Spanish Spoken Here

I entered the New York public school system in 1960, and from the get go, I began my education facing an obstacle, one that I was completely unaware I had. That is, until second grade, when I heard my teacher, Mrs. Green, bring it to my mother’s attention. It seems I was having trouble understanding the lessons and I wasn’t speaking up in class.

Mrs. Green smiled politely as she said this, but then turned decidedly serious. Carefully enunciating her words, she asked my mother whether English was ever spoken in our home.  I cringed. Why was Mrs. Green asking?  Was it my mother’s heavy Spanish accent that was giving us away? I had hoped no one would notice, so it was crushing to suddenly realize our secret was out.

Still, I couldn’t understand why it mattered what language was spoken in our home.  What did it have to do with my ability—or lack of it—to learn? Yes, my parents spoke only Spanish, but I thought my father’s English was quite respectable. He seemed comfortable speaking it outside our home and did so often. If you ask me, he spoke it with a charm reminiscent of Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy and we all knew how well Little Ricky had turned out.

Mrs. Green's Second Grade Class, 1962. I'm in the second row, second from the left.

Though my mother was another matter. She understood English, but went out of her way to avoid speaking it.  Which was kind of a relief to me, as it was mortifying to hear her struggle for the right words.

And here we were admitting the obvious to Mrs. Green, that we lived a double life. English in the outside world, and Spanish at home. Seemed perfectly natural to me. Which made it hard to understand why it was an issue now.

Although, I did recall Mrs. Green once giving us an assignment to write about shops in our neighborhood and I had to write about a delicatessen. Delicatessen? I had no idea what that was, and rather than ask, I just made something up: “The delicatessen is a fine place to shop for delicate things, especially when you’re not in any hurry.” Of course, had I asked, I would have discovered that delicatessens served cold cuts, pickles and the like, and that some people just referred to them as a “deli.”  So maybe that’s why Mrs. Green wrote in my report card,

Language Arts Reading: Monica is reading at first grade level. Monica does not contribute much to class discussions. I am trying to get her to speak more freely. It would help her language skills if she used the public library.

My mother started dropping me off at the library every Saturday morning. I’d make the most of these visits, enjoying story time in the children’s section, then browsing the shelves where I discovered Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobel, and Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. It became a thrill to be in the library, with my own library card, which made me feel very grown up.

Written Expression: Monica has difficulty in expressing her thoughts in sentences. She has learned to use a capital at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end.

Given how much I love writing, it’s tough for me to imagine I once found it hard to express myself through the written word, and that I was stymied by the proper use of punctuation. Yet, I do remember the sense of doom I’d feel when Mrs. Green gave us writing assignments. My mind would blank and I’d keep my torment to myself. Anything, than have to admit that I was at a loss for words.

I struggled a lot in second grade and there were times I really felt I’d never be more than just average. Knowing that I had a language barrier to overcome didn’t make it any easier, but it did give me new determination.  Thanks to my teacher’s report card, I learned that the key for me was to read and read often, and I’ll always be grateful that Mrs. Green suggested I use the library. For it was through my library visits that I became a passionate reader.  So much so, that in the last report card of the school year, Mrs. Green wrote, “Monica is now reading at second grade level.”

Finally! And in the nick of time, too. For third grade was just a summer away.

10 thoughts on “Spanish Spoken Here

  1. Que interesante!, sobre todo porque nosotros nos encontramos en una situación muy semejante con nuestro hijo, a la que describes que viviste en tu casa mas o menos a la misma edad. Realmente la lectura es lo que nos ha ayudado a todos a comprender un poco el otro idioma, creo que lo mas dificil es aprender a pensar en un idioma distinto, y para los niños resulta un poco menos complicado que para los adultos, de ahi que comprendo exactamente lo que sucedía con tu mamá. Si yo no leo esto, ni me hubiera enterado de las que pasó tu mamá para hablar otro idioma, la recuerdo hablando en forma muy fluida ese idioma, quizás como yo no lo hablo bien era una percepción equivocada. En segundo grado ciertamente aquí es muy importante las letras mayúsculas al principio y los puntos finales de las oraciones, y me dió risa, porque la maestra de mi hijo, la semana pasada me refierió eso exactamente. Me encantó tu recuerdo!.

    • Yo estaba pensando en David mientras que escribi este cuento porque yo se lo que lo espera. A esa edad no me imaginaba la diferencia que era posible entre un niño que habla ingles en la casa y otro que no. Pero la diferencia es imenso!

  2. Perfect post Monica about an important issue! All parents should read to and with their children too. Your parents were wonderful. Who knew anything about these issues then in this country. My mother somehow got me to respond to her in English shortly before I entered school, which was when I was about 3 months shy of my 5th birthday. So continued the pattern, my parents speaking to me in Spanish and me responding in English. I did quite well in school. But freshman year my English teacher could only find fault with me, even though I was helping Paul S. write his papers and he got As. I could barely get a C. One day someone stole my paper, copied it, and turned it in. Guess who got sent to the Dean’s office for cheating? Yep! Moi! It got cleared up and the teacher learned a lesson: that everyone else in my class knew I was a good writer except her. Right after that I started getting As & Bs for my work. I now have a M.A. in Spanish literature/language & a Ph.D. in psychology.

    • How frustrating when teachers don’t recognize your full potential. I had similar situation in high school, the hardest one being when my guidance counselor discouraged me from applying to high caliber private universities, thinking a city or community college was best for me. Thankfully, my brother convinced me otherwise and when I got into the school of my dreams with a full scholarship it gave me great pleasure to proudly display to my acceptance letter to my counselor. Boy, did I prove her wrong!

  3. I hope things are more enlightened for kids these days. There is a family at our boys’ school where they speak German to their father, Korean to their mother and English at school. Our kids think it’s awesome, yes their English was a little slower in the start…but three languages – wow! I always think people are lucky to grow up bilingual, no such luck for me.

    • Times have changed. There are more systems in place I think, to help children who did not have the advantages of English as the primary language in the home. I was lucky to have access to the library and to be able to use it as much as I did. A German-Korean family! How marvelous that your sons have been exposed to such a family and that they think it awesome. I took for granted the fact that we were bilingual, but now, yes, I’m grateful that I am. Thank you for sharing your story, too!

  4. I’m probably immensely glad to know that I wasn’t the only one with a language barrier problem when I first joined school. I’m Italian-American, yet I’ve been born and bred in Los Angeles. Even then, Italian was the first language I learned. My mother was very insistent on teaching it to me, even when I told her that English was the main language here. It was only in first grade that she began paying attention to teaching me English. My mother’s a native Italian, and she knew how to speak English very well. After beginning to teach me Italian, she began to teach me English. And because of that bi-lingual beginning, I’ve grown to love all kinds of languages. I’m now taking linguistics as a course in college.

    • When I started school, I naively thought my knowledge of English was fine. I had no idea how little I knew, which actually fascinates me to think about. I just wish I’d known then others in the same boat as I. I’m sure they were there, probably in my class, but no one talked about it. It really was like leading a double life. We just all wanted to fit in, I suppose. Now, of course, I’m grateful that I know two languages. How wonderful that you’ve been able to expand on your knowledge of languages. 🙂

  5. Thank you for sharing this with us. I too am bilingual in English and Spanish. It is nice to read about your experiences 🙂

    • And back then, there were no special programs for kids whose first language was not English. We were thrown into the classroom, starting on the same page as everyone else. Only we didn’t have the advantages that others had. Since English wasn’t the primary language at home, I know my vocabulary wasn’t up to par with my classmates. It was reading that helped me, though I must say, I did miserably on my SAT’s for the same reason. Vocabulary is everything. I’m so glad there are others, like you, who can relate.

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