa, the man from whose lap I surveyed a kingdom of pastureland and cattle stretching far as the eye could see, the man who concealed candy around his home like a pirate buries treasure but then, poor pirate that he was, always told me where to find it—even then, a continent away, I could not cry. I merely left my paintbrush and the wall I was painting—this very wall, now reflecting raindrops in the night—perched myself on a stand of bricks in the yard and communed with whatever other lonely spirits happened to be looking down from the darkened sky. Years later, when I stood in those pastures and thought of that person, then I cried. But not at first. At first, as always, I just felt. And thought.

On this night, the last of many, I thought of Them, and the tightness grew. I thought of the people who had passed in and out of my life, some friends, others indifferent, and some downright enemies (as far as a child can have such). Of stunts pulled and wars waged, the good, the bad, and the overwhelmingly inane. Some things to be proud of, and some to carry in shamefaced silence to the grave. I thought of my dog and the walks we used to take together, all over town, after which we both had just enough strength remaining to collapse on the patio and let our tongues loll. Of my progression from mute foreigner to voluble pseudo-native, from stranger to acquaintance to friend. Of learning to fight and, more importantly, learning to duck. I thought of becoming a man in a place where being a man is all that counts and, often, all a man has. Of learning that a dirty cup offered in friendship is better than a silver chalice grudgingly bestowed, and that life must (and can) be appreciated because of what it is, not because of what it contains. Most of all, I thought of the strange land toward which I was headed and the familiar sights I left behind, and of the topsy-turvy nature of life, wherein the naturally foreign feels so very familiar, and the supposedly familiar seems so terribly alien. The tightness grew, but still I did not cry.

Then I thought of Her, and my unschooled heart nearly broke. First love, confusing yet exhilarating; first kiss, so business-like and logical, so fumbling and afraid—“What if I kiss you?” “Well, what if you do?” Concealed by the shadows of night, sheltered by the protective branches of a stooping willow tree, friends and family only a stone’s throw away, that first experience of contact with the opposite sex, so illicit and at the same time so liberating. A dawning awareness that somewhere outside of yourself there is a whole to your half, if only you can catch it and hold onto it. However much we may look back on the amorousness of youth with the disdainful eye of emotional maturity, recognizing supposed love for what it surely really was—a nothing, a mere crush—the jaded passage of years must not be allowed to blind us to the truth our younger selves knew all too well. The definition of love may change as we grow old, but the reality of it does not. Its content may alter with alterations in circumstance (contrary to the Bard’s assurances), but our ability to know it when we feel it remains the same. Love is a first-person, not a third-person, affair, and in my heart, love was as real at fifteen as it will be at sixty-five. Thinking of Her, my heart swelled almost to the point of explosion, as I began to understand what I could not yet accept: distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it will more likely cause it to forget. My heart swelled, and still, the tears did not come.

I lay in my bed that night, back again where I had started, thinking of the country everyone insisted was not my home. I thought of Argentina, in all its idiosyncratic glory. ¡Las Malvinas son Argentinas!, and the rest of the world be damned! Of the day in the winter of 1990 when a man named Goycochea took up his place on Mount Olympus and a city erupted from the sidewalks to celebrate their side’s victory over Italy in the semifinals of the World Cup, and I realized what national pride means to a nation that has too little of which to be proud. Five days later, that same city crept back into its hole, and I with it, clutching pieces of hope shattered by a devastating loss against the West Germans. Something fundamental in me shifted that day. Game clock down to the wire, referee’s whistle blows, foul called (unjustified?), penalty awarded. A nation’s breath collectively held. Everything rests on the head of a very small needle. The run. The kick. Goycochea, hero un-rivalled, dives, stretches…MISSES! In that instant, as the ball connected with the back of the net and nationwide cheers were swallowed up in a terrific, univocal groan of despair, I ceased to think of myself as an outsider and became Argentine to the core. My anger mingled with theirs, our blood boiled as one, I was one of them and there was no going back. Welcomed home in defeat, as I never have been in triumph.

Now history prepared to repeat itself: I was to be excised once again from my home without so much as a by-your-leave. My mind’s eye strained mightily, attempting to see into the life that lay ahead, searching for some sign that not all would be lost, that some part of my self might retain the stamp of originality placed upon it by years of exposure to the heterodoxy of extra-cultural experience. While my parents had come to Argentina on a quest to save others’ souls, I apparently had come to discover my own, and as I lay tossing and turning on that night of such poignant finality, the most pressing question in my mind was: Had it all been for nothing? Had I given myself so completely to this world of mine only to have some faceless bureaucrat rip it away? Would I simply take up my rightful place, lock-step, in the ranks of the uninitiated, the people seemingly obssessed with non-existent Argentine koala bears and water buffalo, who couldn’t locate Argentina on a map if you put a gun to their heads? What, if anything, of Me would remain?