In this brief chapter, Yolanda recalls her first year in New York, when her family rented an apartment near a Catholic school taught by the Sisters of Charity. There, Yolanda had a grandmotherly fourth grade teacher named Sister Zoe who taught the rest of the class how to pronounce Yolanda’s name. Since Yolanda was the only immigrant in the class, Sister Zoe gave her a special seat in the front row by the window, where she could tutor her in English without disturbing the rest of the class.
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurs while Yolanda is in fourth grade, and she knows enough English to understand the atmosphere of danger and fear. Sister Zoe explains the situation to the class and practices air raid drills with them. At home, Yolanda sees President Kennedy on television and says a rosary for world peace with her mother and sisters.
One morning in December, Yolanda sees white dots in the air like the radioactive dust Sister Zoe said would fall if an atomic bomb were dropped. Yolanda screams, “Bomb!” and Sister Zoe hurries to the window, then laughs and explains that the dots are flakes of falling snow. This is Yolanda’s first experience of snow, and she recalls Sister Zoe telling her that each flake is different and unique, like a person.
This chapter is narrated in the first person by Yolanda as an older woman. It reads like a personal essay written from a later vantage, with sophisticated poetic devices. In one eerie simile, she writes that the nuns who teach at the Catholic school look “like dolls in mourning” (166), a simile suggesting lifelessness and her own estrangement from their peculiar clothing and appearance. Though the women are kind to her, they are strange and unfamiliar images to her immigrant eyes, which see the world with more freshness than those that are accustomed to the United States. This initial strangeness and freshness contributes to Yolanda’s active and imaginative perception, expressed in poetic images. For instance, Yolanda describes how, during her first winter, she “followed [her] breath to school” (167), imagining her breath as actively leading her. Yolanda also recalls imagining how her body would react if a bomb struck: all her hair would fall out and her arms would go soft. Her ability to place herself mentally in an alien situation is one early marker of her creativity and narrative talent.
The Cuban Missile Crisis contributes a new set of words to the popular discourse, and these enter Yolanda’s vocabulary as well: terms like “nuclear bomb” and “radioactive fallout” reflect a growing anxiety about a nuclear attack. As the nation tries to define the unprecedented threats it faces, it relies on language to make comprehensible a danger it cannot totally understand. When Yolanda relates Sister Zoe’s flurry of white marks on the chalkboard as the “dusty fallout that would kill us all,” she adopts a subtly ironic tone that implies how futile the attempt to name, define, or depict nuclear annihilation is. After the elegance of her poetic language, she ends with three single-syllable words that declare the direct physical effect a bomb will have on her and her fellows. Those three words render all other words superfluous.
Given this omnipresent anxiety, the final simile comparing each unique crystal of snow to a person, “irreplaceable and beautiful” (167), implies both the value of each individual and the tragedy of his or her loss. The comparison reflects the threat of annihilation that plagued the dawning nuclear era, and creates an ominous mood in which the affirmation of life’s beauty is undergirded by fear.