Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Cramming School

on December 23, 2013

By the end of the year, Saadia and I were top of the class, but my parents were not satisfied. To be at the top of First Grade was a given, since I should have finished 4th grade and my sister 5th grade that year.

They decided we should study Second Grade during the summer and skip to Third Grade come fall. The way to do this was to go to a cramming school that catered to failing students. The Second Grade was a smaller version of our classroom at the public Girls School #13, on the second floor of an apartment building. Three girls per bench, an obese Egyptian lady as teacher, a blackboard and chalks, and a ceiling fan. This school was recommended because they even taught English!

blackboard and chalk

So here we went again, filling columns of a, b, and c, as well as Arabic letters and three-letter words. Since the French and English languages share the same letters, it wasn’t difficult for us, and we would finish homework in a heartbeat. But the next day, the big fat teacher took one look at my columns of perfect a’s, b’s and c’s, well honed by years of French nib and ink training,  and snapped at me, “Your father wrote this!” In those days, one did not reply to a teacher’s comments, however far-fetched they might be, because a menacing stack of wooden rulers sat by her hand.

She had dark hair and always wore dresses with low-cut necks that revealed a deep cleavage. I always wondered how she managed to breathe in her tight dresses that caused various parts of her body to pop out into fat bulges. She taught us English alphabet the same way our First Grade teacher taught us the Alif-ba, rote memorization in a sing-song tune. “A-a-ay! (sol-fa-sol) Bee-ee-ee! (sol-fa-sol), cee-ee-ee!” and so on. The numbers in English were handed down in exactly the same manner: “wah-ah-ahn! (solf-fa-sol), two-oo-oo! (solf-fa-sol), three-ee-ee!”  One day, we reached the double digit numbers, “fourtee-ee-een! Fivetee-ee-een! Sixtee-ee-een!”  Now, having taken English lessons with Papa at the Embassy school, I knew very well that it should have been “fifteen” and not “fiveteen”, but I dared not peep a word at all. When quizzed, “what is this? (15)?” I would dutifully answer, “five-teen”, while inside me asking forgiveness of my father.

My deepest memories of this cramming school were of another kind. One day, the girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder during class. I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk, but at the same time, I didn’t know how to refuse to answer. So I turned my shoulder slightly to acknowledge her tap. She sneaked a folded note to me and whispered, “Give this to Farida in front of you!” Well, sorry to say so, but I obediently took the note and proceeded to tap the shoulder of the girl in front of me. Of course, who but the teacher should see me doing this at just this moment, and next thing I knew she was looming over me, huge chest and cleavage and sweaty smell and all.

wooden rulers

“Fawzia, stand up and open your hands!”  Great, I finally came to make acquaintance with the famed stack of wooden rulers. Whack! Whack! Whack! With my father’s stainless steel shoe horn, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I did eat chocolates. But this was totally unfair. I neither wrote nor read that dratted note. I did not give her the pleasure of one single moan, cry, ouch, sigh, tear or sob. I just kept silent, then sat down and nursed my red swollen palms.

In the yard of pebbled cement and old tiles, we would eat our lunch/snacks that we brought from home. All girls would simply squat or sit on the ground. We learned a new game with pebbles. Five pebbles of roughly the same size did the trick. Round one: Throw all five on the ground, pick one, throw it in the air with the right hand, pick up a second pebble, and catch the first one with the same hand. You keep the picked pebble aside, and repeat the acrobatic act with every subsequent pebble till you get all remaining four. Round two: same thing but you now have to pick up two pebbles blindly with that hand while keeping your eye on the flying one. Round three: you pick up three in one sweep, then one. Round four: pick up all four while juggling that flying one. Round five I loved best: you hook your left middle finger over the left index finger, then bend them and place tip down on the ground, forming an upside down u-shape with the thumb. You then hook the right hand under the left forearm, and throw the five pebbles over the wrist back to the right side to land in front of the cave opening (the left hand). Now, you pick any one of the five pebbles, do the acrobatic throwing up in the air again, and before it comes down again, you have to quickly sweep one of the remaining pebbles into the cave with the right hand, without hitting any of the other pebbles. Repeat for the other three.  Then finally you get to the challenge round: hold all five pebbles in your right hand, throw them up together, flip your hand palm down and catch all five on the back of your hand. If you win, then throw the flying pebble one more time, clap your hands before catching it again, and announce that you won.

If you fail at any point, you have to let the next player continue her game where she left off. The first player to finish all rounds wins.

chinese jacks

When Mama found out about this game, she told us she had played a similar one as a child, but not using pebbles. In Taiwan, we are more civilized. They used rice bags. So she proceeded to sew us rice bags. These were little cloth cylinders about an inch in diameter and in height, filled with rice or green beans. You could do the same with them and they were nice and soft and changed shaped without hitting you hard. They also had less tendency to roll off. We made quite a sensation in school by bringing in our Chinese style rice and cloth “pebbles” for the game.


Many years later, while buying toys for my son, I found out that in the Western world, this game is called Knucklebones and is played with funny looking little objects called jacks. Which gives one much to ponder about, regarding the universality of children’s playground games, and the extensive travels of our forefathers, who probably taught their own childhood games to their children in foreign lands.


2 Responses to “Cramming School”

  1. Normally I don’t comment on your posts but I wanted to ask what theme you use. You run WordPress no? Would be forever thankfull if you could point me in the right direction! Regards, Jenn

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