My mom, Som binte Kader, and I were born in Singapore. She grew up with four brothers and two sisters in a kampong, a Malay village. Her parents raised my mother and her siblings in an attap house. These dwellings were built on hard dirt with palm-thatch roofs. The branches provided sturdy wattle for the walls. There was no electricity or access to gas and running water in their home.
Her brothers Abu, Ahman, Ahmad, and Ahim started attending school when they were about six. My grandfather forbade my mother and her older sister Salma to receive any formal schooling. My mom recalls my grandfather telling her, “Perempuan tak boleh pergi sekula. Perempuan tergolong di dapur,”: Girls don’t go to school. Girls belong at home in the kitchen. She wasn’t even allowed to play with other kids in the village.
Girls don’t go to school. Girls belong at home in the kitchen.
My mom loved sneaking out to watch Malay wedding ceremonies. Vibrant orange, gold, and fuchsia tapestries decorated the outside of a family’s attap house. Beef curries, saffron rice, and pickled chutneys were served on engraved silver platters. The bride’s hands were painted with earthy orange-colored henna. Everyone looked happy, she recalls. It was an escape from her reality. “I didn’t have a childhood. I didn’t have any friends,” she told me, with difficulty understanding my desire to learn about her upbringing.
I’m the daughter of a mat salleh, a colloquial Malay term for white man or Westerner. In the eyes of my mother’s family, a mat salleh man meant wealth. My dad, James Pattillo, is from Alpine, Texas. He grew up with one brother and four sisters. They weren’t wealthy but they didn’t live in a kampong either.
Now, my mom tells me that she was ashamed. She wanted to be like the American parents. 'I’m sorry,' she said. 'I wish I could read to you and Omar.'
In our dining room, where the lessons took place, I remember my mother’s focus growing and waning in the span of an hour. I sat at the opposite end of the table watching and coloring. She wrote the letters in her tablet with exactitude. Lines were straight and neat. There was equal spacing between each uppercase and lowercase letter. She wrote lightly at first, then asked her tutor if it was correct. After receiving a nod of approval, she penciled over her outline with noticeable pressure. It was as though she wanted to leave an imprint of her writing onto the next few pages.
My mother argued with these women when it came time to read. “See Jane run. Run, Jane, run.” After hearing the phrases so often, I mouthed along under my breath. Every time my mother stammered, she lashed out. She told her tutor that she needed to cook lunch for my brother and me, and that it was time for them to leave. I never questioned it.
Every time my mother stammered, she lashed out. She told her tutor that she needed to cook lunch for my brother and me, and that it was time for them to leave.
I began grade one at Griffiths Primary School. I loved school, but when we started learning how to read, I withdrew. In grade one, my teacher recited words like “tree” or “cat” and asked us to spell them out on the chalkboard. I knew spellings for most of the words. But watching my mother’s struggle to learn how to read had shaken my confidence.
“Natalie, spell shark,” my teacher asked. I sat frozen, hoping I misheard her. “Natalie…” she called again. I went up to the board as though I was walking the plank. I started writing. Then, I heard a roar of laughter coming from my classmates. S-A-R-K, I wrote on the board. There I was standing — chalk in hand — humiliated.
When I came home, I sat at the dining room table with my writing tablet, spelling “SHARK,” over and over, while tears splashed onto the paper. My mom checked on me. I handed her the writing tablet. Maybe she learned how to read when her tutor came over today, I hoped. I needed her to check my work before I embarrassed myself again. She looked down at the paper, confused and ashamed, just like I was in class. She couldn't help me.
I needed her to check my work before I embarrassed myself again. She looked down at the paper, confused and ashamed, just like I was in class. She couldn't help me.
My dad worked on oil rigs in Venezuela or Indonesia. He did as much as he could when he was home. Bills arrived while he was abroad. He left it to me to write checks for the bills and address payments accordingly.
There was no public transportation in Alpine. She bicycled to get errands done. I accompanied her to the grocery store to help read labels. When it was time to pay, she passed me her checkbook. She whispered to me, “Go to the bathroom so nobody can see you. Write a check for $200 for the food.” Her nervousness rubbed off on me. After filling out the check in the bathroom, I tucked the checkbook into the waistband of my pants, power-walked to our shopping cart, and snuck it into her purse. It felt like we were engaging in illegal activity.
At around age 10, I tried teaching her with my books. We would fight; maybe I wasn’t patient enough. I eventually left it alone. When she needed help with recipes or subtitles, I read aloud for her. My dad and I realized that she might be dyslexic — there had been signs, with how she jumbled some letters and numbers.
Now, my mom tells me that she was ashamed. She wanted to be like the American parents. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish I could read to you and Omar. But you’re so smart. Everyone tell me you so smart. What do you study again?” It’s hard to not get frustrated at her for not knowing what journalism is after explaining it throughout the years. But how could I be angry or upset? She was robbed of an education for simply being born a girl.
(My daughter) will know that being a girl is an opportunity to be a warrior for female empowerment — and that education is her weapon for justice.
I’m a single mother now. I’m raising my daughter Amora while balancing grad school and work. She’s identifying letters at school. My heart bursts with pride when I hear her recite the alphabet with confidence. When I graduate from Columbia’s Journalism school next May, Amora will walk across the stage with me. She will know that being a girl is an opportunity to be a warrior for female empowerment — and that education is her weapon for justice.