And We Shook It All About! – Part III
By Jorge D. H. Prósperi
It was just another day of surviving school in silence like others, my mother and I hand-in-hand. Irma Rosa taking me into the school as far as she could followed by the infamous Latina tradition of the lingering “fuerte abrazos” (big hugs), tons of ‘besos’ (kisses). Enough to keep me buoyant and strong throughout the day.
I did not realize at the time that on that day, my life would be dramatically changed. The Special Ed room was the last room on the second floor. As always, upon getting there, I had some chores to do for the teachers. Greeted every child with special needs and their parent with a nod. Some of the students and parents even tried to pronounce my name. Most of the time it sounded like Korky or Gogue. But at least they tried.
On this particular morning, a woman walked into the room. She observed, scanned the room and then walked towards me. As always, I lowered my head. I heard her say, “Hi, my name is Mrs. Beals. What is your name?” I paused and did not answer. Maybe she will just go away. Please Jesús, make her go away. But she did not. She stooped down and repeated. “My name is Mrs. Beals. What is your name?” So I shyly consented in a whisper. “Jorge.” Without hesitation she tried to pronounce it. Not bad – she got the soft “j” and “g” right.
The Special Ed teacher intervened and I felt they were talking about me. My instincts were spot on. I gathered that the Special Ed teacher had asked Mrs. Beals to meet me and see if she could help me with English. The two of them came over with smiles and therefore I knew that at least it was not going to be bad news. Mrs. Beals wanted to speak to my mother – good luck with that! The intent was to get me to school early so that Mrs. Beals could work with me in her classroom. Keep in mind that 2nd language acquisition / ESL programs were not in place back then, at least at our school. At the end of the school day Mrs. Beals waited outside the Special Ed room, took my hand and we walked together to meet my mother. What a beautiful walk that was. It felt so good – so validating. Just a simple walk, but at her side.
Mrs. Beals met my mother with a smile and asked me to interpret the best I could. My mother at first was intimidated. But Mrs. Beals had eyes that invited trust. My mother understood that we needed to come 30 minutes early so that Mrs. Beals could do her magic. The next morning Mrs. Beals was at the door. We were early and so was she. We walked into an actual classroom. It was like visiting another world. My eyes could not stop scanning.
After a couple of weeks, she asked my mother for permission to work with me at lunch and after school. My survival English was growing exponentially. The silent stage of 2nd language acquisition was ending. Nevertheless, vocabulary and grammar were problems.
What was admirable about Mrs. Beals was that she always wanted to know about my history, culture, ancestors and family. This is how she built vocabulary. She would dissect our time together into mini lessons. Greetings, vocabulary, phonetics, short stories and academic materials. The most fun were the simple rhymes and tongue twisters. We would then discuss meaning and make connections which led to more vocabulary. Somehow she always brought me back to my family. “Tell me about your wonderful grandmother and aunt Marga that you love so much.” “Tell me about the little pony Pepino.” “Tell me about the beautiful fields called Pampas.” – all that I loved, left behind and remembered with fondness.
It was pure joy to bump into Mrs. Beals during the day in the hallway. She never missed an opportunity two drop a few simple English phrases and questions. They were softballs that I would hit out of the park! “Well done Jorge, muy bien!” She was becoming bi-lingual! “See you after school Jorge.” …Couldn’t wait!
No one at the school pronounced my name better. She was a master at getting names right. She worked at it. She paused and asked students to break down their German, Polish, Italian, Slovakian names. She would spend time with Justina to make sure she pronounced her name correctly – just like Justina needed – wanted to hear her name. I never heard Mrs. Beals give up on a name or say, “Whatever!”
At each session I could expect some new flash cards, a drawing I would have to describe, make up a story about a fictional character. At times she would fill in with a key word or phrase and ask, “Now you say it Jorge.” and I would. Phonetics were always fun. She would ask, “What sound does a bee make?” And I would buzz and buzz away. “Jorge, what about the wind, thunder and rain?” She was always pulling from me diphthongs and triphthongs and then input them into words.
She was relentless with synonyms and antonyms. She wanted me to know similar meanings and opposites. The very best times was when she would ask me to listen as she read a few lines that rhymed. She repeated them. Then she would ask me to read the lines – then close my eyes and repeat them. I would take the flash cards home and practice them relentlessly. My mom and dad at times wondered what I was doing hearing me repeating. The next day I knew the phrases by heart and would share them with anyone – everyone in ear shot. “Oh no, here comes Jorge and his annoying rhymes!”
Yes, there were strange looks as I walked by with pride, as if quoting Shakespeare – “Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon!” I became the school’s phonetic cryer.
“B I N G O! B I N G O! B I N G O and Bingo was his name-O!” They must have thought that I had lost my Spanglish immigrant mind! “Hickory, hickory docko, the raton ran up the clocko.” Sometimes I had to improvise. “I screamo, you screamo, we all screamo for ice creamo!”
Oh, no, no, no! Mrs. Beals would not stop at rhymes, “You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put you right foot in and… we shook it all about!” She was not shy to have people stare and wonder if she had also lost her mind. We had some wonderful belly laughs together. School no longer was a threat.
End of Part III