Speak English Me
She always sits by herself. Sometimes she has headphones in her ears. They isolate her, insulate her, cut her off from the world and the people in it.
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 or 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. She waits patiently while he son cavorts with the other players in the post game euphoria.
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 stands up straight, huffs with frustration 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. 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..." I say. "That must make it very hard to learn."
" YES." she sighs.
I don't really know what to say then, so I tell her, in small words and simple sentences that I once spoke fluent French, but because I have not used it for so long, I can scarcely conjugate a verb anymore. I tell her I'm sad about that. I also tell her how the French were not particularly tolerant of my efforts when I visited their country. I hope this conveys to her that I understand...a little bit. She nods grimly, knowing.
"I take class now. I learn. I not more 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. That she is not refusing to learn. 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? What about the pronoun?
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 is less standoffish. She seems happier. She doesn't always sit with headphones on. She sits with the other parents. She says hello, she asks..."Please speak English me." And she smiles.
In a strange way, I am proud of her. She is very, very brave. And I think she is a magificent example to those sons, who will never have to say...."Speak English Me."