She sat right in front of me, in the first row, as it were, and I called her by name, the wrong name. She looked at me. She said, “Who?” And I thought, and maybe I said out loud, “Oh my god.” And even while I knew it was the wrong name, for the life of me, I could not remember the correct one. She took it in stride, even laughed about it, which, of course, set me a little bit at ease. Other students in the room, though, a couple of dudes, thought they’d have a little fun with their teacher by pressing him for the right name. “What’s her name, Jarmer?” To be sure, an asshole move. But still, her name would not come. One of my boys, when the girl stepped out to use the restroom or for some other business, kindly whispered the name to me. There it was. The name I knew but for some reason in those moments could not recall. One worries about the mind. And one makes up explanations for the lapse. She does not look like, exactly, but shares some of the characteristics of the girl in my other class whose name I called her. Yeah, that’s it. Or I was tired this morning (true). Or I was flustered that so few students were prepared with the reading done (true). Or I was further stymied by the boys who decided in that moment to be cruel to their teacher, and maybe to a degree, to the girl whose name I had forgotten (true). No matter. Whether the mind is faltering or not, whether it was just one of those things or not, and while no real harm was done, it still is, and I confessed this to all of them, one of a teacher’s worst nightmares to forget the name of a student three months into the semester.
Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz
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.