Speak English Me
People don't approach her, because she seems so unapproachable. I do not approach her either because I don't think she wants to be approached. And yet, I can't help but think that she is not unsociable. She doesn't carry with her the taint of contempt for her fellow human beings. She doesn't glower and glare, or hunch her shoulders against the encroaching crowd.
She smiles when someone catches her eye. Sometimes she nods in agreement when a comment is made. She claps when the team does well. She congratulates the boys when a good play is made. Her English is very poor, but they understand praise in any language. She thanks the Coach after each game and practice.
One day, I get the opportunity of working with her in the concession stand. She tries to make small talk, but it's obviously difficult for her. I try to repsond in kind, but sometimes I misunderstand, which can be both funny and mortifying. Our conversations are stilted and laborious. So we stand, leaning forward on the weathered wood of the counter. And we stare out into the brilliant sun, connected, but unspeaking.
Suddenly she sighs, and says..."Is so HARD!"
There is anguish in her voice, embarassment, sadness. I look over, and there are tears in her eyes.
"What is it?" I ask.
"I try learn English. But my, err...work, is no English speak. All Spanish."
"Oh..." I say, waiting for her to continue.
"I ask sons, speak English me! They no want listen. They too....hurry."
I nod, understanding. The impatience of adolescent boys is something every mother can relate to. It's a phenomenon that crashes through cultural barriers.
"Oh...yes..." I say. "That makes it very hard to learn, doesn't it?"
"YES." she sighs.
I tell her, in small words and simple sentences that I used to speak fluent French, but because I have not used it for 15 years, I can scarcely conjugate a verb anymore. I tell her I'm sad about that.
"I take class now. I learn English. I not be embarass."
"Good for you! I bet you'll learn it very quickly."
She smiles then. She feels better having told someone that she is not lazy. That she does not hold us in contempt as is so often assumed. I think then that it can't be easy to live with that kind of judgement always hanging over your head.
She asks me many questions that day. What is the name for this? How do I say that? Do you always call it a such and such? Do the adjectives always come before the noun? I like it, this teaching. And she likes the learning. We can laugh at the mistakes, both hers and mine, which makes it feel more like a game or a secret shared than an English lesson. Before, I didn't know she was so friendly. Before, I didn't really try to know.
These days, she seems a little less afraid. She doesn't always sit with headphones on. She sits with the other parents. She says hello, she asks..."Please speak English me."
In a strange way, I am proud of her. I think she is very, very brave. And I think she is magnificent.