My early exposure to a Monkey’s Patootie

photo by Wolfgang Stearns

In the very early 1970’s I headed off to kindergarten in a suburban public school. As a first generation American child I knew almost no English, save the few words I had learned on The Electric Company and Sesame Street. While my fellow classmates sported ripped jeans and moccasins or sneakers and vests, I resembled a living-breathing time capsule from 1952. Donned in a very short, ruffled lace dress with black patent leather shoes (that my grandmother would shine each morning) I embarked in a haze of complete ignorance which in this particular case bore no resemblance to bliss.

That school, in that dry Ohio landscape, had a few African American students (who sat together at lunch and in classes and played exclusively together at recess). For the most part, the homogeneous fabric of the population was white, Anglo American. And then there was me–a chubby Euro-Latina with blue eyes.

The world was vast and it did not, at that time, include Chipotle or the Internet or hummus sold at the A&P. We bought our cheeses and meats at a tiny import store where Greek yogurt and olives were scooped up from big wooden barrels and sold by the pound. Spanish families made chorizo and blood sausages and salted hams together in a big community effort. This was the food we ate at home and this was the food that I took to school.

Imagine if you will, a lunchroom of fifty kindergarten kids with peanut butter and jelly-filled Partridge Family lunch boxes and Evel Knievel thermoses full of Kool-Aid. Now imagine me sitting down to lunch with aromatic imported goat cheese and anise-flavored cookies dipped in drizzling, sticky honey. I can almost see the smells in comic-book form wafting from my brown bag like the dust on Pig-Pen from Peanuts.

This is the basic scene when my friend Jennifer P. (differentiated by the last initial because there were no less than four Jennifers in my class that year) told a lunch lady that I could speak Spanish. The hair-netted lady looked down (literally and figuratively) upon my tightly braided head and said, “Oh yea, what can she say?” There was a hush, everyone at our long table looked at me. My little encouraging friend said, “Go on, say something!” This was my opportunity to impress….

“Me llamo Sylvia, encantada de conocerla.” I responded.

To which she replied, “Ha! If that’s Spanish then I’m a monkey’s patooti!” and proceeded to shout gibberish in imitation of my previous sentence.

Amidst arguments from Jennifer P. (whose IQ at five was considerably higher than the lunch lady’s cognitive scores at forty), the rest of the kids laughed and hollered, called me monkey, grabbed my lunch and threw it in the garbage. They told me to go back to the zoo I came from and if I would have known the way, I surely would have gone.

All these years later, I am struck by how much the world has changed and at the same time, how little it has changed. I’m amazed at how many bridges have been crossed and yet, how humans continue to disrespect and disregard one another with vehement voices and violence. There are of course, instances of great compassion and kindness, but I wonder if it will ever be possible to bring all people of all colors and theologies together? Is this a possibility for the human race? Will there ever be peace and understanding among the modern-day monkey’s patooties?

46 thoughts on “My early exposure to a Monkey’s Patootie”

  1. I can relate to this. Great story. Unfortunately times have changed for the worse. Regarding bullying and disrespect in the classrooms Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reminiscing my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches:)


  2. Oh, I can SO relate – the only German girl at school with the same aromatic sandwiches on (shudder) rye bread. I would beg my mother to buy peanut butter & white bread.
    I am constantly saddened by the stories of bullying…I almost feel the pain over and over again.
    Sending hugs for past hurts…xoxo


  3. Wow, great post Sylvia. The lunch lady in the room did not stop the kids from tossing your lunch at all, nice. I suppose those kids may now recall this action and view it with remorse. Kids are mean to each other, always have been and probably always will be. We are a mean specie.

    I don’t want to sound negative, but it’s not likely that all humans will ever come together, our core nature is to be suspicious of others, more so when we look and act differently. But as you say, we have come a long way in these last few decades.

    I still view some people as barbarians, unwilling, unable or simply not wanting to accept that there are other ways to live this life. They use violence as their shield and sword, proving to me they’re ignorance and hate.


  4. I too relate to this experience. I went to a most reputable Ivy League university in the late 60’s. The dean asked me if my house was built with brick or was it just cardboard boxes and if I had ever ate meat! When asked where Bolivia was my favourite reply was: Do you know where Alaska is? The very tip of it, that’s Bolivia…


    1. I’ve had “educated people” ask me absurd questions and I have always been so puzzled by their level of ignorance. It’s the way that questions are posed, not the actual questions. I’m ignorant about many cultures in the world, but try to be curious and earnest instead of being condescending. Using humor is always a good idea (if only for one’s own enjoyment).


  5. I loved this. I don’t necessarily have a definitive answer for you but I do know there are quite a few out there who need to do some serious soul searching for the terribly mean and damaging things they say in public.
    For myself if I notice someone who consistently talks loudest and longest, and regularly ridicules others, I keep them far away from me and just pray they don’t reproduce 😉


  6. Wow. I wasn’t sure if I was reading fact or fiction but you engaged me from the get-go.

    Children can be terribly mean. Ignorance is often the biggest cause of such behaviour. May I share this?


    1. Yes, I agree. The world is smaller now and we know so much more about different people and their beliefs and customs. Still, the hostilities remain ever strong and violent, and it saddens me when I see it. You may certainly share my story. Thank you.


  7. Wow, what a terrible experience for you! Amazingly, you seem to harbor little resentment (what good would it do anyway?). Thankfully, many things have changed with PC becoming more mainstream, but you are right, there are still many more ‘lunch ladies’ and their ilk around. I look at the popularity of D.T. and cringe to think there are that many people who agree with him. I ask the same questions as you, will humans ever overcome tribalism?


    1. Children can be so cruel, and they take their cues from adults. I found my school experience to be overall negative, but my “suffering” was small and really very trivial compared to the true violence that others endure. I suppose it made me more sensitive and more empathetic, so for that, I am grateful. And I also cringe when I hear politicians or so-called politicians spread their rhetoric of hate. Truly unfortunate.


  8. Children learn from their parents. What you went through was horrible. I suppose we’ve all had a few bad moments as a children. I was always the new girl in school, the one with the funny accent, and I was made fun of and ostracized. At camp in England. I was made fun of by a group of black girls who called me whitey and milk sop. I knew later that they were trying to get back at me for what had happened to them in school. I had never learned to look on anyone of another color or race as being different. I still don’t.


    1. That’s it, cruelty can leave scars that in turn make one cruel to another. It’s a terrible irony and you can see this played out in the world with horrible violence and hatred. Heartbreaking.


  9. Life experience are tough and to united different races and cultural, it seen a long way to go. Hope the world will be more peaceful and happy place to live than worry there will be a war soon.


  10. If we wish to survive we will figure out some way to work together. The weapons of mass destruction are too terrible not to. I don’t suspect that people will ever move away from self-interest, but I hop it can become enlightened self-interest. –Curt


  11. I’ve been thinking about your post, Sylvia, since I read it. I feel really sorry for the lady actually, she must have felt insecure about not knowing – and therefore resorted to mocking. Fear and insecurity leads us to aggression and other types of lash out. I know I had done plenty of it.
    Reminded me of my own experiences in school. We had such a monolithic society – no different races or cultures-, Eastern European country with all white and mostly blondish kids. Anyone out of ‘norm’ was teased. Then the ‘norm’ gets pushed a bit further – how you wear your hear, how thin you are, etc. I still feel guilty, 30 years later, about just standing there and doing nothing while my classmate, a girl with black curly hair was taunted just because she looked like a ‘gypsy’ – kids said.


    1. I think, to one degree or another, we are all guilty of “just standing there and doing nothing”. But, maybe those experiences teach us as well. That guilt lets us know that we could have handled it differently, we could have stood up, we could have taken action. There might be a time when we find the courage to do that very thing.


  12. Inquiring minds all want to know if we will ever be at peace with each other. Will we ever learn tolerance for differences? If the news is a clue, then I’m sorry to say the answer is probably ‘no.’ We could learn so much if we would take an opportunity to learn instead of judge. 🙂


    1. Yes, I agree. The news is tragic on a daily basis. There is a great feeling of helplessness and even hopelessness. Even knowing that there are wonderful, kind people everywhere in the world, at times the negative overwhelms.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I think if you told all the monkey’s patpooties you lived in New Mexico, they would ask if you had to have a passport. But then I remember that ocean of ignorance we live in…….

    Excellent write, Sylvia.


  14. Excellent post, Sylvia. One would consider our connectivity via the internet would be able to make a difference in bridging the differences. In the great scheme of things, it still depends upon the personal values we’ve learned and what matters.

    That ruffled dress you had in kindergarten, my sister refashioned hers into a ruffled blouse. 🙂


  15. Thank you for making a turn at my Blog today. I really enjoyed reading this piece, taking me back to another era and with a sense of humor to boot. In terms of the world changing – yes it’s changed from the days of Kool-Aid and hair nets. In fact it scary how fast it is changing in some respects. Some of it is indeed for the better. But I agree that the are certain thinks that stay the same and even regress. As a South African we’re still going through many growing pains as a relatively young democracy. Anyway – all this to say that I enjoyed your post. Best Chevvy


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