THE MEANING OF CHIMNEY
When I was nine and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, "Either a baseball player or an archaeologist."
I had another dream which I didn't articulate: I saw myself in charge of an orphanage. The details were vague but I think the orphanage was in Mexico. Certainly I didn't dream of the actual work involved - repairing the roof and paying the insurance premiums. What I did see was the children who were from all over the world. (This circumstance was also unexplained for surely in a Mexican orphanage the children would be from only Mexico; I must have been under the influence of a Unicef poster.) I would turn up in the playground - for some reason, in the fantasy I am a monk in a brown robe - and the children would run to me in exciement.
When my son was in third grade he entered a parochial school in Brooklyn. The school sent a questionnaire asking if parents had any special skills we'd like to pass on to the children. I offered to teach English as a second language. I had a theory that a child from a foreign country needed only a slight push to make friends at which point his or her English would take off.
I started with three third graders: Irma, from Jordan [identifying details have been changed]; Rita from Sri Lanka and Jessica from the Philippines.
Irma reminded me of my old school motto, Bravely and Correctly. She was frequently incorrect but all the braver for it. She dominated the group; I didn't have to coax conversation out of her. But when she read, she surprised me by her hesitancy. The confident preteen who, accustomed to caring for younger siblings, was usually paper and pencil provider to the group, became a trembling child. Rita spoke less but read better. Jessica understood well, read the best of the three and didn't say a word. Sometimes after Irma had been telling us a long story - her family provided material worthy of the Arabian Nights - I looked around to see if Jessica was paying attention and found that she wasn't there at all. Usually she was under the table, hiding.
Irma had trouble spelling. Arabic is one of those languages that are written like shorthand, omitting short vowels. Irma found it hard to break the habit so "hurdle" became "hrdl," "garbage," with her pronunciation, "garbtch." All the children spelled words as they pronounced them which is a good idea in principle although in their case it could be a problem. Jessica pronounced "p" and "f" interchangeably. I remembered that the Philippines have many dialects of which two are Filippino and Pilippino. That sounds like the beginning of a joke for which Jessica could one day write the punchline, for alarming things happened when she read the words 'hockey puck' and 'phoenix.' Irma pronounced "I eat it," "I it it" and spelled accordingly. I tried to get the children to come up with words that rhymed with "eat." They were silent.
"What are these?" I asked, pointing to Irma's feet.
"And what's inside the shoes?"
"And what's inside the socks?"
"Feet!" I cried.
"Oh, yes," marvelled Rita.
"Fit!" exclaimed Irma.
Rita didn't care about spelling or any other schoolwork. She took pains over her handwriting but when she finished an assignment, she walked around looking for trouble and sabotaging the progress of the others.
One day she worked on a book report which began, "My name Rita West. This stores about a girl name Margret."
"Why did you tell us your name?" I asked. "You already wrote it up here."
"She introduce herself," Irma explained. "I tol' her that's not what it means but she doesn't listen."
Through the distorting lens of their language difficulties, the children perceived a bizarre world. When we read a Berenstain Bears story, I asked them what it meant when it said, "Mamma Bear raised her eyebrows."
"She pulls them?" offered Rita, pulling her own.
"She count them?" said Irma.
The children loved to play games and I went along since it helped their English. But when that got boring, we talked.
Sometimes it was hard to come up with a topic of conversation. Irma's family saga finally came to an end. I told them of the mean teacher I had whose pocket I once picked (of a pencil with which he was about to hit me.) Rita told us about her nightmares. She dreamed of devils tempting her to watch television instead of doing her homework.
While they hadn't made any more friends in the classroom, my students were at least getting to know each other and have more fun in school.
Classes in grade school often fall into the patterns of feudalism. At the apex of the pyramid is the class brain who functions as King or Queen. Beneath him or her are several noblemen who dominate various provinces: One may play the violin; another, tennis; one does science projects involving working batteries; several may already know Spanish; one is the class clown. Beneath these are all the rest who may in time reveal their own more esoteric provinces. At the bottom is the criminal who is always in trouble.
My students were outside the pyramid entirely. They were in the classroom what they were in the world: foreigners and as such, treated with benign neglect. Rita, because she rarely knew what was going on, sometimes deviated into the role of criminal. Someone accused her of having 'cooties,' and the stigma stuck.
When I was in fourth grade, an English girl joined our class. She was clever, pretty and a teacher's pet so we hated her. I was a leader in the campaign to make her life miserable. The following year I moved to England with my family and the tables turned. Someone wrote on the schoolyard wall, "Yankee Go Home." I learned to say, "Crikey" and "Cor Blimey" and keep a stiff upper lip. By the time we moved back to New York four years later, I was like a bird contaminated by human scent - I no longer fit in here, either. Even now in any given society, I identify mostly with the outsider.
I wanted to step in to defend Rita in the classroom. But when she dressed up for class outtings and the other kids stared at her, (they wore jeans) she only shrugged. She had more integrity at nine than I could have dreamed of. Likewise Irma who on one class trip wore a dress that was so frilly, someone asked if she was wearing two dresses. Irma didn't even shrug; thrilled with her dress, she sashayed dreamily, oblivious to the snickers of her classmates. Or perhaps she wasn't oblivious; she simply dismissed the comments as jealousy and perhaps she was right. I began to understand why my students were slower than I had expected to pick up English and I thought that in proceeding slowly they had at some level made the wiser choice.
Still, it was good news when Jessica reported that she had made two friends outside our group. But she didn't talk to them. She only listened. I gave her the assignment of talking to her friends. A week later, she said that she had. I believed her because now she talked to me.
Christmas provided new fuel for our conversations. Rita had never seen snow, "except in the refrigerator." She was afraid of Santa Claus because she thought he might take her in exchange for the toys. Irma didn't know much about Christmas because she didn't celebrate it. Jessica eagerly filled her in. Rita interrupted to protest as though on one of the finer points of philosophy:
"But," she gestured with long, be-ringed fingers, "I do not understand the meaning of 'chimney.'"
Irma's spelling evolved one syllable at a time. "Hurdle" was now "herdl." I explained about the "e" at the end and forgot about the one Irma had put at the beginning. My identification with my students was so great, it was as though I had stepped through the looking-glass: I forgot how to spell.
In March a topic of conversation came to us in the form of a bombshell. Rita's parents wanted to send her back to Sri Lanka to boarding school with her older brother. Her parents would remain here. For holidays she would go to her grandparents. Why had Rita's parents hatched this plan?
"So we don't get spoiled." That's for sure. Alone on the other side of the world sure doesn't sound like being smothered.
"What do you mean, 'spoiled?/"
"So we don't take drugs and run away." I began to sympathize with Rita's parents but still...
Her parents were unhappy with her grades. In fact, Rita's teacher had struggled to show her in the best light. When her work fell below an acceptable level, she received NG for No Grade rather than F.
Rita didn't want to leave her parents. She had seen the boarding school and didn't like it.
"The food have worms," she said. I thought of Oliver Twist, my orphan fantasy suddenly all too real.
During the next set of parent=teacher conferences, Rita's teacher discussed the boarding school plan with her parents and told them Rita was doing much better. The teacher had devised new tests for her so she could give her a real grade. In an effort to appease Rita's parents, I submitted grades and progress reports for my students. Rita got a proud B.
Irma was now a profusion of vowels. In fact, "fusion" was one of the words on her spelling list; she spelled it "fiyoujun." "Logical" was "lajgickle." I detected progress. Rita spelled "logical" "largecoal" and I wondered what she thought it meant. Jessica now talked all the time. She was so fluent I wondered if her spoken English, like Jessica herself, had only been hiding. On a history test she got a hundred.
My son was in the same class as my students and I went on one of their class trips to the Brooklyn Museum. During the lecture, their teacher let me take them off for our own separate tour. They were excited, pulling me along like puppies on a walk. We skipped through the empty halls singing "We're Off to See the Wizard."
At the end of the year, Rita's parents decided not to send their children to Sri Lanka alone. Instead the whole family moved out of the city.
The following year, it was as though someone shook a kaleidoscope; I had a different configuration of students. When my son needed a pitcher, I understood the purpose of my baseball days in fourth grade. As for archaeology, the past I dug up was my own.