September 29, 2010
Francis Lewis High School can be a tough place. We’re the most overcrowded school in New York City, and kids have only four minutes to make it from one class to another. In the case of my students, they have to make it all the way to the back of the building, then out almost to the street to Trailer 5, my workplace. It’s a formidable trek, but as a teacher you have to defy logic, set a tone right away, and frighten kids into arriving on time all year.
Maria had come late the first three days, and the fourth morning I called her mom. Mom said she and Maria had discussed it, and that Maria has always moved a tad slowly. Maria had tried, but just couldn’t make it. I told Mom Maria was a joy when she showed up, but that I couldn’t allow one kid to come late while everyone else came on time. Mom was very reasonable and understanding, and we ended the conversation hopeful of an acceptable solution. The fact that Maria came from room 306, all the way up there on the opposite side of the building made this a challenge. I didn’t want to read Maria the riot act again. For starters, she knew very little English, and likely didn’t much understand it.
I got off the phone, grabbed my bag, and moved straight to room 306, Maria’s science class. When the bell rang, I walked in to find Maria leisurely placing things in her bag.
“Come on, Maria!” I said, gesticulating with all the urgency I could muster. “We have to make it to the trailers before the bell rings!” She was appropriately shocked, and began to move accordingly.
We made a mad dash to the front stairwell, rushed down two flights of stairs, and crossed the strip without incident. By the time we got to the back door I was a little out of breath, but so was Maria. (Perhaps I wasn’t as out of shape as I’d thought.) We rushed to the trailer, where a dozen kids were milling about, waiting for me to unlock the door. I did, and Maria was the first one in. So despite what Maria had told herself, her parents, and me, it can be done. In fact, we’d scientifically proven it.
But Maria’s usually punctual friend Sylvia was missing. And when she showed up eleven minutes late I was sorely disappointed. “Oh, Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia,” I began, launching into some horrendous soon-to-be improvised lecture. But Sylvia said something about the number 25 bus, and looked so genuinely miserable and contrite I began to feel as though her lateness were somehow my fault.
Then Maria said something. I don’t know what. But Maria and Sylvia speak Spanish, I can speak Spanish, and for some inexplicable reason I turned and blurted out, “¿Perdón?”
This was a huge error, as I’ve trained my class to never, ever speak anything but English in the classroom. My kids are near-beginners in English, and eliminating other options is the only way to drag English from them. How could I, an ostensible role model, break my own cardinal rule?
I’d been teaching them things like, “My name is Maria,” “I’m from Colombia,” and “This is a chair.” But after my unfortunate utterance they stunned me, rattling off all the things I’d repeatedly told them when they slipped into their native languages.
“Oh, Mr., how could you?” asked Hye Min.
“Unbelievable!” said Hao.
“After all my hard work, all my years of sacrifice…”
“What do I ask? Just a little bit of English. But NOOOOO!”
“Inconceivable!” proclaimed Maria.
“You almost broke my heart!” said Sylvia, pointing an accusing finger (but happy to have it pointing away from her).
I’m not entirely sure these are the things you want beginning English speakers to know. But my kids are now experts.