Close Call

When I finished my B. A. there was an interesting season. I was a fledgling teacher, ready to leave the nest of apprenticeship and test my tutorial teeth wings. But it was January, so I became a substitute teacher. I was mostly getting jobs in West Chicago, in a district where the elementary schools were operating on the provocative idea that the best way for Spanish-speaking children to learn to read well was to teach them only in Spanish through the third grade. Therefore, I subbed in Spanish.

I had taken this language for several years, beginning as far back as the fifth grade. Yet my Spanish wasn’t very advanced. I had the vocabulary without the practical listening and speaking ability. It was sort of like having a pile of the parts to an internal combustion engine. You don’t have the car. However, I was a teacher. The state of Illinois said so.

One memorable day I subbed in kindergarten.  Los little-bitty niños. The way I remember it, there were about thirty of them, and most of them spoke only Spanish. I was to fill in for their teacher, who left her plans written out for me in English. She did have a full-time assistant teacher in the classroom who also spoke only Spanish. It seemed strange to me that I should be the teacher as a stranger, while a woman with the language and the knowledge of the children and the classroom should assist. It did not seem strange to her. She wanted to take a nap.

The children routinely began their day by copying a simple message onto miniature chalk boards. After this labor they were allowed to choose an activity area to play in. The teacher had written that they must each show me their work before being dismissed to activities. I had no problem greeting the little guys and getting everyone settled. They were very sweet, they seemed to understand me, and things were going swimmingly. When some of them seemed about finished, I raised my voice a little over the clatter and cluck and said calmly (in Spanish), “Remember, please, when you are finished with your work, to come here and show me.” There was the awkward sort of pause. Curious little faces were studying me. They were shy, obviously. Of course, I’m a stranger to them after all. Better be reassuring.

“No really, it’s okay. When you’re done come up here and show me.” This time the pause was shorter and there were some giggles. I noticed the assistant pull her feet off the table in the back of the room and peer at me. Don’t worry, I can handle this. I’m a teacher. Some of the children were finished now, but no one had approached. A few little ones did look scared, but most of them seemed divided between shock and the giggles. It was a conspiracy. They were just not being obedient. Well, as stated, I was a teacher.

I raised my voice a little and asserted, quite firmly, “Now listen, boys and girls. I want you to come up here right now with your work and show me.” Sixty big brown eyes. The assistant was on her feet. But still, nobody moved.

Finally, exasperated, I said aloud in English, “Why don’t you do it?”

A little girl in a red sweater chimed up, “But Teacher! You tell us to kill you!”

Spanish Verbs
to show
matar to kill

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5 Responses to Close Call

  1. Betsy,
    This is a wonderful and funny story!
    Lost in translation – I found in Scotland that even tho’
    I understand English…..I don’t always understand English!

    Praying that you all will get use to the “new germs” of Oxford.

  2. erinthicks says:

    i’ll never forget you sharing this story during a new member class at KoG before we were really friends.

    such a good story

  3. nateandmiriam says:

    I love this story…laughed so hard…

  4. Andie says:

    This is a wonderful story. Just found your blog via Jenny Rigney. I don’t know if you remember me- we met at BBC and enjoyed a dinner at your house sometime back in the days before we both had children. I am really enjoying your book reviews as I have read a little bit of all the parenting books that you are reading but haven’t finished many! ha ha. Anyway, thanks for blogging. I’m enjoying it and trying my hand today at proper English tea (which I was making almost proper, except that I let it steep faaarrrrr too long- mostly because I get distracted by screaming littles).

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