Second Grade, the Big Year

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Photo by healthline.com

Much like Tom Sawyer, Teresita was not much into school studies at an early age. Since making the move to US public schools during the days of the English-Only Education movement, Teresita struggled with the language transition. Dreading school daily, she would beg her mamá to return a casa. “In México, we are accepted, loved even. Here…, not so much.”

Entering second grade should have been exciting anticipation. It is the year to deepen the skills of language and math, a year of emerging confidence and independent thought. For Teresita, it was a year of deepening and developing survival skills in a classroom space that was alienating, almost as if she was truly in an alien world, in the science fiction sense of the word.

The only 2nd-grade classroom with a barely bilingual teacher was full. In truth, it was bursting at its seams. Looking back, one would think that a public school at the border with Mexico would make every effort, more of an effort, above and beyond an effort, to hire or train teachers to specifically teach immigrant, bilingual, Spanish-speaking students. Even as early as the ’70s.

Anyway, Teresita was placed with a towering English-only teacher, not understandable by the newly-arrived, 8-year-old Mexican ears. She quickly honed in on the art of mimicking. During morning lesson, a “good” student was quietly at the desk, hands clasped in front, sat straight (sitting toward the edge of the chair helped), attention was on the teacher at the blackboard, and looked interested by the figures and characters being drawn. To this day, Teresa, often sits at the edge of her seat, not because she’s ready to jump off on the move, but because learned habits are hard to break. Then, lunch. Lined up in the Free or Reduced Lunch line to gratefully receive a meal that did not look or taste like her favorite made-from-scratch, cultural meals of frijoles refritos, arroz rojo, and the forever beloved, tortillas de maíz, at every mealtime.

Later, back to practicing the impersonation of a model student. Doodling on sheets of Big Chief handwriting paper to end the school day. She gathered her doodles and followed students to a basket in which to submit completed work. Only that Teresita would decisively be the last in line to be able to turn her back to the teacher, quickly crumble the doodled work, and sneak it into her pant pocket while pretending to turn it in. Then slickly turning to look around to see if she had been caught. Pockets became a much-needed survival tool and the deciding factor for Teresita’s fashion trend.

This theatrical performance went on for six weeks, the student assessment period. Teresita was caught! A parent-teacher meeting was ordered, and Teresita was threatened to be placed in a Kindergarten class if she did not start learning English ASAP. ¡Chin! That was the day mamá enforced an English-only rule at home.

The silver lining of the second-grade year…, Yolanda. She was a beautiful and beautifully dressed classmate that became a bilingual teacher when partnered up with Teresita. Teresita envied her fashion trend of dress rompers in every color and pattern, matched by a variety of Mary Jane shoes, complemented by hair ribbons adorning her long lacy black coiffure. No contest to the brown frizz that was Teresita’s mane. Yolanda was a talented Spanish — English interpreter, one that would put to shame the only 2nd-grade bilingual teacher, and the perfect model to integrate Teresita into the US culture. She became my, cultured, Huck Finn, my first US bff.

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©️ Teresa Carbajal Ravet

El Norte

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