Friday, November 18, 2005

La Pregunta

I started out as an English teacher, but almost before I could begin, I was dispatched to teach music, math, special ed., communications, parenting (with no experience at the time, and I’m highly grateful that one didn’t pan out), and finally “ESL.”  My reaction:

“What’s ESL?”

It turned out ESL was teaching kids from other countries to speak English.  I loved it, and when NYC finally offered me an appointment as an English teacher, I turned it down and went back to school instead.

I had to take 12 credits in foreign language in order to get my ESL certification.  I took 8 credits in Spanish and four in German, and that was good enough for New York State.  At that time, I was not fluent in Spanish, and I found it ironic that a colleague of mine, who spoke excellent Spanish, was unable to become certified because she lacked credits.

When I finally found a job teaching ESL, almost all my students were Spanish speakers.  I decided I’d better figure out was they were talking about, so I spent a few summers studying in Mexico, and took more Spanish courses at night.  Before I know it, I had 24 credits in Spanish, and for the princely sum of 50 bucks, NY State sent me yet another certification as a Spanish teacher.

My former AP (not the one mentioned here) was wonderful, and when she asked me to teach a native Spanish 1 class, I was happy to do her a favor.  The young teacher who’d been leading them had been having problems with the kids, and the AP, apparently, was tired of them landing in her office.

It was fun but odd teaching these kids, every one of whom spoke Spanish better than I did.  None of them knew much about writing, and I had it all over them when it came to accent marks, sentences, paragraphs, or discussing literature.  But they didn’t hesitate to correct me when I mangled the subjunctive or said por for para, so it was a friendly but spirited battle those five months.

It didn’t help that I’d been placed in Sra. F’s classroom.  Sra. F. was from España, and considered any form of Spanish other than that spoken in her country to be an abomination.  She never hesitated to share this philosophy with my students, none of whom met her high standards. She judged my Spanish positively diabolical, and made this pronouncement to me, my class, and my AP, on a daily basis.  Having failed the NTEs and the LAST tests a dozen times, it was undoubtedly a great comfort to know she was so much superior to us.

One day, when Sra. F. observed I’d written an aim in English, she almost had a conniption.  She complained, it seemed, to every supervisor in the building.  Fortunately, they’d long ago stopped taking her seriously.

But neither Sra. F nor the annoyingly accurate ears of my students gave me much trouble till the day Oscar asked the question.  Nobody’d anticipated it, so it really took us for a loop.

“How come you’re white?”

Absolute silence, and stunned looks around the classroom.

“Well, my mother was white, and my father was white, so…”

“No.”  Simple biology was not going to satisfy him.  “This is a Spanish class, and you’re a white guy.  What’s going on?”

I decided to turn the tables.

“Actually, Oscar, from where I stand, you look like a white guy too.”

“Uh, uh, I’m Spanish.”

Maria, a loquacious young woman who sat in the front, could stand no more.  “Uh uh, Oscar, you just as white as the teacher.  And you ain’t Spanish.  Sra. F. is Spanish.”

“Come on, Maria, you know what I mean.”

There ensued a long philosophical discussion, the conclusion of which escapes me at the moment.  

The class, unfortunately, met first period—7 AM that year, which meant that half of it never appeared.  Sadder still, half the kids who did show up did no work, so I ended up failing 75% of the class.  

I’ve not been asked to teach Spanish again.

But I’m ready.
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