Thursday, November 03, 2005

Primer Grado Buzzing Escritores

It's two months into my first year as a public school teacher. Two months as a Chicano teaching mexicano kids how to write, read, and prepare to deal with the U.S. education-melting pot. I never took an education course and never adequately attended the one college Spanish course I signed up for. My Spanish comes from the streets of San Antonio, and I always want to say pata, panza, and ese instead of pied, estomago and usted. What I know about curriculum might fill one comic book. But in the state of Colorado and much of the Southwest, the U.S.'s sad system of education considers me adequate to help acculturate mexicano kids.

That's their plan. Here's mine: teach them, not to become just literate in Spanish, but to aspire to become Nobel Prize winners. Teach them, not to read Spanish just good enough to be moved "up" into English, but to love reading Spanish so much they need a dictionary to absorb Cien Años de Soledad, one day. Teach them, not just the math basics so they might one day pass the CSAP (Colorado's standardized test), but to understand math and one day enter an engineering school. Teach them about America, not so they'll robotically put their hand over their heart for the Pledge, but so they'll patriotically question authority, unjust wars, and anything in print. That's my plan every day when I sit at my computer at home.

When I get to work, I get tsunamied by reality. This kid's got roach bites and scratches too much to hear his maestro's great words. Another is all sugared up from a junk cereal, donut, and McDonald's diet. And little Pepita aspires to be a Barbi-Shakira-June Cleaver clone. Half the parents wonder how long before I'll stop doing Spanish in class so their kids can become All-American English speakers. And don't get me started about the bureaucratic responsibilities of teachers--it's a wonder even Anglo kids know how to read and write.

Two months. Two months that pass so quickly--one quick day at a time--I wonder if I'm helping these kids more than adding to the agabachado drowning of their joy of life, bursting creativity, and hunger for knowledge.

Last Wednesday 'bout 10:00, they're doing their usual--writing. Some teachers don't make theirs write or do homework every day, or take a book home at all. Mine write twice a day; I give them homework six times a week and let them pick out a book five times a week. Why not? They should be as capable as Japanese kids, is my thinking.

Anyway, Wednesday's usually an especially good day; they're in the mode. Learning and creating machines. Society hasn't yet handed them any invoices for the first or told them it can't afford to let them do the second for long--the War in Iraq and Exxon's profits take priority over more nonfiction books in Spanish or more than one excursion trip per year.

I'm getting off the track, but I often do now that I'm a teacher--so much non-education stuff fills my date planner and covers the top of my desk. That Wednesday I hadn't prepared well enough. My writing prompt is "Algo de otoño." I wait for the expected confused looks, loss of bearings, and lack of inspiration. They go to their desks.

I'm watching them all, but paying more attention to my "bad" boys and girls, the sugar-addicted screw-ups, the Nintendo-addicted wanderers, the June Cleaver look-at-me-how-American-I-ams. But they didn't come today. We've got perfect attendance, but the kids at these tables are writing. All of them. My imaginary, latent ADDs, sociopaths, and desperate housewives-to-be have disappeared. In their place is a bunch of mexicanitos creating pensamientos about family picnics and kid-essays on a leaf turning orange. I've been saved. My lack of prep is erased by their youthful inventiveness. They don't need a teacher; they just need me to not screw them up too much.

I listen to them sounding out their words as they write en Voz Uno (whispering). It's a goddamn factory. No, it's more like a beehive buzzing--not with drones--but with writers, Spanish writers, Mexican kids creating the seeds of literature. Not all of which will win Nobel Prizes, but all of which at this moment fills the room with the the native music of Spanish phrasing.

I rush to the phone, hoping I'm not fooling myself, that this will last longer than five minutes, that it means something. I call the principal: "You gotta come and listen to them." A couple of minutes later she enters, checks what some are working on, and compliments me on their work. "It's not what they writing; listen to the sounds," I respond.

To me it's music. Not a concerto, not a ranchera, but the music of how they, all together, this day, passed a qualitative threshold --they're one great bunch of writers, doing what they like, what they believe they can do despite not being fluently English in a xenophobically monolingual country. A bunch of writers able to make up for their maestro's lack of preparation, well enough to make him look good in front of his boss.

Maybe fifteen minutes later, Pepita checks her hair, another starts scratching too much to let him write at length. A couple are wandering, staring at the walls, asking how soon's lunch.

I gather them and tell them they have to applaud themselves, literally. I try to tell them how they sounded, how great it made me feel, how they impressed the principal, how they reached a new plateau. Maybe my Spanish isn't good enough or the age difference is too great for me to impart even half what I feel. But I think my eyes do a bit. They smile. And laugh at some joke I throw in; one great part of teaching is the captive audience.

These mexicanitos are part of the new wave of "Chicano"; they'll help redefine the term (maybe to no one's satisfaction). Nevertheless, they'll be part of the literary audience and possibly create some of that literaure. For those who stay on this side of La Frontera, it's inevitable they'll become Americans. Perhaps they'll truly be bilingually fluent in part because of what I and others do.

Every day is like that Wednesday, just not necessarily such a wholesale buzzing of literary bees, so it'll happen again. Not because I'm an optimist or a great teacher in disguise, but because I expect each of them to succeed; I'm just a witness. No, they'll more than succeed--they'll surpass: their assimilation-minded parents, the bureaucratically burned-out teachers, the gabacho system's limitations.

I just gotta give them the room. Just gotta give them time to lose the itching, get over the Nintendo-mesmer, and reach that nice place where they patiently wait for their maestro to catch up.

© Rudy Ch. Garcia


msedano said...

those chamacos landed in the right place at the right time, ese. they all are nobel prize winners, if they keep those pens scratching, if they keep their minds alive to notice the leaves turning color, not with the scientific approach but the awe and wonder of the "why" that comes so naturally to children. damn, brother, i hope you find the secret. and if they turn out all agabachado, but are happily so, way to go. that's the new chicanismo and its for them to define it, not you nor me.

daniel olivas said...

those kids are lucky. we need 10,000 of you in california right now.

Gina MarySol Ruiz said...

Wow! I wish I or my kids had been in your class Senor Rudy. Sounds like you are an incredible teacher doing important work. People like you are the heros in this world and I agree with Daniel - we need 10,000 more like you. Thank you for caring, for struggling to help these kids, for promoting literacy and bringing these budding little writers out into the sunshine.

Manuel Ramos said...

Great post, dude. Goes to show that the old rule about writing what you know is sometimes a good one. You obviously know your kids - sounds like you are doing a terrific job. Thanks for giving us this.

Anonymous said...

I ain't necessarily some great maestro; the results aren't in yet.

I assume I've got heart, common sense, some other positive traits mixed in with the disorientation of being raised American.

I see that the biggest problem in writing pieces like this will be how self-promotional it sounds, although I can't say I won't write about the negative days.

To clarify, the good stuff you'll hear here will be the product of the kids' own creativity, their positiveness, their genuineness. I'm just a gardener; I can't actually make a flower.


Julian said...

Muy buen post, me gustó mucho la verdad, saludos desde Argentina.

cindylu said...

I love the way you describe the buzzing of the room while kids are writing.

Continue with the good work, even if it is incredibly challenging.