He’s teaching a poem during the study
of 17th century American literature
by Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz,
a brilliant poet, Catholic nun,
living in what was then called
New Spain, and crafting these
beautiful poems about the power
of intellect and about surviving
a broken heart.
He’s teaching one of those poems,
yes, just as he began the course with
a study of Native American myth,
because he wants to expand
the notion and broaden the borders
of American literature.
And Mexico is a part of us, he thinks,
not only because our ancestors
stole a great deal of it,
like they stole nearly everything
on and in this great continent,
but because 37 million Americans
are native Spanish speakers and
a few of those are learners
in his classroom.
So he’s given the poem to students
in English on one side
and in Spanish on the other side.
He reads the English and afterwards
says how wonderful it would be if someone
would volunteer to read the Spanish.
A lively and enthusiastic Latino boy
reads the poem out loud, faltering a little,
but more or less, he gets through it effectively.
But the boy, despite his more than adequate
performance, admits immediately after
that he understood none of what he’d just read.
And when the American English teacher
follows up by asking a girl, one of his best
students, but also a girl of color,
if she understood the Spanish
better or worse than the English,
she says to him, in all seriousness,
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
And the lesson he learns
in his effort to be inclusive
is that just because the work
is in Spanish doesn’t mean it will
make more sense to a Spanish speaker,
and just because a student’s ethnicity
matches the language of the culture in question
doesn’t mean the student speaks said language.
And so in his effort to be more inclusive,
he has perhaps alienated a kid
who can’t read his own language and
another kid who can’t even speak it.
Live and learn, he thinks.
Apologize, live and learn.
Monthly Archives: October 2013
He’s teaching a poem during the study
The American Teenager Claims The Puritans Were Speaking Old English
He wants to say
the Puritans were speaking
or writing in Old English;
a pet peave of mine,
this calling by students Old English
what is essentially their language,
modern English, a language they don’t
really know that well after all.
But they know even less of Old English,
unless they’re illegally drinking
40 ouncers, which scares me,
not only because it’s bad beer, but
because I’m an adult and should
be concerned about their welfare
and must pretend I never did any
underage drinking. No, I tell them,
you would not recognize Old English
if it walked right up and kicked you
in the ass. So don’t call the writing
or the speaking of the Puritans
Old English, and don’t call Shakespeare’s
language Old English, because it’s just not,
and the American teenager
can swear up and down
that the language the Puritans spoke
is not his, but it is, it just is,
and I’d like to tell him, as
compassionately and with as much
warmth and understanding as
I could muster, in so many words:
shut up and learn your own damn language.
Mom and Dad are not religious,
and have not yet taught their boy much
about the wide array of stuff
people believe in their
hearts and homes and churches,
but the boy’s starting to catch on
with or without their intervention
and today it was clear, to Dad anyway,
that some intervention will be necessary soon,
possibly as early as right now,
as the boy tells his father’s brother
(the real minister in the family)
that God is dead.
No, he wasn’t quoting Nietzsche;
he’s only seven and is woefully
underschooled in existentialist
philosophy. Far from
the young lad making any kind
of atheistic statement, he was probably
just talking about what he knows,
that Jesus did in fact die a long time ago.
But that’s not how it was heard
by Dad’s brother the pastor,
and it’s not the way Dad heard
it at first either. Subsequently,
Dad is mortified and embarrassed and
kind of angry, even though the sentiment,
even if it were some kind of child pronouncement
of anti-faith, is not terribly far afield of Dad’s worldview.
Here’s the thing he wants his son to know:
Even if you think someone’s beliefs are bunk
(and you’re probably too young to come to that),
you don’t say the thing you know they will hate to hear
because you will either hurt them, alienate them,
make them think of you poorly, hate you,
or make them want to kill you.
And what good is that?
So we apologize for disrespecting
our family member’s religion,
even if we didn’t mean any harm
and even if its a religion our parents
seem not to be practicing. Dad knows,
and the young boy on the edge of his eighth
birthday is learning fast:
We’re navigating rough waters, now.
A student entered the classroom
of my colleague with a rat.
The rat was traveling
visibly underneath the boy’s
clothing, around the stomach
and the chest, up and down
the sleeves and nestling in
the wide birth of his hoodie hood.
It made a girl scream.
The lesson, whatever it was,
is inevitably interrupted.
My colleague, I don’t know,
loathe as he always is to
the possibility of alienating
his students, even the ones with rats,
made the best of it.
And in the end the screaming
girl really did want to see it,
perhaps, even, to touch it,
and the boy learned that
if he wanted to bring his rat
to school, he would, as they say,
have to keep it under wraps.
And I end up in such admiration
of my teacher friend, knowing
that I could never be so magnanimous
in the face of a rat under wraps,
that I would have wanted the boy
stripped of his rat and the rat of his boy
forever and ever, amen.