“Don’t take this the wrong way, man,” the middle school student said, “but you talk Spanish like a Gringo.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I talk English like a Texan… y’all.”
In Orlando, we have many cultures living next to each other. People from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, France, England, Vietnam, Korea, China…. And then there are all those strange-talking foreigners from the north like New York, Chicago, and Idaho (hey, if you’re not from Texas you’re a foreigner to us).
Kidding aside, it’s a splendid place to live where the cultures weave themselves in a vibrant tapestry. But it’s complicated. I try to pay attention but I don’t understand everything I see and hear.
The other day, I was substitute teaching in a rowdy class. One kid started throwing a partially filled water bottle into the air, trying to get it to land right side up—a popular physics experiment repeated over and over in schools. I politely asked him to stop. He looked at me, smiled, and gave it another toss. I became less polite and yelled at him and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I was sure he’d lost his.
There was no lesson plan for the class. I didn’t even know the subject. In fact, it was several minutes before I figured out that none of them spoke English. I then realized that the boy hadn’t understood my directive and he didn’t know why I yelled at him.
When I had a moment, I went to him and asked, “Hablas Ingles?”
|photo by David Mercer|
He shook his head.
I pointed to the water bottle, put my hand on my chest, and said, “Lo siento… I’m sorry.” And then he really looked bewildered. But it was the best I could do.
The class was a disaster complete with kinetic mayhem along with screeching and a fight.
I didn’t get around to taking roll until the end of class. It was a laborious task with names difficult to pronounce and the kids weren’t answering me anyway. But the boy to whom I apologized came and stood next to me. He helped me read the names and together we got the job done. I thanked him and he gave me a terrific smile.
It gives me pause. A Texan who can’t speak Spanish and a Puerto Rican boy who spoke no English found an opportunity within a misunderstanding to be gracious to each other. It turned a bad day into a good memory.